Customers, users or citizens? The debate goes quiet from time to time but never really dies. I said all I really wanted to say on the subject in a blog post back in 2008. And then again in 2014. And now here we are again, prompted by an innocuous-sounding tweet from Ben Holliday.

I was one of many who took the bait, partly because I don’t think that using ‘customer’ necessarily does imply that people have a choice, and partly because I think people make choices more often than Ben recognises. That’s not to say that ‘customer’ is the best word or the only one which should be used, but it’s a perfectly good word which shouldn’t be casually discarded.

Ben responded to the twitter conversation in a post a few days later:

In my experience, the language we use can affect the empathy we bring to a situation. It’s why I worry when we talk about customers. It feels like we’re treating ourselves as one-step removed from the people we’re delivering services for.

We’re all people. We all have an equal chance of needing the services we’re delivering. When designing public services we are not our users, but we are equal to them, or them to us. I don’t think I could honestly describe the relationship between customers and business in the same way.

In the end, Ben and I agree on what really matters, that we should think about people with empathy. He thinks talking about customers gets in the way of that. I think that, if anything, the opposite is true. If I had to sum up my sense of the two words, it would go something like this:

‘User’ is an intrinsically unempathetic word often used by people who are highly empathetic.
‘Customer’ is a potentially empathetic word sometimes used by people who are unempathetic.

But the point is not whether that’s right or wrong (or that you agree or disagree, or that it does or doesn’t make a useful distinction), it is that there are good reasons for not confusing the value of clarity with the need to be prescriptive about which word we should use.

I feel more uncomfortable when people attempt to proscribe words (and so I am rather disappointed by the slick negativity of GDS stickers trying to make ‘customer’ a non-word). Words have connotations, contexts and back stories as well as more (or less) straightforward definitions. Some words have strongly shared connotations, others – and it seems that ‘customer’ is one of them – are more divergent.1 But actually ‘user’ is another word of decidedly mixed provenance which some criticise for precisely the same reason that Ben doesn’t like ‘customer’ – that it is a word which undermines and obstructs empathy. Thus, Benjamin Ellis:

Perhaps we need to stop using the term ‘users‘ just as psychologists stopped using the word ‘subjects‘. Language drives attitudes, and viewing people as ‘big data’ leads to a mindset that is dangerously abstracted from the human consequences of action, or inaction.

The real answer here is to recognise that arguing about the one true word is to miss rather an important point. By one of the serendipitous coincidences the web does do well, as I was writing this David Weinberger’s latest blog post was bubbling to the top of my feed reader:2

The world’s constituencies are so different in their interests and understandings that we often can only maintain a difficult peace by finding language structurally ambiguous enough — each side knows that the other means something different by it — that we are not forced to bring an irresolvable disagreement to an unambiguous resolution.

Words matter. We should make careful choices. But those choices don’t need to be binary. And we don’t need an unambiguous resolution.

  1. And Ben has a thought provoking observation that divergence in this case has something to do with how long people have worked in the public sector:

    It’s certainly not any sort of scientific study but I’ve generally found that the people more comfortable with the term ‘customer’ in government have been working in the public sector for longer. Many others, like myself, new to the Civil Service are more uncomfortable with this thinking.

    It’s possible that there’s something in that – though it also true that some of the fiercest advocates of ‘customer’ I know have also been among those who had most recently joined the civil service.

  2. He is writing about two Chinas in the context of US foreign and trade policy, so the subject matter is completely different – but the point remains the same.