The customer label

I'm surrounded by people working on the customer experience, the customer journey, customer insight and analysis, high touch and low touch customers, customer service standards, customer relationship management and generally all things customer. So I was struck by a placard I came across that reads: We are students not customers.

It was a great challenge to my thinking. I looked up 'customer' to get a definition: 'A party that receives or consumes products (goods or services) and has the ability to choose between different products and suppliers. (See also buyer)'.

I guess students do have the ability to choose between different products and suppliers – and higher education institutions are racing to keep up with the notion that we can marketise higher education. (See the The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer for a number of views on this).

But what if we call someone a 'customer' but they don't really have the ability to choose between different products and suppliers. Think of all the instances where the word 'customer' has replaced a perfectly serviceable noun: patient, guest, passenger, resident, borrower (librarys), claimant (of benefits), colleague (as in'colleagues as customers') where the person's ability to choose is in many cases limited at best. Now think of the nouns that could be replaced by the word 'customer' but aren't: for example, asylum seeker, plaintiff, prisoner (many of them are repeat 'buyers') and service users. On what basis are we making the choice of calling someone a customer and what does the label mean in terms of organisation design?

In a short editorial on academic library 'customers' the author points out that 'the label that is attached to people interacting with services is influential in how these services are shaped', a point well made. A different researcher talking about social work goes further noting that labels of social work 'customers' have included 'patients', 'clients', 'customers', 'consumers', 'experts by experience' and 'service users'. He says that, 'These different labels are very important, as they all conjure up differing identities identifying differing relationships and differing power dynamics. … All these labels may be used to describe those who use social services, but all of them describe this relationship differently, with differing nuances and differing assumptions about the nature of the relationship'.

Whether or not there are direct, indirect, or no payments for goods/services received it seems that in many contexts viewing people through a customer lens brings with it a set of assumptions that are problematic in both design and delivery of the 'product' (goods or services)'. Going back to the student example and the marketisation of Higher Education there is a view that this trend could lead (is already leading?) to the 'constraining of creativity in learning and teaching [and] the need for education to be challenging, perspective-broadening, and ultimately about personal growth. Patrick McGhee reinforces this point saying, 'Seeing students as customers in the traditional sense narrows our perceptions of them, the potential for their relationship with their university and the kind of help from which they would benefit.' (See also Keith M. Parsons, Students Are Not Customers)

In changing the label from 'student' to 'customer' we change the design of higher education. I haven't done enough research yet to confirm/deny my emerging view that applying the customer label without due thought to the context and consequences is something we should be very cautious of as we do our organisation design work.

What's your view of the customer label? Should we be cautious of using it in our organisation design work? Let me know.