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    Are we calling our customers by the wrong words?

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    Every sales professional knows better than to make the cringe-worthy mistake of calling a customer by the wrong name. But it occurred to me recently that entire sales organizations may be making the mistake of calling their customers by the wrong words, and it may be limiting their effectiveness.

    Every industry and selling environment has standard words for customers, and you probably have your favorite too. The most common ones are “account,” “customer,” “client,” or “buyer.” In hospitality, the customer may be a “guest,” in a hospital the customer is a “patient,” and in consulting they may be a “strategic partner” or “strategic account.” In software, sometimes the customer is a “user,” though in complex b2b sales a “user” is usually just one of many influencers in the buying decision.

    In many cases, the standard industry word may be the “right” word to use, but it’s rare that a sales department has given much thought to the choice of words, and in some cases, a word chosen by default may be negatively impacting their effectiveness.

    How the words we use impact our actions

    I’ve been talking a lot lately about how the words we use impact the way we behave. In this piece, I shared why we stopped talking about “losing” deals at Membrain. And here, I discussed the fact that we use the word “project” in place of “opportunity” in our pipeline, and why.

    In those two articles, I share some of the latest research that shows why and how our choice of words affects our behavior and, in turn, the results of our sales efforts. Then in this piece, I discuss the importance of having a shared language across your teams.

    Sharing those pieces made me think about what we call our customers at Membrain, and wondering if the words we’re using impact how we interact with and serve them. I don’t have research to back up my thoughts on this, but here are some of the ways each of the most common words for “customer” may be impacting your sales efforts. I welcome your discussion.

    If we call a customer a customer

    In most transactional spaces, a customer is a customer. They show up, online or in the store, they make a purchase, they leave. They’re a customer because they purchased something.

    Should customers be called accounts? Isn’t an account something you draw from, like a bank account?
    George Brontén

    The term is serviceable and clear, but it also has implications that might be undermining the relationship. For instance, a customer is traditionally somewhat generic–you might not know who they are, and you probably don’t have a long-term relationship with them.

    In a sales setting, using the word “customer” puts the sales team in the mindset of needing to bring in new customers constantly, and less in the mindset of building relationships with existing customers. This could cause an imbalance in how your salespeople spend their time, chasing constantly after new business when profitable sales could be right under their noses with your existing customer base.

    If we call a customer a client

    The term “client” is commonly used in professional services, such as law, mental health, and coaching. This term does seem to imply more engagement and a higher level of service, as well as a degree of partnership, and for this reason I like it.

    But because it’s primarily used in very specific professional service industries, it feels a little strange in b2b sales. Additionally, it seems to imply a single person, whereas complex b2b sales usually cater to entire organizations.

    If we call a customer a buyer

    The term buyer has some limited usefulness in the buying and selling process, but I don’t like it for referring to customers. It implies that their only value to your company is in the money they spend. This is not a healthy attitude to have and doesn’t lead to long-term successful relationships.

    In transactional environments, “buyer” might be an accurate description, but even then it doesn’t generate the idea that a customer might have more to offer than a single purchase, or that your relationship with them will impact their future behavior.

    If we call a customer an account

    In b2b sales, the word “account” might be the most common term. It eliminates the transactional connotation of “customer,” and allows for the fact that there are likely to be more than one stakeholder, and more than one purchaser within the account.

    But I’ve been wondering if it’s really such a great word for us. For instance, isn’t an account something you draw from, like a bank account? It still feels to me like something transactional in nature, and based in numbers (accounting) rather than relationship.

    Take for example a steel company. They might call their customers “accounts,” and the term might be appropriate if those customers call them up from time to time and order product, and that’s the extent of the relationship. But is that the relationship the steel company wants to have?

    What if, instead of simply taking orders, they came to understand their customer’s needs. For instance, the customer might be buying the steel to make bicycle wheel spokes, and the steel company representative may know of a new metal that is lighter weight and cheaper that would work better. By making this recommendation, the sales professional becomes a trusted partner with the buyer, and the relationship is no longer transactional or commoditized in nature.

    But then is it still an account? Or is it something else?

    Although “account” is currently what many b2b teams use, I’m not entirely convinced it’s the perfect word. I would love to come up with something that carries all the implications of how we approach our customer relationships:

    • Partnership
    • Mutual benefit
    • Long-term trust
    • Solving problems
    • (Others?)

    What terms are you using in your organization? Have you given it a lot of thought, or is it just the default? Do you like the words you’re using, or would something else be better?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts–and your suggestions! Comment or message me.

    George Brontén
    Published December 25, 2019
    By George Brontén

    George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills, and processes. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.

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