Who owns the customer?

A dealer, distributor and manufacturer all meet for lunch one afternoon. After the customary meet and greet, the question about who owns the customer pops up. Firstly, they have to decide how to define customer. After all, this is about optics across the supply chain.

Arguably the dealer is a customer of the distributor, and the distributor is the customer of the OEM. After much debate on how all are incented to sell product to each other, they ultimately agree to define “customer” as the end user of the product who opens up his/her wallet every day and pays the dealer – the initial source of revenue that flows up into the sales channels. If they don’t pay for a product at a dealer, there is no revenue flow for any party. There is no demand. Then there is no business to be had.

The debate then shift gears to who owns the customer in the natural cadence, from OEM to distributor to the dealer.

“I build product,” says the manufacturer to the distributor. “It is your job to get it into the hands of the dealer.”

“I take orders and ship product,” says the distributor to the dealer. “It is your responsibility to sell it to the end user.”

“Sure, I sell product to the end user who walks into my dealership, just like each of you sell it to each other,” says the dealer to the distributor and the OEM. “So, I guess at the end of the day, I own the customer, right? And with that, I should know everything about them, including owning all of the customer data.”


Once the dealer holds claim to owning the customer data, the OEM and distributor get queasy, and quietly contemplate within.

“Hmmm. If in fact the dealer is the last point of transaction, aka the demand, then how do we access the retail sell-through data to help us forecast our sell-in?”

They reflect deeper.

“Why does the dealer get to own the data when we are investing millions in sales and marketing to create local demand? We do co-op, so I suppose we have equal rights to the customer data that purchase our product. We get product registration data, so wouldn’t that mean we should own 100 percent of that customer data?”

As you can see, what seemingly is a black and white answer at the outset can turn to shades of gray very quickly.

Take it from the consumer’s point of view. Do they feel they are only and exclusively a customer of the dealer? Or do you think they also feel affinity for the brand as well?

The analogy would be owning a Chris-Craft Catalina 29. The consumer loves the boat and is loyal to Chris-Craft. He keeps up with all of their product innovation. And they also feel a sense of personal connection with their local servicing dealer. Do you think they really care about who owns their data? You bet they do and for different purposes. They want to be proactively reminded about warranty information, product recalls, new accessories, dealership sales, post-service satisfaction surveys, new parts inventory, etc.

In short, the OEM, distributor and dealer all own the customer for all the right reasons. The end game is the end user. All are incented to having them have brand preference and dealer preference in support of them coming back to the dealer, over and over, to help feed the supply chain with revenue.

It is in everyone’s best interest to access and use the appropriate customer data in a thoughtful manner in support of getting, keeping and growing the customer base. Hoarding it from each other does no good to you and ultimately hurts the consumer, who counts the most.

Jeff Winsper is the president of Black Ink Technologies. Black Ink helps manufacturers get, keep and grow customers using sales and customer intelligence in one SaaS platform. Connect with him @jeffwinsper, jwinsper@blackinkroi.com and on LinkedIn.

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