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  • Marika Kontellis

Customers are not a new name for your old clients

There is so much jargon and narrative about the ‘’customer’’ that one could rightly believe that organisations in the social sector had not ever belonged in the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth, indeed organisations in the social sector dealt with real people, with real issues all the time and can rightfully take umbrage at the assertion that they were not ‘’customer friendly’’.

The point that seems to be missing in the current discourse is that the organisations providing this critical and vital support in the community have not before needed to understand and operate in a ‘’customer-led’’ economy. The principles in operation in these ‘’markets’’ are different and whilst almost all workers involved and employed in the social sector experience this each time they turn on TV, purchase online or go to the shops, it has not before been the dominant culture in the organisations within which they work.

There is no doubt that over time we will be deeply ensconced in a customer-driven economy, arguably, one step further down the track than a customer-led one. There is equally no doubt that organisations will adapt and thrive in this new world just like they have done before when other challenges and changes have been presented to them. However, the journey will not be easy and it is easy to confuse the language and believe that what one has been doing is in fact, ‘’customer-friendly”.

Many organisations that we work with are person-centred and place the needs of the person at the centre of their model. The problem is that it is ‘’their model’’ and considerable time can often be spent modifying what the person needs, into their model. The other consideration is that there is a difference between needs and wants. Needs are often the things we hear the person saying; our professionals skills and experience is able to adapt that into a form we can use. We have converted their wants into their needs as it is the latter that we can more readily meet. After all, our business models are often set up to do this.

A customer-led approach is one that assumes it is “their model’’ and it is about satisfying what they want, more than what they need. We need to be cognisant of this subtle but definite difference and be well placed to them otherwise organisations run the risk of providing something really good, but nothing that people want.

Many social sector organisations have loyal, dedicated and appreciative clients that can very easily become their customers. However, this will not happen by osmosis, nor by proximity. Just because they are there now and need what you can provide, does not mean they will be there tomorrow and need what you can provide. You need to look at what and how you do it and ensure that you adapt your business model accordingly. If you don’t you run the real risk of having a model without a business.

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