What's a consumer?

Mar 03, 2009

pacman.jpg At the VRM Hub meeting last Thursday, there was an interesting - although somewhat arcane - discussion about what we mean by the term “consumer”. Opinion was split between those who regarded “consumer” as a negative term and those who saw it as a value-neutral label to apply to anyone who is a regular purchaser of a vendor’s goods or services.

“Consumer” is a word that is often used, with little apparent thought for the suitability of its use; we hear about public services having to regard their users as “consumers”; we now “consume” many things that we might once have participated in; detractors of modern society often rail against “consumerism”, but it’s little surprise: the promoters of our current way of life have almost deified “the consumer” and make “consumer confidence” the measure of a successful society.

But what is a “consumer”? As I often find, I get my insight into this question from the world of software development: we occasionally talk about software programs that act as “consumers” of data services. For example, an RSS reader is a “consumer” of the XML data served up by my blog. Generally speaking, “consumer” is used to signify a passive recipient of the output of a process. So, my blog software produces whatever it produces and the RSS readers consume what they’re given. There is no participatory process there; consumers simply consume.

The only realistic input that a consumer can be said to have is by giving evidence of its existence - the consumer has a binary state, either “consuming” (present) or “not consuming” (absent). My blogging software might have the ability to produce a neat graph showing the rise and fall of the number of consumers over a period of time, but that’s all. I am reminded here of the concepts of exit, voice and loyalty, which are used to examine and diagnose situations in which organisations relate to their customers as simple consumers. The binary state of consumers corresponds exactly to the concept of “exit”, in that an exiting consumer enters the “not consuming” state.

This has as much to do with organisational psychology as anything else. If we see people as consumers, we can really only relate to them in terms of whether or not they are consuming. This is a deeply crude vision of how markets and economic principles work, but it seems at times to be principle that animates our political leaders. For example, the belief that hospitals can be improved by measuring the rate of consumption of their services - if fewer people choose to be treated at a hospital, that hospital is to be assumed to be failing, ultimately to be closed if it does not reverse the trend. Whilst this is better than no feedback, it’s an absurdly simplistic view of human behaviour and one which is only possible because the individual is reduced from a complex bundle of emotions, desires and interests into a being capable of only two states of behaviour through which we can measure their will.

Approaches such as CRM are there to ameliorate the worst effects of a “consumerist” perspective. Organisations gather data about their consumers in an effort to understand the mystery of why, sometimes, they stop consuming, like a faulty lightbulb that occasionally flickers and goes out. A good CRM operation can do a lot to gain understanding of the mindset of many core customer groups and, since that may be the best that anyone can hope for, companies employing this approach tend to succeed in a competitive marketplace. But there is surely room for considerable competitive advantage for companies that can develop the means and the desire to engage with customers in roles other than that of “consumer”. “Participant”, “collaborator”, “cooperator” and “advocate” are all feasible roles. Doubtless there are more.

All of which proves that “consumer” might not be the neutral term that we often think of it as. And it may also be worth wondering if perhaps “consumer confidence” falls not because we lack confidence in ourselves, but lack confidence in the very idea of being a consumer?<!–break–>