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Customers and Users Are Not The Same

A few weeks ago, I discovered a fatal flaw in my thinking about customers, users, and, consequently, about business in general. To fix this flaw, I had to re-focus certain aspects of my client’s project to target his customers as opposed to his users. As a consultant, I’m continually learning new stuff, but to be honest, I’ve been making this mistake for quite some time. I guess some lessons take a bit longer than others.

Unfortunately, I assumed that my client’s users and customers are the same people. After all, at first sight, this seems like a reasonable hypothesis to have. But while working on the project, it suddenly hit me. I discovered that my assumption was entirely wrong: Customers and users are, in fact, not the same people.

My client is selling his product exclusively to businesses. Therefore, he’s operating purely in a B2B market. How can customers in the B2B market be characterized? In every company, there are only a few decision-makers at the top, with the power to make independent decisions. These are your customers and nobody else because they decide whether to spend money on you and your product or not.

Who are your users then? In my client’s case, they are employees of other companies with minimal decision-making power (e.g., secretaries). They are using my client’s product because their boss (i.e., the company’s decision-maker) told them to do so. They didn’t choose to use my client’s product, nor did they spend any money on it.

Here is my point: It’s not enough to design software products solely for users. You must consider the products’ customers too. In a perfect world, both users and customers should get a tangible benefit from the products they are using. That said, customers are arguably more critical to the products’ creators because they are the ones with checkbooks.

I’m certainly not the only one who walked into this trap. Just look around, and you’ll notice that it is a widespread mistake. Maybe this is natural. Most of us don’t run businesses and so don’t have any employees. Therefore, we buy products for ourselves only - effectively, making us the user and customer at the same time.

There are certainly exceptions to this rule. B2C is a different kind of animal altogether. And even in B2B, the distinction doesn’t have to hold necessarily. It depends on the product you are trying to sell. In any case, it’s a potentially very costly mistake to make and, therefore, worth some consideration.