We use the term customer a lot – but what do we mean by that? That seems like a fairly dopey question at first, but CRM can be reigned in by language, and language doesn’t get any more basic for CRM than the word the first letter in the acronym stands for.

I know my default definition of a customer: it’s someone who buys something from someone else. That’s the quick and dirty definition, and it applies well to most B2B and B2C selling situations. If you’re the seller, the need or desire to trade money for products or services on the part of someone else makes them the customer. Duh!

Well, hold that duh. My wife is in staffing and recruiting, and she does a darned good job of it. She has started to use the word “customers” in ways that don’t involve a traditional selling situation: her hiring managers are her customers. I’ve started to see this crop up in other places – IT seeing the users of technology in a business as its “customers,” for instance, or non-profits viewing the people they serve as “customers.”

I really like where this expanded definition starts to take us. Instead of viewing customers as buyers, they become people we serve. Our aims for serving them vary – we may want money, or we may want to accomplish a mission. But suddenly a customer is no longer someone who is there for us to take something from. Instead, the customer is someone for whom we’re doing something.

The challenge then is this: if the customer is someone who is benefitting from the efforts of another person, then what should we call that other person? He or she is no longer a “seller” in every case – and “server” sounds like the person who brings your food in a restaurant. (If you have a good name for this role, let me know!)

This re-definition of what a customer may be also indicates the power CRM has at managing relationships of all types. I’ve seen CRM used to track all kinds of relationships within businesses (sometimes, less elegantly than would be optimal, but still) – people to people, people to processes, people to things.

That’s why companies like SugarCRM and Microsoft are presenting their platforms as great tools for developing business applications that aren’t purely CRM – they can take the management lessons learned from 20 years of CRM and apply them to managing all kinds of relationships inside and outside of the business.

But let’s get back to the traditional use of CRM as a tool to gain and retain customers. I’ve written in the past that many businesses slip up by emphasizing the “M” in management over the “R” in relationship.

Customers want a relationship (or at least a good experience); they don’t engage with you hoping to be managed. Looking at the definition of “customer” differently can help shift the priority back where it belongs, on the relationship (and on the customer experience).

While the developers may be able to export the abstract concepts of managing relationships to technology, the secret to developing a culture of customer service at all touch points isn’t going to be mastered in the technology.

It’s going to spring from hiring the right people at the outset, and making sure they understand that the secret to sales is in serving the customer, not necessarily in simply doing what’s needed to extract money from him.