Would you rather be treated like a customer or a citizen? If you’ve flown in from Beijing to buy Boeing Dreamliners, then you’ll probably pick being treated like a customer, since your experience probably involves as much expensive champagne as you can stomach, and more. If you’re driving away from Jack-in-the-Box without the french fries you ordered, you might want to hedge.
Our minds are collectively awash with customer service guarantees, customer service promises, phrases such as, “the customer is king,” “the customer is always right,” and “satisfaction guranteed.” In other words, it is normal to assume that a customer is in a better position than a citizen.
Citizens have to fill out forms, wait in lines, talk to burned out bureaucrats. Customers get ‘perks,’ refunds, smiles, rewards and service. While this may comport with general experience, it is worth questioning if it is always better to be a customer.
Think of civil rights. A black “customer” walks into a segregated soda fountain, in Birmingham, in 1952. Is this person going to have a pleasing customer experience? If not, why don’t they complain to the customer service department? Think of the airlines. How satisfying will it be to complain that you think the back of the plane should get to board first? You’re a customer, go ahead and tell the airline to let first class passengers board last.
Now, when a government agency refers to you as a customer, they are anticipating that you are going to feel like you have been upgraded. You are no longer the stuffy citizen-type, you are now a zazzy customer. If you have a complaint, your needs will be attended to with care, concern and promptness. That sounds nice, but it is complete crap. In fact, it is downright creepy. Equality applies to citizens, at least we felt that way the first time we read the Bill of Rights. Customer service is based on maintaining your loyalty, because you might go somewhere else. You don’t get to go to another government.
So, when you ride the bus or conduct business at the court, and you are referred to as a customer, it is infuriating to think that fairness has been chucked in favor of the principles of customer service. It is not unreasonable to think that getting rid of the concept of citizenship and replacing it with the concept of customer-ship, is a process of remaking government into a corporate model. A corporate model so pernicious that the people implementing it believe they are sprucing things up and making life better for citizens by renaming them customers.
It is time to make a very clear statement about definitions. When government agencies start calling citizens cusomers they are ignoring their responsibility to try their hardest to serve citizens with principles of due process, equal access, fair dealing and justice. What they are really saying is, “what’s in your wallet?”