6 – Customer, client, citizen, resident or ratepayer. Who are we dealing with?

In previous posts I have talked frequently about the customer. It is fundamental to the way I think about my work. At this point, it is probably important to explain what I mean when I use the term ‘customer’. In simple terms, a customer is someone requesting and receiving a service.

Typically, this occurs in a ‘transactional’ setting where the customer pays for the service when they receive it. This happens in local government for some services, for example entry to an aquatic facility. When the payment has been made at an earlier time through taxes, and the service is free at the point of consumption, the relationship changes. In these circumstances, it is not uncommon for people receiving services to be called clients. Sometimes they are referred to as end-users or service consumers.

In local government, these people can also be citizens of the municipality. They may be franchised to vote (if they are over 18 years of age) and then they are constituents of the councillors who represent them. They may be resident in the municipality and receive property services paid for by the ratepayer.

They may also be the ratepayer. As you are probably starting to see, an individual can be a fee paying customer, and a client, and a resident, and a constituent, and a ratepayer, and a citizen. Or they could be only one of them. This might be starting to seem like an esoteric discussion. After all, why does it matter who we are dealing with?

I think it is essential to understand the capacity in which you are dealing with a person. Depending on what the person wants, they may have different rights and responsibilities. They may be after different forms of value. If you believe that the purpose of local government is to create and provide value, then understanding the type of value being sought is integral to success.

Mark Moore describes ‘degrees of publicness’ regarding value, which change from essentially private value sought by individuals, perhaps as a customer or client, through to public value sought collectively by ratepayers or citizens. I have reproduced a version of his diagram below.

Moore degrees of publicness

A key point is who the arbiter of value is. This is also picked up by John Seddon in his writing. He doesn’t refer to value directly and uses ‘purpose’ instead. It is the same concept. People have an expectation of what will happen when they receive a service. There is a need to be met.

In Seddon’s view, it is essential that the service deliverer is not the arbiter of value. Everything must be described and managed from the customer’s point of view. Councils deciding that they know what is best and what constitutes value for their community or customer unfortunately happens too often.

When dealing with someone on an issue, I always try to work out what capacity they think they are dealing with me and the value they expect. Then I work on helping them to understand some of the other points of view about the service they are after. Mostly, people get it.

They understand that what they want is sometimes in conflict with broader community needs or expectations. Often, they are prepared to modify their request accordingly.

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