Words Matter: ‘Stakeholders,’ Not ‘Customers’

By Marc J. Schiller

We shape our professional environment out of the words we use to describe it.

How we refer to things makes a big difference. We shape our own world—and others’ perception of us—via the words we use to describe our reality.

Much of what we do in IT requires communicating subtle and complex issues to others. When we use precise language to describe a situation or relationship, we honor precision and clarity, thereby increasing our reputation with others and ultimately our chances for professional success. When we adopt generic or common language, we end up with … well, merely generic or common results.

Let’s make it real.

Turning “Users” Into “Customers”

For years, IT staffers and managers have referred to the knuckle-dragging business folk with whom they worked as “users.”

As IT staff realized they needed to be a little more friendly and supportive of their business colleagues, and given that IT is fundamentally an internal service function, internal IT teams copied external service providers and began referring to their colleagues, with the best of intentions, as “customers.”

The term “customer” is problematic because it has very specific connotations, especially in North America, where we have grown up on a steady diet of phrases such as “The customer is always right,” “Never argue with a customer” and “Give the customer what they want.”

Whether this attitude is right or wrong on a global level isn’t the point. The fact of the matter is that when you perceive your work colleague as a customer, you are preconditioned to give them what they want, because you think your highest priority is to make them happy lest they “take their business elsewhere.”

But the truth is that your colleagues are not your customers and you are not an external service provider. You are both in business together.

Do you want your colleagues to be happy? Of course, but that’s not your only consideration. Your role is not just to provide what they ask for, but to provide guidance, governance and to apply professional IT discipline to their requests. All of this is in the service of the greater good of the business.

What’s the Right Term?

So, if “customer” is the wrong term, what’s the right one? My personal favorite is “stakeholder.” A stakeholder is someone who holds a stake or an interest in an undertaking. And that’s exactly the way it is. You each have a stake in the other’s success. Not only is it a more accurate term, but it generates more mutual respect.

“Customer” may indeed sound friendlier or more service oriented. But is that really in the best interests of IT and the overall business? Using the term “stakeholder” in place of “customer” may seem like a small issue, but it sets a more appropriate tone for the relationship between IT and the business functions it supports.

Shifting from “customer” to “stakeholder” will not only impact how others see you but, more importantly, will influence how you see yourself, and how you navigate relationships with your business colleagues.

About the Author

Marc J. Schiller has spent more than two decades teaching IT strategy and leadership to the world’s top companies. Through online courses, speaking engagements and corporate consulting, his company educates IT pros at all levels about how to be more effective, influential and successful in their careers. Get free access to videos and an excerpt from his book, The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders, at www.marcjschiller.com/resources.

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