Do you consume what you buy?

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Customers and consumers. Some folks think they’re the same. But if you’re a pet owner you know better.

Unless you enjoy snacking on Purina Dog Chow or Meow Mix (which is not recommended) you’re the customer—the purchaser—but not the end user. Meanwhile, unless Buster or Fluffy is ordering online, he or she is the consumer but not the customer.

Differentiating between customers and consumers is of course critical if you have a business that has to satisfy these two "audiences" who have different conditions of satisfaction. A toy maker has to please parents and toddlers who have different priorities—unless the little ones are bargain shoppers. A jewelry seller has to please both men buyers and women users, who seldom agree on anything. But usually the customer has to be satisfied first. If you don’t understand these dynamics and you’re in such a business, well, you won’t be for long.

This dichotomy has forever been a problem for aspiring authors who have had to please a publisher (and usually a literary agent) before they could offer their product for public consumption. But now many writers are “disintermediating”—eliminating the middleman—and publishing themselves. There are suddenly lots of options for doing so, and lots of reasons to pursue (or not to pursue) this strategy—a topic for another post.

I first became aware of the distinction between customer and consumer when I was performing in nightclubs in the 1970s. The club owners were the customers (i.e., they paid me or my band for playing) but the patrons of the clubs were the consumers (who listened, heckled, danced, or started fights). I was acutely aware that the criteria—and sobriety level—of each were not the same.

There was one exception to the above. One summer the manager of the New Haven Holiday Inn (the late great Bruce Bergendahl) hired me to play piano in his lounge six nights a week for his personal enjoyment. He felt obligated to have entertainment as a service to motel guests, but he had no expectation that any would actually show up, so he found someone who could keep him entertained. Most nights it was just myself, the bartender (reading a book), and Bruce. He was happy to have someone who could bang out some nasty boogie woogie and tell bad jokes. And I made a point (some would say a career) of doing both. By the end of the summer, when it was time to move on, I could afford to buy my first serious car, a ‘72 Pontiac Catalina, for $300. (It didn't seem to get more than 10 miles a gallon, but in those days you didn't trust an engine that didn’t like gas.) Anyway, I was fortunate to have a customer who was also a consumer.

For an earlier post on the importance of being open to customer feedback, check here.

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  1. Did you ever try putting the piano in the Catalina, or were you afraid you'd lose it?

    Consumer, customer, disintermediation: you sure sound like a business consultant there, pal. And this is the excellent kind of fine point beginners have no clue about.

  2. Joel: now that I think about it, that Catalina was a wagon. But after I totaled it I bought a Catalina sedan. (They were almost giving them away in those days. I wonder why.) I only used “house pianos” in those days and traveled with just a PA system, mikes, and occasionally an acoustic guitar for variation. Later when I had a band (circa 1977) I used a Wurlitzer electric for a while but it never stayed in tune under the pounding. Eventually I bought a spinet and miked it with a Helpinstill pickup. We rolled it around on an organ dolly and used a Railway Express truck to transport it—along with a Hammond organ, PA system, guitar & bass amps, drums, etc., which required a team of roadies. The margins were better in my solo days (didn't have to pay roadies' bar tabs), but rock & roll has it own rewards.

    Gary: If Fluffy were acting as my agent in her online purchasing (using my Amazon account for instance), I’d be the Meow Mix customer. But if Fluffy went rogue on my online account and wiped me out, then I’d quickly become a Meow Mix consumer.

  3. How do you total a Catalina wagon, run it off the Cliffs of Moher?

    I can't even imagine the bar tab for multiple roadies.

    My guitar player hired a drummer one night; I wanted to impress the bar owner and get a regular gig.

    During the first break, he ordered a soda for himself and his girlfriend. She said his was free, but his girlfriend's was $4. He grabbed it while she was in mid slurp and gave it back to the owner.

    I DID get to play there again, but not with him.

    I'd need a serious reason to haul a Wurlitzer around. (I think we should write a song which includes both Wurlitzer and Howitzer. There MUST be a connection.)

  4. I actually went through three Catalinas between 1976 and 1979. Two of them got smashed up while parked. (They were big targets.) But those were my adolescent days, sorta.

    A Wurlitzer in the wrong hands can be dangerous weapon, but a Howitzer stays in tune better.

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