Matt Lane




When c******r is a dirty word

The language we use while pursuing the spirit of service

Matt LaneMatt Lane

This article was originally published in ALGIM’s Network magazine in August 2018

In the last few years there has been a proliferation of organisations using the word “customer”, as they realign their organisations to be more customer-focused, create new teams that prioritise the customer, and generally declare their allegiance to “the customer”.

Local government is no exception to this trend.

It is important to be conscious of the words we use. When I started to see many people whose opinions I respect express aversion to the c-word, I realised I had unquestionably accepted it:

The tweet that started me thinking 2 years ago

Why is the word “customer” so popular?




1. a person who purchases goods or services from another

The word customer has many connotations; a whole language, mindset and even industry accompany the word.

A customer gets customer service. 

The customer is always right.

Organisations conduct customer surveys collecting customer feedback and track customer satisfaction, inputting this into their Customer Relationship Management systems. Designers and researchers map customer journeys, define customer segments, create customer personas and improve the customer experience.

It is rare to hear about “citizen service” “citizen satisfaction” or “the citizen experience”.

These days most companies know, no matter what they offer, they are in the customer-experience business. How they deliver is as important as what they deliver. 

I recently read something like: 

“Air New Zealand used to think they were in the business of flying planes…

until they realised they were in the business of flying people.

And it was at this point Air New Zealand became the company it is today, winning a steady stream of awards.

When Public Sector executives talk about “the customer”, they want to deliver information, services and experiences that meet or exceed expectations. And they know that generally the Public Sector is not as good at doing this as other sectors.

But, for companies, this focus on “the customer” does not include all people— their priority is certain people at certain moments with certain purchasing behaviours.

The argument against using the word “customer”

The differences between customers and citizens


[sit-uh-zuh n, -suh n]


an inhabitant of a city or town, especially one entitled to its privileges or franchises.

Sometimes we forget that citizens have superpowers that customers don’t.

Using the word “customer” might have unforeseen negative consequences

Recently, we have come to understand how powerful language and “framing” can be in how we think about things:

In the same vein, there are examples of eliciting contrary behaviours from people depending on whether the framing is commercial or civic:

In 2004, researchers at Stanford University observed people playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma […] they created two versions of the game, totally identical except in name: half the participants played the ‘Wall Street Game’, and the other half the ‘Community Game’. The Wall Street players were consistently more likely to betray the other players and attempt to win the highest rewards through selfish means. On the other hand, those who played the Community Game tended to cooperate with their counterparts.

The difference between public and private entities

If a business intends to be profitable it needs to understand the:

A public institution has a monopoly on the services it provides to citizens, so this calculus is more confusing.

Some have argued the relationship between a business and its customer is “anti-democratic” at its core:

The customer has one major decision to make: she can purchase the business’s product, or she can spend her money elsewhere. If she’s lucky, maybe the business offers her some opportunity to customize the product. Or maybe it puts her in a focus group, so it can learn how to better cater to her desires. But at no point does the customer have any ownership stake in the business. The business may offer her choices, but it has total control over what those choices are. If the customer doesn’t like those choices, all she can do to change them is walk away entirely
This is not how citizenship is supposed to function in a republic. In a republic, the state is owned by the citizens, and the task of governance is a collective enterprise in which all citizens are invited — even obliged — take part. Citizens don’t passively receive a product or service; they build that product themselves, together. They argue, they deliberate, they deconstruct, and they create.

The collision of two worlds — how we got here and why it might be good

I think what we are seeing at the moment is the merging or colliding of two movements: New Public Management and a collection of disciplines you might call lump together and call “human-centred design”.

New Public Management

I’ve never considered myself a policy wonk, which is why I had to look up “New Public Management”on Wikipedia. For your convenience: 

…The term was first introduced […] to describe approaches that were developed during the 1980s as part of an effort to make the public service more “businesslike” and to improve its efficiency by using private sector management models. As with the private sector, which focuses on “customer service”, NPM reforms often focused on the “…centrality of citizens who were the recipient of the services or customers to the public sector.”[…] Performance was assessed with audits, benchmarks and performance evaluations.

When you read that, it sounds familiar —we can see that is where we are right now. How you feel about this will depend on your philosophical perspective.

Human-centred design

Long before anyone came up with the term “New Public Management” people designed tools, systems, processes and interfaces around the people they were meant to serve (you might even argue this is what good design is). 

A Google Trends comparison of the terms “service design”, “human factors”, “ergonomics”, “user experience”, and “customer experience” since 2004

Here is a timeline showing the evolution of “human-centred” disciplines in recent history:

“Customer experience design” is the most recent addition to this lineage — though to be fair it arrives carrying a whiff of New Public Management (mentioned above) about it.

My reaction when I hear “customer”

Often when the word “customer” is used there is ambiguity around what is meant by it.

“external customers”

“don’t forget internal customers”

“…everyone is our customer now”

It can often feel vacuous.

However, in its most positive form, it can be used to remind designers (everyone is a designer now [this is only half a joke]): when we write policy, when we build software, when we deliver services, we do this for people. We might call these people users, customers, humans, but the point is their experience, their outcomes, and their success should be the yardstick by which we judge the efficacy of our work.

Matt Lane

banging rocks together