why i don't say customer

or, why words matter

In our increasingly constrained communications between one another, frequently boiled down to a set of characters that'll fit in a tweet, on a slide or within an email, perhaps the words we do choose have now taken on a larger meaning.

If we only have a quick exchange on a Slack channel, what words we use to convey our meaning are all the more important, no?

Some ten dollar words can quickly capture what it is we're expressing, like perplexed.

While others are ubiquitous in day to day operations that they take on a life of their own, often acronyms like SME for subject matter expert.

I'll submit this rather ordinary, though important thought.

It is those banal, everyday words that get used over and over again, that are the most important.

enter, placeholder language

When we as beings use metaphorical sounds to convey real life objects or situations, those metaphors, or more plainly put words, start to unwittingly deposit all sorts of ideas along with them.

It's not always a bad connotation, sometimes a word can bring along all sorts of positive ideas along with it. Just to make it all the more complicated, not everyone has the same associations with the same words. However many cultural ties do exist for the most part, in spite of individual peculiarities derived from their experiences.

A few dualities to juxtapose for you could be:

Using one over the other, starts to deposit feelings, ideas within them alreadying shaping the audience to a particular way of thinking.

Such is the same as we describe our days. Saying a cold morning was "brisk," deposits a different idea than if we were to say "freezing," or "chilling."

Words, especially when nouns or pro-nouns, serve as placeholders and whether we agree with it or not, deposit all kinds of complicated concepts along with them.

this, is why i'm careful

It certainly has something to do with my education in linguistics and those tough political theory classes where each word used is endlessly poured over for a better, tighter concept. Nonetheless I try very hard in interpersonal relationships and even harder at work, to be very conscientious with the words I use.

I've seen firsthand in my own experience looking out at the world, how different one can act towards another or a situation if we use one type of language vs another.

When starting my journey in consulting, I had an executive on the board of the agency I worked for say something rather offhandedly during a lunch that really stuck with me.

"Don't talk about clients like that even when they're not around, it'll start shaping how you think about them, then how you act towards them."

This inadvertently drove me down a very impactful line of thought. When we allow ourselves to refer to people in such a way, it starts to seep into our view of them.

Now, ultimately, it's got me to use one word over and over again when referring to those I consult for, or even ultimately use a product I'm building.


simple change, deep impact

Why do I use client instead of customer? Well, simply put, the ideas that come along for the ride with the word are different enough that positively affect the view of both myself, and those I'm speaking to.

Client denotes a type of servitude, working on the behalf of, and also assumes a sort of relationship between parties that has a kind of reverence. All those '90's law movies where the lead character says, "my client," certainly help shape that for our culture.

Customer has all sorts of other riders coming with. Complicated, flat wrong phrases like 'the customer is always right,' or for me at least, it reminds me of shopping mall experiences with people talking over PA systems about deals for customers.

Customer feels, to me, cheap. It is an overblown concept that in the current days of everything-as-a-service and brought-to-me-now, or as-cheap-as-can-be, dull the use of it to mean pretty much anything, so it holds almost nothing.

Using customer, might not have those type of associations for this reader, or the organization they work with. But I'd want to leave you with this posited thought.

Wouldn't switching it to client give you more than you'd loose?

Language matters, at least give that some thought dear reader.