Sunday, July 8, 2012

Customer Creep

On a recent flight my hackles were raised when, during the pre-flight training and announcements, the flight attendant referred to all the passengers on the plane as "customers."

I'd  never heard a plane-load of people referred to as such.  I might have been a customer when I purchased my ticket, but once I got on that plane, I was a passenger.  Just like at the doctor I'm a patient, at the ballpark I'm a fan, if I hire a lawyer I'm a client, and if I pay tuition I'm a student.  In none of those cases do I consider myself merely a "customer."

The reason this bugs me is that lots of libraries are starting to refer to the people who use their services as "customers," and as a librarian I find that misdirected.  Librarians have been having this debate for years.  We could call them patrons, users, members, students, the public, or assholes*, but please, let's not allow the odious title customers to enter libraries.

*courtesy of Parker Posey in Party Girl.

"That guy was being an asshole." "He's not an asshole, he's a patron!"

The argument goes like this: Businesses have customers and focus on customer service.  (The customer is always right!)  We should run libraries like that.  Therefore, we should treat our patrons as well as businesses treat the customer.

I don't want a bar that's that low.  I consider it an insult to call the people we serve customers.  Businesses exist to make money.  They're only interested in customers as far as they can get money from them.  This is a horrible model for libraries to base their service on.  Delivering information services to our patrons should be our ultimate goal, not making money.  To my ears, when I hear a librarian referring to the public as "customers," I think that they only see them as little dollar signs.  And I find that offensive.

Hi, where are your Stephen King books?

There's a lot libraries could learn from the business model.  It is good to treat our patrons at least as well as a (successful) business treats its customers.  But in general the business model is not appropriate for public service.  They have two different aims: in one case the aim is to maximize profit, in the other the aim is to provide the service itself.

I don't want teachers and police officers, for example, trying to maximize their profit.  When I see the term "customer" creeping into fields where it hadn't been, such as medicine and education and even airlines, it raises my hackles. It's a sign that more and more people are buying into the profit ethos: that running everything like a business is the best way.  I don't agree. 

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