Friday, February 17, 2012

Still Life With Robin: "Customer" Isn't Always Right

by Peggy Robin

As most area subways users know only too well, Metro has been experiencing frequent disruptions lately, necessitating announcements and apologies to the customers. These statements from Metro's PR people make me want to respond, not (as you might assume) with a long, loud, sustained complaint about how Metrorail has failed at basic maintenance, leading to a seemingly never-ending schedule of shut-downs for long-overdue repairs, but with a simple semantic request: Stop calling us "customers"! We are passengers, dammit, and Metro should acknowlege this basic fact.

Here's why it makes a difference: When you are a “customer,” that implies that you are in a voluntary relationship with a commercial business -- that is, you are a shopper, out to buy something from a particular merchant that you could just as well have bought from a competitor. Customers have a choice of where to shop.

You are not a customer --at least not as I understand the meaning of the term-- when you are being served by a public, taxpayer-supporter institution or system that is the only game in town. I mean, it’s not as if you could choose to be a customer of some other metropolitan subway system. Yes, I do know that you could choose to drive, bike, join a carpool, take a taxi, or book a privately operated shuttle bus. But these are all oranges –and grapefruit, kiwi, and other exotic fruits—in comparison to the overwhelming apple that is our current government-funded-and-operated mass transit system.

The use of the term “customer” further implies that the people who work at Metro see themselves in relation to the people they serve more like retail clerks than like transportation professionals. When I fly, on the other hand, the airlines refer to me as a passenger, and that tells me that they know it's their job to transport me, the passenger, safely and efficiently, and that each employee I encounter has a specific job toward that goal, from the ticket agents to the gate agents to the baggage handlers to the ground crew to the flight attendants, to the pilots.

Now consider a few other places where those who buy services might be called customers but are normally called something else: In medical care, we are patients. (It would make me nervous to have a doctor who thought of me primarily as a customer.) When we use legal, accounting, or other specialized expert services, we are generally called clients. When we visit the library or a museum, we are patrons (although the DC public library calls me a “customer”, which makes me wonder what they think they are selling me). Whenever there seems to be an alternative to "customer" to describe the one who receives services, I say take it. It's bound to imply more respect; "customer" appears to be the lowest common denominator. 

So, Metro, wouldn’t this be a nice, easy and inexpensive way to show the passengers that you understand your duty to them? And show them some respect? And if you do, the passengers may be far more inclined to do the same to you.

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