The question of whether users of public services are appropriately or usefully called ‘customers’ never seems entirely to go away, though in my view, it’s a question which no longer illuminates much of value. To the extent I had thought about it all though, I had always assumed that it was a post-Thatcherite debate, perhaps starting in the long, idle hours and days between calls to the cones hotline. But it turns out I was wrong.
Years ago, I spent a pound in a second-hand bookshop on The Civil Service Today: The first modern, factual, up-to-date study of the Civil Service in the light of its changing conditions, published in 1951. I came across it again when looking for something else a few days ago and, opening it at random, came across this passage:
On close inspection – or rather by application of Google book search – it turns out that there are some more references to customers, including at least one which is very much in the modern sense. There are some descriptions of jobs that are done at various grades, including ‘Miss Brown, Clerical Officer’:
Miss Brown is in one of the local offices. An attractive personality has marked her out for one of the most important jobs to be done – the task of interviewing members of the public. Her surroundings are mean. Her office is ill-equipped, and the linoleum on the floor has worn thin where countless feet have walked briskly, or perhaps nervously shuffled, to Miss Brown’s unassuming counter. Miss Brown has been trained to deal with all her customers in the same friendly way.
Interestingly, the word is not just used, but used without any particular stress, or any sense that it is anything out of the ordinary. That implies that by 1951, T.A. Critchley, the book’s author saw the word ‘customer’ in this sense as unremarkable and long established.