Seth Godin and Daniel Pink are two of the most important business writers today … so it is with humility that I disagree with them. Seth wrote a blog post this week titled “Citizens,” in which he asked the question, “What do you call the people that marketers interact with? The ones who aren’t customers yet…” The answer, which Seth said came out of a conversation Dan Pink, is “citizens.”

I call them customers.

My definition of a customer is this: Anyone whose actions affect your results.

I have found this definition to be very useful, because it helps you realize that the job of sales and marketing is not to write brochures, or do ads, or make sales pitches. Sales and marketing, simply, are about encouraging people to do things that positively affect your results.

And, this definition helps you recognize that many of the people, or organizations, who affect your results don’t pay you money. Your vendors affect your results. The media may affect your results. For some of you, the government affects your results. And, people who are “prospective customers” are actually customers, since their actions can affect your results. Why not employ a good marketing approach when trying to motivate these people, even though they are not paying customers?

Relationships with customers start before they are paying customers. And, marketing doesn’t stop after a someone becomes a paying customer. (I’ll admit, I was surprised that Seth, our uber-guru of marketing, started the post by asking, “What do we call the people that marketers interact with? Those who aren’t customers yet …” He, of all people, recognizes that marketing isn’t only focused on creating new, paying customers. Just look at his concepts of Permission Marketing, Idea Viruses, Meatball Sundaes, etc. He always writes about marketing as something much more than lead generation.) The actual point at which someone becomes a paying customer is just a transition point. Yes, it is an important transition point, but it is not a discontinuity in the relationship. We don’t need to start relating to this person in a whole new way; in fact, in many cases it will seem disingenuous if we do.

I certainly agree with the post’s admonition against thinking of future paying customers as part of a “target market.” (See page 79 in We, “Marketing words that I avoid”)

But, I am committed to thinking of anyone who affects my results as a customer, even if they are not yet paying me … or will never pay me. That way, I will interact with them as a customer, and I will have a better chance of encouraging them to act in ways that drive my business results.


  • Jari Chevalier
    Feb 23, 2008 - 09:01 am

    Hi Steve, I appreciate this inquiry. Citizens, tribes, guests . . . all of these potential new terms for customers were mentioned on the Seth Godin call last week. I think they’re all weak compared with “people” (my people, our people, the people . . . “the American people” :)). The market, your market, any market in the world, is, in fact, made up of people and only people (fish, insects, plants, rocks and animals will be buying squat from us). I’m stating the obvious for a reason: if we do not genuinely care about people as human beings living in an ecosystem that includes all of the above, we are just lying to ourselves and each other. And this is the real challenge of our time: we’re looking at the very serious consequences of hoodwinking business practices. We use the word “solutions” for our offerings, but it really doesn’t matter what words we use unless those words are connected to genuine wisdom, big-picture thinking, and caring. Example: A customer, citizen, guest, tribal person, _________ (fill in the blank) has a chronic itch on her back. If our solution is to get this person one more mass-produced plastic or bamboo backscratcher shipped all the way from the Orient or some new electrical gadget to scratch it, instead of teaching her to get enough essential fatty acids in her diet and urging her, educating her, to care for herself holistically, we’re really not providing a solution at all, doesn’t matter how loud we chant that as a marketer or advertiser. Doesn’t matter if no one seems to notice that we don’t really care and that our language is manipulative and bogus, if everyone’s buying into it. Fact is: It’s still a lie. And so our moment provides us all with an opportunity to overcome short-sightedness, greed, and dissemination in business, and to align heart and mind in providing real solutions to real people, even if it means that we ourselves don’t get all the groovy gadgets and things with which we might like to play.
    My blog has a podcast (the Living Hero show) recorded with Dan Pink on February 19th (same day as the Seth Godin teleseminar). Just follow the link to get to it. I would be pleased to receive your responses to these views. Best wishes!

    • Steve Yastrow
      Feb 24, 2008 - 07:52 am

      Jari – Interesting angle. My new book, We, talks a lot about not classifying people into categories, but looking for ways to see the individual. It’s one of the keys to a We relationship. So much of marketing is about lumping people into categories based on what makes them similar, when the customer is looking for you to recognize what makes him or her different from other people.

      I’ll listen to the Dan Pink podcast later today – thanks! When my son was accepted at an art school for college last year the school sent us A Whole New Mind. The president of the school and I struck up a great conversation – I was a music composition major as an undergrad, and we discussed how that, along with my philosophy minor, influences my business much more than the MBA I did a few years later. (Case in point: my first book is called Brand Harmony.)

      • Jari Chevalier
        Feb 24, 2008 - 17:25 pm

        Hi Steve,

        Thanks for your response. Tomorrow I’m interviewing an “artist advocate”. What art school is your son studing at and what’s the name of the president with whom you spoke?

        I agree with you that the customer wants to be recognized as an individual. But people are also clannish and like to be associated with people they admire. It’s another case of both/and.

        Glad to hear about your musical and philosophical roots–are you still composing at all? Which philosopher(s) really grabbed you? It would be interesting to see how your classical leanings contributed to your marketing philosophies.

        Hope you enjoyed the podcast.

  • Michael Martine
    Feb 23, 2008 - 15:33 pm

    One thing Seth does really well (usually) is get us to think of things in a new way by using new words, like Purple cow or permission marketing. Nobody has a perfect score 100% of the time, but these latest attempts at reframing the discussion are weak, in my opinion. Citizens? Ick. I kinda like the idea of “tribe management” but didn’t need the MBA stereotyping that went along with it.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Feb 24, 2008 - 07:56 am

      Yes, let’s give Seth the credit he deserves for advancing the marketing lexicon. Of all of them, my personal favorite may be the Ideavirus.

      To me, the issue here is that marketing is about interesting people in doing things that help your business, and many of the actions people can take that help your business don’t involve writing you a check or handing over a Visa card. The toughest “customer” I ever had was United Airlines, 20 years ago. Yes, we were buying $50 million worth of seats from them each year, but guess who was really the customer …

  • David
    Feb 25, 2008 - 10:06 am

    You mean … I’m a customer?!

    • Steve Yastrow
      Feb 25, 2008 - 20:57 pm

      Enjoy it! (But then … think about how many people are your customers!)

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