Citizen vs. customer

Citizen vs. customer

John A. Reardon

Commerce Township, Michigan

In “40 Million Too Late?” (Editor`s Opinion, August 1997), Editor Bill Manning hits on a word I dislike–“customer.” I agree with the efforts of some fire departments to rethink their service delivery, but I don`t think changing the word “citizen” to “customer” is appropriate or that it will meet with long-term effectiveness. When we use another word to describe something, we may in the long run change the view of that something.

For 25 years, I serviced citizens while employed by the Detroit (MI) Fire Department. Now, I service customers as a service business. The rights of the citizens far outshadowed those of my customers.

A citizen is a member or visitor to a specific area serviced by a fire department–“one entitled to its protection”; “one entitled to its privileges and franchises.” (Webster) A customer is defined by Webster as “one who purchases goods from another; a buyer; patron.”

Every so often, less now than before, thankfully, an article would appear stating that a fire department (private) arrived but took no action at a fire because the building`s owner/occupant was not a subscription paid member. That is a customer service relationship. If that same fire department viewed every member of the community as a citizen, the service would be provided regardless of the person`s social-economic status–even if he didn`t pay his taxes.

Changing “citizen” to “customer” distances the people we serve from us. Maybe not now, but in the long run. This so-called paradigm shift is nothing more than an eventual stereotype shift and eventually will create unnecessary fee structures. The customer will eventually be viewed as having the ability to buy instead of being entitled to the service a fire department provides. A private ambulance company has customers; fire departments care for their citizens.

U. I hope that if I ever suffer a loss I would be treated as a “victim” [“a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action” (Webster)], not a “customer,” by the fire department. I have had, as a “victim,” the great opportunity of dealing with people within a customer service relationship, and they at best gave me their sympathy along with their bill. Interestingly, I have been victimized by those treating me as a customer.

I agree with the article. I like people who talk plain and take action. Actions are more important than words. And we should be very careful about using words that may change the very status of a person, especially that of a citizen U.

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