So Who are Our Customers?

On arrival in my current position as Director of the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras, my then Chair felt that a business plan was needed to grow the organisation and to increase its activities. So I started studying business plans, reading samples and finding out the things I needed to do. I immediately hit a couple of snags. One was that we had a very wide portfolio of activities and services being delivered by just two staff. We have, as I still think of it, the product portfolio of a small multinational with the resources of a corner shop. This problem of scale and scope meant that programmed activities – courses and events – always ended up taking precedence over what might be considered more core activities such as building the community of youth orchestras, advocating for them at a national level and working to channel the resources that they needed to flourish. A fairly typical problem with charities – we see the scale of the problem and work towards all of it!

Philosophically though, for me, this was a smaller problem. In a previous existence, I remember my then boss saying to me, ‘I run an arts organisation, not a business!’ I remember disagreeing, just in my head as I didn’t have the knowledge to do so openly, but in terms of developing a business plan I had to grapple with the idea of, ‘Who are our customers?’ Being a mission-led organisation that is about development, the idea was difficult to deal with as almost everyone to whom we provided services was in some way a partner rather than a customer. Eventually, I decided that anyone who gave us money was our customer, even though most, if not all of those customers were also partners in the creation of our products and stakeholders in our eventual impact. It did simplify things a bit and certainly helped with funding relationships. Funders are our customers and funding applications are tender documents through which they can commission us to fulfil their mission.

And so to the Business Model Canvas which I discovered along the way. I can’t remember exactly how I found it but, when I did, I thought that it was an excellent way to work on what we do. Unfortunately, the variety of outputs and stakeholders (customers) we had soon had me in trouble again as it was far too complicated to fit in the chart. Also, it didn’t deal with competition – a difficult matter for IAYO as we quite deliberately promote competing offerings from related organisations. Many of these organisations are also our members (owners and customers in one) and are promoting the same aims that we are. It didn’t help either that our different ‘customer segments’ valued different aspects of what we do. For some the activities are the end; for others, just a means to an end. I do remember presenting two of my board members with an early version of my Business Model Canvas at my annual appraisal along with the question, ‘Am I ridiculously overcomplicating this?’ To which the answer was a clear, ‘No!’

It wasn’t until I engaged with the Arts Audience Development Programme provided by Arts Audiences and Audiences Northern Ireland that the solution finally came. The lecturer, from the Business School of Ulster University, looked at me on presentation of my problem and made a flipping motion with his hands – possibly along with raised eyebrows. And thus, I unbundled the customer segments into those that are interested in

a) Long-term Outcomes such as development of the arts and opportunities for young people to participate culturally;

b) Resources and Supports such as news, advice, instruments and orchestral scores and parts;

c) Young Players (and their Parents) who are interested in taking part in directly provided courses and performance opportunities;

d) Sponsors and Advertisers who can promote themselves alongside our work and lastly, but not leastly;

e) Concert-goers – the general public.

Further confusion was added to the pile as part of the Arts Audience Development Programme was the question of, ‘Who is our audience?’ For a number of participants in the course, such as myself, our primary target is not bums-on-seats and, as can be seen from my segmentation above, these come last in our order of importance. (I must stress, that doesn’t mean they are unimportant, just less so!) Indeed, in putting on youth orchestra concerts, the audience is more important (to us) in terms of enhancing the experience of the performers than it is in terms of the satisfaction of the audience. After much discussion – the matter arising as an issue at almost every module – the final lecturer, Janette Sheerman, neatly coined it thus. ‘My audience is anyone that contributes to the long-term sustainability of my organisation.’

So as organisations on a mission, who are our customers? Well, I think they are:

  • anyone to whom we provide services (whether they pay us or not);
  • anyone who pays us to provide services (whether they receive them or not);
  • anyone that has an interest in our impact or activities.

I think that covers just about everyone!

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