In general terms, a customer is a person or organization that a marketer believes will benefit from the goods and services offered by the marketer’s organization. As this definition suggests, a customer is not necessarily someone who is currently purchasing from the marketer. In fact, customers may fall into one of three customer groups:
Consists of customers who have purchased or otherwise used an organization’s goods or services, typically within a designated period of time. For some organizations the time frame may be short, for instance, a coffee shop may only consider someone to be an Existing Customer if they have purchased within the last three months. Other organizations may view someone as an Existing Customer even though they have not purchased in the last few years (e.g., automobile manufacturer). Existing Customers are by far the most important of the three customer groups since they have a current relationship with an organization and, consequently, they give an organization a reason to remain in contact with them. Additionally, Existing Customers also represent the best market for future sales, especially if they are satisfied with the relationship they presently have with the marketer. Getting these Existing Customers to purchase more is significantly less expensive and time consuming than finding new customers mainly because they know and hopefully trust the marketer and, if managed correctly, are easy to reach with promotional appeals (i.e., emailing a special discount for new product).
This group consists of those who have formerly had relations with the marketing organization typically through a previous purchase. However, the marketer no longer feels the customer is an Existing Customer either because they have not purchased from the marketer within a certain time frame or through other indications (e.g., a Former Customer just purchased a similar product from the marketer’s competitor). The value of this group to a marketer will depend on whether the customer’s previous relationship was considered satisfactory to the customer or the marketer. For instance, a Former Customer who felt they were not treated well by the marketer will be more difficult to persuade to buy again compared to a Former Customer who liked the marketer but decided to buy from someone else who had a similar product that was priced lower.
The third category of customers includes those who have yet to purchase but possess what the marketer believes are the requirements to eventually become Existing Customers. As we will see in the Targeting Markets Tutorial, the requirements to become a customer include such issues as having a need for a product, possessing the financial means to buy, and having the authority to make a buying decision. Locating Potential Customers is an ongoing process for two reasons. First, Existing Customers may become Former Customers (e.g., decide to buy from a competitor) and, thus, must be replaced by new customers. Second, while we noted above that Existing Customers are the best source for future sales, it is new customers that are needed in order for a business to significantly expand. For example, a company that sells only in its own country may see less room for sales growth if a high percentage of people in the country are already Existing Customers. In order to realize stronger growth the company may seek to sell their products in other countries where Potential Customers may be quite high.