There used to be benefit claimants.  There used to be passengers.  There used to be taxpayers.  Now there are customers (and patients, who seem, so far, to have survived the cull).

From time to time, the argument about whether users of public services are “really” customers flares up again.  I have got caught up in it three times recently – twice in this week alone.  The word ‘customer’ came into central government getting on for twenty years ago.  My first recollection of hearing a passionate argument (!) on the subject is almost ten years ago.  It would be nice just to move on.  There isn’t really anything new to say, but we still need to keep on saying it.

Why might we use the word customer?  There are several possible reasons:

  1. because that’s what we are
  2. because that’s more what we are than any other word we have got
  3. because that’s what we are sometimes, and we want it to be more times
  4. because using the word improves the chances that we get treated well.

Reason 1. is where people tend to trip up.  No we are not really customers.  Real customers buy things and that’s not, on the whole, what consumers of public services are doing (unless, of course, they are going swimming in the local leisure centre, but let’s not worry about that here).  So, it is argued, we should use the word ‘citizens’ or ‘service users’ instead.  But leaving aside the fact that not everybody is a citizen (and that, for example, visa applicants are by definition not citizens) and the fact that no normal person ever uses the phrase ‘service user’ in casual conversation, getting hung up on reason 1, stops us thinking about the other reasons.

Even beyond the special world of public services, I don’t think that it is the act of purchasing which is the interesting or defining thing about being a customer.  I think it is much more to do with having a choice.  It is the ability to take custom elsewhere which creates power, and it is the absence of that ability in many public services (and other services too) which allows the quality of service to slide downwards.

The other three reasons are much more interesting.  Let’s think about them in reverse.

Because using the word improves the chances that we get treated well

What you call somebody affects how you treat them.  The old word in welfare benefits was ‘claimant’ (well, there were other old words too, mostly still more negative, but let’s keep it simple).  Claimants are asking for something.  They can be denied.  They can be ignored.  They can be made to wait for the convenience of the giver of alms.  Changing the word can change attitudes.  And changing attitudes certainly changes behaviour.  That alone makes changing the word worthwhile – though it doesn’t automatically make ‘customer’ the right word.

Because that’s what we are sometimes, and we want it to be more times

In many ways, the most interesting thing about services going online is that they create choice, often for the first time.  Not, of course, choice about everything and not necessarily about the whole experience, but choice where there has not been choice before.  If there is choice, we can exercise that choice, embracing or spurning the channels being offered to us.  Since there are strong reasons for wanting people to exercise their choice in a particular direction, there is a necessity to make that alternative attractive and to market it effectively.  The terms of trade are dramatically changed – and at that moment, we are customers in a strong sense of the word.

Because that’s more what we are than any other word we have got

In filling in my tax return, I am not a customer of HMRC in the same way that buying a book makes me a customer of Amazon.  But whatever my relationship, it is not so different that there is self-evidently a better word than customer.  It isn’t ‘citizen’:  being a citizen is important, but it isn’t this.  And in all the years I have been hearing this argument, I don’t think I have heard a serious alternative candidate, let alone a self-evidently better one.

people frieze

Creative Commons License

So where does all that get us?  Well, probably nowhere very much – which is precisely the point.  Using ‘customer’ isn’t the perfect solution, but its use has had powerful and largely positive consequences for public services and their users.  It isn’t the perfect solution because there isn’t one to be found, and the more time and energy spent looking for this unicorn, the less time and energy there will be for the basic job of making things work better.

I have no wish to impose this usage on anyone.  But I don’t particularly want to spend time debating it either.  Let’s move on.

Update 1: I came across a nice example of ‘customers’ being used in this context much earlier than I would have guessed – in a book published in 1951.

Update 2: And now ‘patients’ is being challenged too. Perhaps we are all just people, though that’s so universal as to be meaningless in this context.


  1. Customer just doesn’t work in this context. What’s wrong with “serf”? I think it sums up our relationship with public bodies quite well, and it also lends itself “surf” for when you are using online services, like getting a tax disc.

  2. I worked with “claimants” in the 80’s. I hated the power:powerlessness relationship that existed, which many colleagues exploited and even enjoyed. Then along came an inspirational chief executive who invented customers for us. Attitudes and behaviours shifted dramatically as a result – amazingly quickly for such a profound change. And to me, the change was worth the label. Who should really care what we call customers? Customers don’t. (And actually we don’t really call them that to their faces, as surely as we never said “dear claimant”). Customers care about the service we give them, not what we call them. And if calling customers customers means we give them a better service, then who but the customer should care?

Comments are closed.