Not all users are your customer

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Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, for whom I have much respect, wrote an article the other day titled "Let's reconsider our users. In it, he argues that application developers should stop calling the people that use their products 'users', and instead recommends calling everyone a 'customer'.

The word “customer” is a much more active and bolder word. It’s honest and direct. It immediately suggests a relationship we must deliver on. And our customers think of their customers in the same way.

This article got a TON of coverage in the tech community. Many people properly pointed out, myself included, that with applications such as Twitter and Facebook, the users are not the customer, they're the product.  Writing about this reaction, John Gruber had this to say:  

I’m saying they should treat users as customers, too — customers paying not with dollars but with their precious and limited attention.

This is false.  A stranger walking down the street could hit me in the face and they would have my precious and limited attention.  That would not make me their customer.

It's true we pay for things with our attention and I've written about this before. But only when someone pays you with money are they your customer.  You cannot, and will not, keep the lights of your business on with attention. You must have revenue. The place that revenue comes from, that is who your customer is.

Twitter's problem isn't that they're not 'treating' their users like the customer.  It's that they're not *making* the users their customer.  And in fact, the needs of Twitter's customer are often in direct opposition to the desires of the users.  By it's very nature, Twitter cannot treat their users like the customer without ignoring their real customers - the advertisers.

In Dorsey's noble effort to humanize the word 'user', he muddies up the even more important notion of understanding of who your customer is.

Very rarely is every user of a web application the customer.

Our most popular product is a software for yoga studios and we have multiple kinds of users.  Instructors, students, desk people, and studio owners.

Of all these users, the only one that is our customer is the studio owner.  No one else.

I've discussed with my team many times the importance of understanding this, and it drives every one of our decisions.  Tradeoffs rarely come in the form of strict black and white decisions, they're made in small degrees.  And if you don't have a clear understanding of who your customer is, over time, you forget who you should be focusing on and who you should try to please.

Our main competitor is now so big that rumor is they make more money processing credit cards than they make on their software.  Guess what?  This is the kind of thing that gives our product an opening.

Because when every major product decision has to be made with the backdrop that a significant portion of your revenue comes from processing credit cards, it has an impact on who your customer really is, and what challenges you're going to tackle.

I'm all for having a more humanizing word for our users, but it would be a tragedy if we lost sight of who our customers are in the process.