You're just a customer!!

Many of us have been so beguiled by corporate speak encroaching on everyday conversations that we have failed to notice how previous categories of people such as travellers, passengers, users, taxpayers, citizens or just plain people have morphed into customers, worthy only because of our purchasing power. Yet just 10 or 15 years ago, the word customer would have sounded creepily corporate in many everyday circumstances. Thus council taxpayers are no longer simply citizens paying their due, we have become customers. Likewise passengers on public transit systems are no longer human beings, but only valued as revenue-yielding customers or subjects.

Instead of saying “Please let other passengers off the train before boarding”, staff are trained to announce “Please let customers disembark from the train before boarding”. However, passengers and customers are not the same. At least in theory most passengers these days are technically fare-paying customers, but the term’s meaning has now been extended to include anyone with whom a service provider has to deal, i.e. the client in the client-server system, a mere consumer of services whether or not the former has any choice over the matter or any commercial transaction is involed. When I recently had my passort renewed, I was not referred to as a citizen or as a British subject, but as a, wait for it, customer. Housing associations and loal authortities refer to recipients of housing benefits as customers because they receive a service. Even former convicts on probation are customers. A few years ago mental health service users were known as clients, but have since become customers. The term has become devalued to such an extent, we might as well just say subjects.

The term customer defines a business relationship. If I buy a laptop from a computer retailer, I am indeed a customer. They rely on my payment to stay afloat financially, purchase goods from manufacturers, pay bills and staff. What’s more if I am not satisfied with the product sold or the retailers’ service, I can take my custom elsewhere. The notion of a customer makes sense in a free market when you have choice. However, if I use a computer in a public library, I am not a customer of the computer supplier, the library is and if I pay taxes and participate in the administration of the local council, I might in a very indirect way be a customer, but in reality powerless to affect the purchasing decisions of large organisations who can usually only source hardware from a select set of preferred suppliers. As a citizen I might use my vote to support a party wishing to expand the provision of computing facilities in local libraries and I might campaign to urge the council to switch to a more cost-effective supplier or adopt open-source software to save money, but if I called their supplier as a private citizen I would not be treated as a customer, but as a disgruntled powerless member of the public. Their only concern would be public relations.

Likewise if I need to travel within Central London, I have a limited set of practical choices. Forget cars, as the average speed of vehicular traffic is down to around 10 mph and even then you would need to contend with congestion charges and parking fees. Buses are often slow, unreliable and overcrowded. The best choices for rapid transit are bicycle, if you’re fit and have somewhere safe to lock it up at your destination, moped, usually a larger investment with parking restrictions in a busy city, or tube. Neither bicycle nor moped are ideal if it’s raining or you need to carry luggage or any other bulky objects such as a laptop. So when you travel from say Kings Cross to White City, and have a choice of braving chaotic pedestrian and vehicular traffic, sweating in a bus for over an hour or taking 15 minute tube journey, the tube is the only viable choice. You cannot take your custom elsewhere as alternatives simply do not offer a comparable service. London’s rapid transit network would never have seen the light of day without significant public sector investment, and while it may have been semi-privatised, it operates as a monopoly and relies on huge subsidies. Your fares simply subsidise the service and restrict access to those prepared to pay or entitled to special passes. You are just a fee-paying passenger expected to endure chronic overcrowding in peak hours.