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1/24/2008

"Patron", "Customer" in an "Us & Us" world - Does either fit ???

As I read Seth Godin’s latest title, Meatball Sundae, on my flight yesterday from Columbus to SF I couldn’t help but be struck at how often the word “customer” appeared throughout the book. Sure it makes sense, that book is after all about “new marketing” techniques and rules to connect with your customer. But its constant use got me thinking about how libraries ‘see’ the customer.

When I first started working in public libraries, I learned to call library users “patrons” (BTW this was a hard habit for me to break – for proof, just look back at some of my early blog posts) but as the tide has shifted, I now mostly call them “customers.” In thinking about the shift that is occurring within our society currently where we are moving away from an “us and them” marketing culture to an “us and us” one, to me the use of the word “customer” just doesn’t seem right either. See if you can follow my logic …

In an “us and them” culture…

… the word “patron” implies that “they” ( the patron) exist to support “us” (the library) Think patron of the arts, patron saint of lost souls, etc.

and

… the word “customer” implies that “we” (the library) exist to support “them” (the customer). Much better, I think.

But in a culture that is moving more and more rapidly to relationships that are shared, “Us and Us”, this division is getting more and more blurry and to me neither the word customer nor patron seems to fit properly anymore.

“Community” is the best word that I can think of because it embraces the idea that we are in this together. But there isn’t really a good singular form to the word community – at least I can’t think of one. Citizen, comrade and colleague come close, but these all seem to be weighted with implied baggage from the “us and them” culture. Hmm … perhaps we need a brand new word? Does anyone have any thoughts?

PS: I know, I know ... some of you are thinking right now "Blowers you think about things too much". But hey, that's what's happens when I have time on a 5 hour flight to kill. I read and then think. :)

21 comments:

Meredith said...

Interesting points. You know, I'd never thought much of what it means to call the people we serve "patrons" but you make a good case for reconsidering how we refer to them. Gosh, and it took me forever not to call them "clients" after my social work background!!!

Don't stop thinking like this; we all take too many things for granted.

David Lee King said...

Hmm... that's a tough one. I'd agree that "Patron" is lacking (I've always hated that word).

But one word for an individual that implies "we." (that's not "Mii" :-) ).

I suppose, the goal is really "codependent" - but I don't think we can use that term, either.

Chris said...

Hi Helene! Glad you're thinking. As you may remember I tend to favor customer, but would like to move beyond it for the same reasons you outline. What I would like is a word/phrase that conveys the meaning of constituent/citizen without making me sound like a wonk. I haven't been able to come up with anything better either.

Lindabeekeeper said...

Hi Helene,

I disagree about your definition of patron. According to Merriam Webster, a patron is
1 a: a person chosen, named, or honored as a special guardian, protector, or supporter b: a wealthy or influential supporter of an artist or writer c: a social or financial sponsor of a social function (as a ball or concert)2: one that uses wealth or influence to help an individual, an institution, or a cause3: one who buys the goods or uses the services offered especially by an establishment

I think that patron reflects that fact that they are the people who pay our salaries and who should be held in high regard by us for doing so.

Chris Freeman said...

Helene,

I wouldn't worry that you're thinking too much; this is a topic I recently wrote about, too, at the Civil Librarian. I love the way you underscore the difference between the two terms in question; I've never really liked the term "patron" before and you did a good job of expressing my dislike even when I couldn't! And I really like the tack both you and Chris take in leaning toward the community member/citizen concept.

More than anything, though, I ultimately don't care what term a library favors; to me, the much more important issue is the quality of the service the library user (not the term I'm suggesting!!) experiences. I suppose I'd say "call 'em what you want but treat 'em like you would your mother"!

waltc said...

As one of them--that is, a library patron--I prefer patron. And, frankly, I just hate the word "customer" when applied to public library users (who also, by the way, own and support their libraries, unlike store customers). If my own library used the term, I'd shudder; fortunately, they don't. Also fortunately, they work well with us, their community/their patrons.

Emily Lloyd said...

A matter of taste, I guess. I agree with Walt. Before working in libraryland, I taught at a university, leaving around the time of the switch in terms from "student" to "customer." It seemed to me to cheapen the relationship, and I feel the same way about "customer" in the library--it seems less respectful, somehow, than patron. "Customer service" I get, but not "customer." I like "user" better than customer.

Anonymous said...

Give a listen to George Needham and Joan Frye Williams on this topic. They did a podcast for Infopeople called "What's in a name?"

Phil said...

In the UK the term 'user' is still quite popular, and surprisingly the semantic association with drugs has never really raised its head.

Cycho Librarian said...

I was newly hired at CML when we made the move from "patron" to "customer," and as you can see from the comments the issue is by no means dead. While I'd say most at CML have made the switch there are a few die-hard "patron"ites still there who hold on to it for much the same reasons that have been mentioned above.

Personally I think that since we are essentially in a service industry, "customer" is appropriate and respectful. I also think there's can be something of an undercurrent among those who use "patron" that not EVERYONE who comes in is really a "patron," even if it is unintentional. "Customer" is much more of a leveler.

However, ultimately I think you're completely square-on correct that even "customer" is changing. The library as a community hub seems to be emerging as our ultimate fate in the Information Age, and as such we are more helpers and guides than we are customer service staff in a retail sense. Maybe we should move to calling our customers "mountaineers" and our staff "sherpas"?

Chris said...

What about Guides and Seekers cycho librarian?

Cycho Librarian said...

Brilliant! I'd love to think of everyone who comes in as a Seeker! And the beauty is that it doesn't imply anything about what they're seeking. It could be anything from YouTube video clips to information to finish their PhD.

Although I have to admit that talking about seekers makes me wonder where the chasers, beaters, and keeper are. Has anyone seen the Golden Snitch yet?

Deborah Fitchett said...

I think that thinking of library users as "participants" is fine as long as we don't start calling them that when they're around to hear us - I've just got visions of them looking around in bewilderment trying to figure out how they accidentally signed up for Library Idol....

As for what we should call them, why not find out what they want us to call them? (I think this should go for the catalogue and the virtual reference service and so forth too.) There was a lovely study done at a hospital once where they discovered that 98% of patients did actually want to be called "patients" rather than "clients" or I forget the other options. I did a small survey for an mlis research project on library jargon - PDF, 600KB - and the results I got make me tend towards "student" where appropriate or otherwise "user", but this is the sort of thing that will vary from population to population.

Anonymous said...

How about using the word 'member' to describe those in the library community? I agree, 'patron' seems too formal and 'customer' seems to imply that a person is 'paying' for something. (Although taxes could be used in this argument) We could all be considered 'members' of the library community!
Cathy Potter
Rocky Hill, CT

Anonymous said...

I've never liked "patron" or "customer" much; especially the latter when I reflect upon all my retail experiences. At my smaller branch in C-Bus you get to know many of the folks that stop by fairly well, and because of this, you call them by their name or, if they prefer, a nickname. I find smaller branches to be much more informal (even if you're still saying 'Mr. Smith') and less business-like when developing relationships with people within the nearby residential/business community. You've got a little more time to just talk to people and share the library experience.

Cat said...

The word-related discussion board I'm a part of has discussed this a few times. The first was in 2004 here. Apparently, the medical industry suffers from the same dilemna. Are we their customers? Clients? Patients? Users? Guests?

Anonymous said...

How interesting! I was just thinking to myself what the distinction is between the patron and the customer, as I had recently worked at a library that referred to themselves as a customer service desk, rather than a circulation desk.

Lori Reed said...

We are moving from the word patron to customer. I don't know the official reason but to me it's good to change things up--right now we are making a move towards focusing on customer service and improving all of our services for the customer experience, so it only seems natural to me to start changing what we call people. It helps reemphasize that we are changing our focus from us to them.

Anonymous said...

I always feel so special to be called a "patron" when I am one! To me it is an elegant word that suggests a special type of regular user of the library who has dignity. I'm sticking to it! I like passing on that special treatment. AND I believe that all library users are patrons, in that they they are welcome to USE/patronize it all they want, regularly (hopefully)without being asked to buy anything or be beholding to the special treatment they receive. It's just there to be offered. We all already own it. Phooey to all y'all fadish newspeakers! You are trying too hard to be trendy.

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