It makes my heart sink when I hear people talking about consumers. Something is consumed when there is no or little choice. If you are an animal, then you DO need Oxygen, Water, and Food. These things are consumed to my mind, and if not, then there is a change in the animal, specifically death. When was the last time you heard someone saying at a party. "Yeah, I have given up breathing Oxygen and switched to Nitrogen instead. They had a really great offer on that I found through Google. A man came and rewired my Genome, and retuned my metabolism, and I've switched to Nitrogen. I mean there's four times as much of it, and no one else is using, it. I feel serious in the early adopter crowd, I mean, Oxygen is so 3 billion years ago...)
Other than that, the people who give you money, are customers. They have no obligation of any kind to continue to give you money. If something better comes along then your ass is toast. Now, I agree that some classes of relationship are not going to change as easily as others. Would you bother to change your utilities supplier, if you could? Would you buy different brands of clothes? Would you like to eat different food every day? But if all you have is inertia to protect you, then you will find that one day the numbers on the marketing spreadsheet do not come out right, and your job is gone. The world moved on, and forgot to buy the right number of units for you to make your forecast. You have no automatic right to revenue. None. (OK, OK, US Military Contractors, but let's stay in the real world...)
Consumption is a law of physics and biology, being a customer is a matter of preference...
But who is the customer? In the current climate, and thinking about ideas and conversations (Gapingvoid), then the customer for a product varies throughout the life-cycle. If we think about a fairly typical supply chain in the retail goods world, for example:
Product Origination and Design
Advertising and Marketing
Product Origination is the creation of something that someone somewhere might want to buy, and the creation of a conviction in the people that will suffer the consequences if this is not correct, that the risk is worth taking. There are really two starts to this process - either derivations from an existing proven product, or a new original product idea that has no current equivalent in the marketplace. Example of the derivation process, if there is a best selling car like the BMW 3 series, it is not a terribly difficult conceptual leap to make an estate version, or a convertible. The real question is doing enough market research to guage the potential profitability of the eventual product line over its life-cycle. The new ideas can be harder. They fall into three classes; the miraculous and useful, like the pot, zero, and the wheel, the not so useful but still modestly successful, like the Segway, or the totally bloody daft, like anything made by Sir Clive Sinclair except for the Spectrum personal computer.
The customer here is the people who will give the cash for the product to be developed, and brought top market, until the revenue earning phase has been reached, and the positive cash flow appears. This means dealing with money people, often ones with no particular vision or particular grasp of customer motivations. For example, most Hollywood film projects - "it has Arnold Schwarzenegger, and lots of special effects..." or the IPOs of the .com era - "We're going to sell dog food on the Internet, Yippee!"
For the manufacturer, the customer is the supply chain, and yes eventually the market, but the main risk is that production is not undertaken in the right timescales, or in the right volume. Too little, like the first Star Wars films, where they were seriously short of toys, and were at one stage selling an "early bird" box with a token in it entitling you to the toys when they were finally made.... Or the over production of the items that you see remaindered over the counter in the next weeks and months.
Now we hit the hard reality of Walmartisation, the distributor. Walmart controls something like 20-25% of the retail distribution in the US, and if they don't like your product or your price then that's you pretty much out of the mass market. The kind of pressure that this puts on innovation and quality is imaginable. You have to make 100,000 of the item, and it has to be cheap. I think that Hugh said first to my mind, "today you are either the cheapest or the best, and there is no middle ground." Walmart wants cheapest.
It is also possible to be the best, but the risks about getting that perception created in the market are well understood. Kryptonite bicycle locks, anyone?
So, in this case, the customer that will pay you. is not even in the end the customer that will finally use the product or service. This gives two sets of differing and often contradictory sets of requirements to serve. If you doubt this, remember how much money that people like Gillette and Procter and Gamble are having to pay the distributors to get shelf space in the supermarket in places that can be seen properly. If you are just run of the mill shelf stock, you might as well be the generic product in terms of that split second when the wandering hand reaches out to the shampoo counter and picks one up. OK, for other things there is different loyalty, but in FMCG, you are vulnerable.
Then there is the end buyer, but they are going to buy what is available. With the local retail outlets, that can be limited. However, depending on the nature of the goods or services, this can now be added to with the Internet access, and so on.
Amazon is the most amazing service for the book reader, with the availability of mind bendingly obscure works in very little time, and the recommendation services that pull you into new products, literature, etc.
Where is your opportunity to have interaction with the potential customers, and do you understand how to do this effectively? Are your customers tied by the lack of alternative distribution channels, and if so what will they do when new ones appear?
TV watching is in decline amongst many elements of the attractive demographic (Affluent 40+ men and women - remember who actually spends the money...) because of the DVD and to a lesser extent Internet and computer games, because they do not have to be tied to the single distribution channel of television any more.
And last but not least, the whole life-cycle management thing. If you buy white goods, cars, IT equipment or the like, you need a network that will somehow take care of occasional problems. This is expensive, and you have to decide. Rolls Royce care and happy customers, or outsourced minimal care, and pretty damned grumpy customers.
Example, Dell apparently outsourced some support to India, but was getting such a bad reputation for service that had hitherto been Average to Good, that they pulled it back. HP on the other hand didn't, and they have come seriously unstuck...
And finally, advertising. I think that the days of advertising being effective, and then the discussion about cost effectiveness are coming to an end. Seriously. How many adverts do you see in a day? What degree of advertising fatigue do you suffer from? Do you hate specific adverts for being intrusive?
Personal example, I hate Gillette adverts, because they have all these images designed specifically to bring forth emotions, like the father playing with the son, or the happy lovers in the sunshine, that they do not have the relationship with me that is close enough that evoking them is respectful. In other words, they would like me to associate running around in a field with my son, not with the intrinsic personal joy that it brings, but with their razor blades. It's too much to ask. (Am I alone in feeling this?)
Anyway. The above relationships are subtle, complex, and dynamic. That is why, if your marketroid has come to see the customer, AKA the consumer, as being a kind of revenue entitlement mechanism that will cause units to be shifted in a predictable and mechanical fashion, then give them a smack upside the head and see if you can get their brain working again. More than that, see if you can introduce them to idea that people buy things one at a time, and not because they are desirous of making up the numbers on a spreadsheet in the marketing department of a corporation., but because they like what you do.