Tuesday 27 December 2016

Customers or citizens: what's in a name?

 As a pre-Christmas treat I've been reading Alan Bennett's latests volume of diaries, "Keeping on Keeping on." I'm happy that I share a lot of his views and prejudices, not least his irritation at being called a "customer" by the railways and local government, and loud mobile phone conversations on public transport and the streets.

For me the issue re-arose recently when, trying to be helpful, I rang my local authority to point out that a replacement lamppost installed on the terrace where I live didn't actually light (it still doesn't).  The following letter to my (Conservative) councillor explains the situation.
  "Dear Cllr *****,
If you've seen the film "I, Daniel Blake" you'll know that it ends with his (posthumous) testimony that he is, among other things, "not a client or a customer. . .but a citizen."
A few weeks ago I had occasion to  ring the Council to point out that the replacement street lamp fitted on our Terrace was not actually lighting up (it still isn't).  I was forced to spend several minutes listening to a looped tape telling me that "all our operatives are busy dealing with other customers."
When I eventually did get to speak to an operative, after giving my message about the lamp, I asked her to pass on my protest that I expected to be treated as a burgess or citizen, but not a customer.  She replied politely that she was not allowed to pass on messages which challenged policy made by the councillors, but pointed out, reasonably, that not all those who contacted the council were necessarily burgesses or citizens: some were businesses and some were from outside the Kirklees area.
We could get round this problem by re-recording the tape to say that the operatives are dealing with "other people" or simply "others." Equally, you could employ more operatives so that we  citizens who are trying to be helpful don't have to waste so much or our time.

 I suggest you put these to the Council.  I'm sure there'll be plenty of support from your colleagues in the Labour Party who, even if they haven't yet seen "I, Daniel Blake" will be in sympathy with its messages."

The councillor's reply was bland and fails to engage with the point

Thank for your email
I appreciate your point of view but I disagree residents deserve to be treated with respect and as customers by Kirkleees."

No wonder people are losing faith in politicians

I'm happy to say that a former student from the 1960s agrees with me and writes:

 "The reduction of a complex repertoire of social roles - passenger, viewer and listener, student, even citizen - to that of customer is one of the more far-reaching and damaging side effects of neo-liberal economics."


  1. Are we not subjects rather than citizens given we live under a monarchy? I also have trouble with the word service-user which is increasingly being used in replacement of client within social care settings, a move to get away from the stigma of client but somehow still sounds a bit limiting and stigmatising.

  2. I must admit I'm not quite sure what the point is. What exactly is the relevant difference between a customer and a citizen?

    I mean, when I engage with the railways I am precisely engaging with them as a customer: I give them money and I expect them to provide me with a service, to whit, to transport me from point A to point B at the times indicated on their schedule. I don't know what it would mean for them to treat me as a 'citizen' and I'm not sure I would want them to do so: what I want them to do is treat me as a customer and provide the service they promise (and when I get cross with them is when they fail to treat me as a customer).

    The same seems to be the case with your malfunctioning street light: you pay your taxes and expect the council to provide you with a service, in this case, post-dusk illumination. You are a customer for their service. You are contacting them as a customer who has paid for a service and is unhappy with what you have received and wishes for that to be remedied, are you not?

    So what exactly would it mean to treat you as a citizen rather than a customer? What do they not do for you as a customer that they would do as a citizen?

  3. I mean, would you object to being called a 'customer' by a taxi driver? If not, then why object to being called it by a train company, which is providing precisely the same service?

  4. LS27: I agree that "service user" is both clumsy and contrived, and see no reason why "client" should be regarded as a stigma in this context. After all, professionals such as lawyers and accountants have clients, who are in no way demeaned by the role.

    Anonymous: I refer you to the comment by my former student in the original article. We all have various roles in society, as, for example passengers, viewers, listeners, and to reduce them all to the cash nexus implied by "customer" implies the triumph of the economic relationship in every sphere.

    1. I still don't get it, I'm afraid. Perhaps a concrete example would help. When I interact with the railways I do so as a customer: I pay them money and they take me places. When they fail to keep up their end of the bargain, as last night when thanks to a rail replacement bus service being in operation I had to find an alternative way home, I get cross at them as a customer because they have failed to hope up their end of the contract with me.

      So how am I not a 'customer' in this situation?

      Or if you agree I am a customer in that situation, could you come up with another concrete example of how an interaction with one of the services you mention changes if I am not a 'customer'?

    2. “Customer” usually means someone with money who wishes to exchange it for a product from someone else, usually, though not always, a shop. It’s this cash nexus which oils the wheels of the modern economy. As you rightly point out, this cash nexus is often involved in activities other than shopping, such as the railway journey you describe. However, the alternative descriptions give more information. For example, a passenger wants to go somewhere; a student wants to learn something, or gain qualification; a patient wants to be healed or have some physical or mental deficiency rectified; a viewer, listener or theatregoer wants to be entertained or stimulated. These objectives may be more important than the cash nexus. Most important, a citizen has certain entitlements regardless of whether or not a financial contribution has been made. We are all entitled to enjoy the benefits of street lighting whether or not we are council-tax payers (Incidentally, it still doesn’t light). Conflating all our roles into that of customer demeans both our language and ourselves.