Recent events in Philadelphia revealed that Starbucks needs to address issues of racial bias in its stores. It also showed that it doesn’t have a clear company policy on handling visitors who haven’t bought something, called nonpaying customers.

I’d never heard the term before.
 
I thought customers were buyers of things with value, for which they trade other things of value to sellers. Verb tense complicates it somewhat — Am I a customer if if I bought cup of coffee a year ago, or might do so sometime in the future? — but a reasonable expectation of money changing hands was usually part of the definition.
 
Nonpaying customer suggests something different, though.
 
Starbucks is supposedly unique since it promotes itself as a “third space” in addition to home and work, as if that means it invites people to hang out without paying. But people pay for time in their homes or at work, in cash or work effort for the benefit of their employers. So it opens its doors to people, however imperfectly, because it expects them to buy stuff.
 
No, nonpaying customers are something else, something new; they don’t pay for services, but rather expect to be paid.
 
Nonpaying customers consume the polices and behaviors of businesses, in that they feel a sense of proprietary interest in how companies interact with the world. Nonpaying customers might not approve of H&M’s sourcing in Developing South factories, like Uber’s treatment of its drivers, or agree with the way Starbucks treats people of color.
 
Not only will that disapproval keep them from buying products or services from these companies, but they might choose to protest, organize or participate in boycotts, put pressure on advertisers or other businesses that support them, or even join shareholder initiatives intended to change the way the companies operate.
 
Conversely, earning their approval might impede those activities, but they may never feel the need to buy anything. But they’ll continually feel that sense of oversight and control, regardless, and expect “payment” via changed policies and practices.
 
It gives new meaning to the idea of stakeholders, as well as challenges general principles of business operation.
 
It’s one thing to keep equity investors in the loop, and another to cater product and services offerings to the wants and needs of users, not to mention the requirements of regulations and legal liabilities.
 
But what if everyone thinks they own your company, or at least should have a say over its policies, whether when they’re organized into internet groups or simply interested individuals?
 
It could significantly complicate the way companies communicate publicly, and how they earn acceptance of their practices. It could give greater, deeper meaning to the premises of “transparency” and “engagement,” and suggest a far closer alignment of business and social needs.
 
It could change the way people buy products — what if that alignment could spur sales? — by giving nonpaying customers many more reasons to ante up some cash.
 
Starbucks might be in the news right now, but I suspect that every company has nonpaying customers waiting to be heard.
 
I’m president of Arcadia Communications Lab, a global collaborative solely focused on helping established businesses communicate about innovation.
 
 
Read the entire essay at Medium.