The omnipresent customer

Image taken from HikingArtist's photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Nowadays it seems that it is almost customary to be a customer.

On any City Rail train or station we have our “customer” status drilled into our heads via loudspeaker “Customers are advised that…”

I can’t help but wonder when we stopped being passengers and became customers. When did we start being treated as consumers of services rather than citizens using a public service? It seems to me that along with the growth of consumption of products (and the simultaneous growth in advertising of consumer goods) over the past few decades, we’ve had a gradual creep of the customer service mentality into a broader range of areas.

Since the 1970s more and more services have become privatised and more and more “customer service charters” seem to have appeared. In the early 1990s a new era of privatisation kicked off for big Australian institutions like the Commonwealth Bank with a logo change to match, and Telecom dropped its orange T logo to become Telstra, with its modern blue and orange (decidedly corporate) logo. Public institutions and services have arguably had to adopt an increasing focus on the customer after privatising.  Now it seems to be the turn of our public services like City Rail, Sydney Buses and Ferries to develop an increasing “customer” focus and follow suit with big business.

I’m all for the delivery of quality, responsive services that address the needs of passengers, but I wonder if this can be achieved without delineating us as customers. I wonder if by adopting an approach where we treat those who use a public service as customers means we lose a sense of the relationship between citizens and government. We lose the sense that it is a public service we’re using.

Maybe it’s semantics, but I’d much rather be a passenger than a customer. When I’m at a shop front, or buying stuff online, I’m happy to be a customer. Then I’m undoubtedly a consumer of products. When I’m paying for professional services, like say those of an accountant, lawyer, or architect, I think perhaps I’d rather be a client – it has the connotation of a professional relationship.

The health sector has its various proponents of “customers” and “patients”. Thankfully I have yet to encounter a doctor’s surgery or hospital that had treated me as a customer and so far during my various spells in educational institutions I’ve been a student, and not a customer. I want to be cared for in a doctor – patient relationship, not to have it be all about a commercial transaction.

Do you mind being a customer at an ever increasing array of places or is it all just semantics?

Are there areas where you think it is inappropriate to use the word “customer”?

Image from with thanks to HikingArtist.

About greenleftyidealist

Green, left and idealistic. A mum, a runner, a rogainer, a public servant and wanna be writer. My dog is golden.
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