Tip #516: Say no to the first name

As some of you know, with the exception of the podcast where we keep straight face, Joel and I disagree a lot. This time I think he is wrong and I am right (I think that most of the time, to be fair). Without further ado, our most recent squabble.


I’ve had it with first and last names (project I was working on had a list of countries where these names are to be swapped when building the full name o__O). It’s culture dependent and mostly useless except when searching by the surname. So the idea I’m entertaining to use form now on for contacts:

  1. Use just name which is the same as the fullname (just remove first name and relabel the last name). Example: George Doubinski, Mao Dze Dun, Mao Zedong, Schnitzel Von Krumm, Joel Ave Maria Johnathan Batista Lindstrom.
  2. Use salutation to determine how to address the contact, e.g. George, Shifu, Leader, Dog, Mr & Mrs Lindstrom etc. That’d be used in the letters as in Dear Leader, Dear Shifu, Dear Mr & Mrs Lindstrom, etc.

Any issues with this approach? (Apart, of course, from the need to fill in an archaic form that requires separate first and last names)


Kind of funny, I was just having a conversation about this specific idea with a client lately. Their source system only had a single name for contacts, which made moving them into CRM a bit of a challenge.

I can see the attraction of having a single name; however, as I see it, there are two major downsides:

  1. Outlook sync. IMO the sync experience is weird if you don’t have separate first and last names, especially since that is how Outlook and most contact management applications on phones, etc do it. So if your CRM contacts start syncing in with only the last name/surname field populated, it looks really out of place if you have other contacts with separate first and last names.
  2. You are limiting options for direct mail/mail merge/marketing automation. If your client ever wants to do any kind of targeted marketing with CRM data, not having separate first and last name fields precludes having templates that say “Dear John” or “Mr. Doubinski.” I’ve had too many cases where a client tells me “we’re never going to …” to turn around and need to do that thing later.

My approach is to have an alternate firstname lastname field that stores the name in the opposite order of the fullname field and make it searchable. That way if I search for “Redlaces, Captain” or “Captain Redlaces” I get a result.


Haven’t thought about 1 but for 2 is exactly what salutation is about. So my name is George Doubinski but I’d prefer if you address me as Dear <salutation>, e.g. Dear Shifu.

The challenge with the first names is that in many countries they have the exactly opposite meaning, e.g. China. I know that for you, being in egocentric North America, it’s a concept that is hard to fathom but I thought after your visit to Japan you’d have a bit more appreciation of what we’re dealing with on a daily basis trying to offload the coal surplus?!


I agree that it is most useful for Asian countries. For North America, you would want the option to use the last name, such as Mr. Doubinski


Oh boy… “How would you like us to address you? Mr Lindstrom? OK” (busily writing “Mr. Lindstrom” in salutation field)

Does it work for you?


What about “Dear first name, we would like to invite you and the rest of the [lastname] family to our event?” Not saying that is everyday, but not unheard of.


Oh man, imagine if the guy is single because his family [insensitive blurb removed]. Who’d be responsible for his suicide then?!
Not saying that is everyday, but not unheard of.


The client is a life insurance company. They would have updated his marital status in CRM

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As you can see, we were quickly getting nowhere. Everyone is holding their ground firm. What do YOU think?

4 thoughts on “Tip #516: Say no to the first name

  1. Henrik says:

    This is going to blow your collective minds, but you are both right!

    1) Regional differences (especially Western to Eastern) should impact the display, printed or method of addressing someone

    2) Storing separate data (surname/family name, first name/given name) in a single field is data destructive, and will only give you headaches down the line. Would you do the same for addresses then since they are also regional?

    3) Outlook-sync when names are joined is an issue, but so is the single method of displaying names in Outlook. Outlook and other e-mail/contact clients on desktop and mobile are generally Western in their presentation logic.

    George: What you are proposing is storing presentation data to become more regional friendly and you’ve lost data on the way there.

    Joel: What you are proposing is only a step on the way.

    Suggestion: New read-only field for combined name set by plugin or workflow (and BR?) that follows the display rules of whatever country or setting the customer is related to. This separates display logic and data storage (basic architecture principle) and allows George to get his one field. Outlook sync still contains first and last name, and as always that application is still responsible for its own presentation (do not try to have CRM be the master system/controller of Outlook, it will not work). CRM will use the combined field when doing merges and presentation. It would not be hard to set it up so that “if US -> do this, if China -> do that”.

    • Clever insights, Henrik. I think we’re opening a can of worms here (well, that was the intent, anyway :))

      For example, your approach falls short in countries where people don’t have a notion of a surname, or countries where it’s customary to have multiple surnames, or countries where, if you are a forth child, your first name is Katut, whether you want it or not?

      What I’m trying to generalise is the notion that there is always a name but first and last names are not a world-wide concept.

  2. Daniel Kasimirowicz says:

    Very interesting thougths!!! Thank you.

  3. Ted says:

    Boy am I late to the conversation! Nice points. A single “name” field is certainly simpler for us, but awkward when trying to address customers via written communication, “Hi John Johnson, how are you?” While CRMs seem to enforce a single name field, I’m not convinced, and even Google Contacts takes first and last name—maybe that should be a more authoritative source for the best practice?

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