How to Know Your Users from Your Customers

This article is about how to know your IT support users from your customers. It’s about thinking clearly, so as not to confuse marketing-speak with service design realities.

“Oh, we don’t call them ‘users’ anymore,” the Service Desk supervisor said to me. “We’ve been told to call them ‘customers’ now. It’s to remind us of their importance to us and to show them that we’re focused on their customer experience.” Her description was spot on, an almost perfect rendition of the well-meaning, hyperbolic, committee-designed, public-relations nonsense that had accompanied the recent IT reorganisation.

“So, do you have any other customers?” I asked.

“No. Just the users.”

It was a classic miscomprehension of the difference between system terminology and marketing-speak. It’s essentially the difference between knowing what a thing actually is and so being able to work with it; and how a thing is presented, so you can use that concept to set market expectations. By the way, she was also quite wrong about her interpretation of the scope of her market. All Service Desks and other support workgroups have several other customers beyond the users. The terms are very much NOT interchangeable, because they mean different things.


I saw a real-life example of this recently when I replaced my home cinema system. It turns out that there is a widely adopted industry standard for controlling all system components from one remote control unit. So long as all your devices are connected to one another by High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cables, and that the devices conform to the industry ‘HDMI Consumer Electronics Control’ (HDMI-CEC) standard, then regardless of the mix of manufacturers of your receiver-amplifier, decoder, Personal Video Recorder, television, et cetera, they should all behave collectively as one integrated unit.

And it’s great. Pretty much all home cinema components have HDMI-CEC built-in these days. There’s just one problem; which is that although the industry manufacturers and commentators refer to HDMI-CEC among themselves, as they must in order to engineer compliance to the standard; the terminology they use to us, the wielders of credit cards, has been got at by the marketing men. They all call it something different, so that the manufacturers can differentiate themselves from each other. For sales purposes, they tell their customers that it’s ‘Brava Link’ (Sony) or ‘Viera Link’ (Panasonic) or ‘RIHD’ (Onkyo) or the ambitious ‘Anynet+’ (Samsung). The engineers have made something collective but the marketing men have made it look like something unique, as they do. It’s all about ‘Added Value’. The problem is, it also produces Added Confusion.

HDMI CEC is HDMI CEC. Those other, proprietary terms are just branding. But in order to build my home cinema system, I need to know what they are, not just how they are branded. In the same way, users are users. Calling them ‘customers’ is just branding (and it isn’t even accurate – see below). But in order to build my IT support factory, I need to know what they are, and refer to them as such, not just how they are branded.

Specialist Terms

When it comes to how we present our offerings to the people who will use our services and judge us by them, it is perfectly legitimate to invent a nomenclature that our market will understand. That may well be different from the specialist terms we use inside IT, for accurately describing among ourselves the components and interfaces of our service provision. What we must never do is confuse the two forms of expression among ourselves, for if we do, we risk losing the very precision that allows us to exercise our specialisation. Put simply, you cannot properly design an appropriate service if you do not know the difference between fact and presentation, or between ‘users’ and ‘customers’.

I am not denying that the users are our customers. Of course they are. But ‘users’ is a subset of ‘customers’. It is not simply a word to be replaced by another just because it “sounds better” or in the hope of entreating network technicians to be nicer to business staff.

A ‘customer’ of IT User Support is anybody
who consumes anything produced by IT User Support. Anything.

I repeat – a customer of IT User Support is anybody who consumes anything produced by IT User Support. Anything. There are customers out there that we don’t know about, consuming things we don’t know we make, but which they watch for. Not just the solutions of the service desk. Not just the laptop loans. But anything – even the stuff we didn’t mean to produce, but they consume anyway. If they have an expectation of us – even if they invented it themselves – they will test us against that expectation. If we’re going to start using market terminology like ‘customer’, we must understand that our presence in the market, as ordained by the business we support, means that we’re producing much more than just what it says in the Service Catalogue. In fact, it is also very likely that we are being tested on how well we ‘produce’ that other stuff. Our customers don’t just consume our IT Support solutions – they consume the whole ethos within which we produce them, and some of those accidental or collateral products or outputs they are testing us on will vary, because they are not real, but cultural.


For example – in its performance, how well does your IT support service reflect the stated values of the business? Even if you didn’t know you were supposed to be ‘reflecting business values’, the chances are that somebody is judging you on that. How efficient is your service in terms of Return-On-Investment? Perhaps you don’t have a way of measuring that – perhaps you didn’t even know it was a thing – but somebody may, probably on the finance side, and they’ll be judging you on it. Just as the users expect a quick and slick solution to their computer problems, these consumers of collateral outputs also have expectations. The ‘customer’ is a superset, of which the ‘users’ are only one portion or subset.


Which is why, when support professionals talk among ourselves, we are engaging as peers in the same industry. To ensure our mutual understanding, our language has to be precise. We must separate the concepts of service delivery and marketing, and use the appropriate terminology. We use ‘users’ when we mean ‘users’ and ‘customers’ when we mean ‘customers’. If we start talking about ‘customers’, we must also pay attention to the implications of that panoply, which include expectation management, added value, collateral output and corporate culture. If we’re talking about the immediate consumers of one aspect of our output, namely our delivered resolutions of their requests, we call them ‘users’.

It’s OK to call users “users”, if we are talking about those people who make use of the technologies we support in the creation of their own productivity. It’s not just OK, it’s necessary so we know when we’re talking about the same thing.

Don’t believe your own hype. Don’t confuse marketing with reality. Don’t confuse what you make with how you sell it. Don’t confuse what they are with how we want them to see themselves. Be precise in your thinking and terminology, and enjoy the creative and intellectual freedom that conceptual distinction affords you.

1 thought on “How to Know Your Users from Your Customers”

  1. I enjoyed reading this Noel – good write-uip of an terminology issue that just won’t go away. I’m with you. A user is a user, and in an IT setting or elsewhere – if they’re using something, to me that is the natural and correct terminology for sure. Marketing is really doing a number on ITSM these days… and a lot of it isn’t good IMO.

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