A significant difference exists in the private and the public sector in the way in which people who access services are identified. The public and social services sector identifies people who access their services as clients, services users, constituents, or a range of other labels that suit their service type. In contrast the private and business sector are more likely to use the word customer.
Rather than just semantics, the use of language and identifying labels has an impact. There is an indication of passive vs. active in the use of the terms client and customer. A client is defined as “one that is under the protection of another: dependant” or “a person that is served by utilising the services of a social agency: welfare”. Alternatively a customer is defined as “someone that purchases commodity or service”. These definitions bring up a paternalistic role for the service and a passive role for the client. ‘Good clients’ are people who are often described as keeping their appointments; do what they are told to do; don’t complain; are motivated and responsive. In contrast, customer sparks a vision of an empowered active consumer and ‘good customers’ are thought of as people who spend money; come back; recommend the service to others and provide feedback.
The language of client is sometimes seen as disempowered, dependant and paternalistic, while the language around customers paints a distinctly different picture. The language of customer portrays the image of a person actively seeking out products and services that they choose. However, in the social services sector, there are many situations in which the term customer can reference to situations of empowered choice that do not always reflect the reality of people using all types of services.
For example, young people in care are not empowered customers, nor are women and children escaping family violence, nor people with complex disabilities living in group homes. With so many people in the position of client, by no choice of their own, it is not a suitable label to describe people who have no choice in how or when, or even why, they receive services.
Even with services shifting their focus to suit an open market place in many parts of the sector, it is critical to acknowledge that the people who use services are often not acting in the same consumerist way in which they may purchase other services or items. The vast majority of people are instead disempowered and not actually ‘purchasing’ anything.
It’s important to note that the feedback from the sector on this issue was very clear that the term customer did not suit the majority of services. As such, this project uses the various terms used by services and the people using them to the various populations and contexts in which satisfaction is measured. In some instances people using public or social services may be more appropriately referred to as ‘consumers’, ‘users’, ‘citizens’ or ‘clients’ depending on the type of service being offered. As much as possible the term ‘people who use the service’ will be used as the default.