The People We Serve

Names, or “labels,” affect past, present and future relationships, sometimes profoundly. As stated in “Leisure programming: A service-centered and benefits approach,” “The use of one particular label versus another will have a direct bearing and impact on the association that is established [between your agency and the public].”

So, what do you call the folks who walk through the door--participants, patrons, customers, clients, members, users, visitors, guests, consumers? Do all personnel use the same term when greeting these folks? Is that expectation written in the policy manual and included in employee orientation? Do you deal with a wide variety of “labels”? Are these labels actually different from each other?

Although several of the nine labels occur interchangeably in common conversation, practical distinctions can be made among them based on three criteria:

1. An agency’s investment in the individual (i.e., privileges offered, level of service)

2. The individual’s investment in an agency (i.e., loyalty, promoting to friends)

3. Anticipated duration of the relationship (see Figure 1).

One important observation is that several of these labels evolve from one to the next along a continuum as the effect of one or more of the criteria increases. The following two sets of labels demonstrate this developmental sequence.

Users To Patrons

Users have immediate needs--probably unanticipated--and are not concerned with which agency satisfies the need—they need service, not you. For example, an individual urgently searching for a bathroom isn’t particular whether it is at a gas station, fast-food restaurant or public park. Your agency’s investment in that individual is low (rest facilities exist primarily for the convenience of other “labels”). That individual may not have contributed anything at all to your agency, and likely will not return to the site--there is no relationship.

Consumers have anticipated needs that occur more regularly, and therefore can shop around, the investment being the time spent searching for the best price or closest location. You have invested as well, by providing competitive pricing and the marketing to publicize the price and location--you are seeking these folks and know who they are through needs identification and assessment efforts. Nevertheless, since consumers will go wherever the best deal is, the relationship will endure only as long as the consumers perceive a benefit.

Customers are consumers with whom an agency has been able to establish a deeper relationship based on some factor other than price or location. Both customers and your personnel now are viewed as people with names and personalities, and emotional investments are made as a customized relationship is built. For example, a local private tennis club may compete with your agency’s tennis programs, but a customer enrolls in your lessons because he or she likes your instructor’s personal approach. The customer returns season to season, or for several sessions in a row.

Patrons are customers whose relationship has evolved into that of loyal supporters and promoters of an agency. Whether they actively partake in all programs, they provide a priceless investment--their personal recommendation and dedication to an agency’s mission. Similarly, staff has earned their patronage by welcoming them, and being especially attentive to their desires. You may celebrate their birthdays during the closest activity day or publish their names in the newsletter; in turn, they may volunteer to staff fundraisers or recruit sponsors. The relationship--potentially--is life-long.

Visitors To Members

Visitors differ from users in two ways. First, an agency was selected intentionally (although not necessarily specifically)--visitors are self-directed and curious, if not already informed. Second, visitors may envision a long-term relationship if an agency can make a positive first impression. In these two ways, visitors are more a combination of consumer and customer--willing to invest under the proper conditions. A business traveler may seek out a health club during a short stay, but return on subsequent trips if favorably treated.

Guests are visitors who have been invited by someone else already affiliated with an agency. They may have expressed a sincere interest, and are being actively recruited. Conversely, they may be less “self-directed” and not necessarily anticipating establishing a relationship; they may have attended merely to please the member. In this sense they are more like users. Regardless, guests want to experience the privileges available, and expect to be treated well by the staff, as they would if they were invited to your home. However, their initial investment is low, while yours may be higher in an effort to impress them.

Members might be guests of an agency who have been “converted” by a good experience, or individuals who specifically have sought to associate with an agency. In either case, they have invested significantly to meet agency admission requirements. Members expect enhanced exclusivity, privileges and the cachet of membership, and the agency will invest in kind to ensure satisfaction. In principle, this relationship will continue as long as both parties uphold their respective responsibilities.

Clients And Participants

Given that clients (and their respective professionals) already are highly invested, these labels are distinguished by two factors not addressed by Figure 1--influence over outcomes, and degree of dependence (see Figure 2). Many people are familiar with the term “client” in relation to legal and medical environments, and for good reason. Traditionally, both fields are bound by off-putting or even intimidating procedures, jargon and protocol, so consulting with these professionals involves a great deal of listening (being talked to), while the necessary actions are taken on clients’ behalf (being done to) by lawyers and doctors.

For example, in court, a (well-advised) client speaks only when on the witness stand or addressed directly by the judge; on the operating table, the client (patient) often is sedated or completely unconscious, and in the doctor’s hands. The great majority of clients prefer to be elsewhere if at all possible, outcomes are uncertain, and clients’ abilities to help themselves rarely meet the situation’s requirements. As the saying goes, “A person who represents himself/herself at court has a fool for a lawyer.” Passivity and dependence are considered crucial attributes in these circumstances,

In contrast, participants have freely chosen to participate, typically with eager anticipation and enthusiasm. In many cases--either through prior investigation (needs identification and assessment), or ongoing dialogue--participants have had opportunities to make suggestions to and collaborate with staff to create fulfilling, meaningful events or programs. Indeed, producing a desirable experience is possible only with their unfettered cooperation.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Returning to the questions posed above, what do you call the folks who walk through the door, and is that label congruent with your actions? Regardless of labels, these human beings deserve respect in addition to the level of attention commensurate with a shared understanding of what their particular label means. Simply, they are the people we serve.

· Have you consciously chosen a label to refer to the people served?

· Does the label accurately reflect the attitudes and behaviors of the people served?

· Do people define and understand that label in the same way?

· If you serve more than one label, do you consciously and publicly distinguish among them?

· Do the people within each label understand the distinctions and accept the differences in service?

· Is staff oriented as to the reason why labels are chosen and trained to use them consistently?

The same principles apply to the people with whom you work. We need look no further than the example set by one of the world’s largest low-cost retailers. Its front-line staff is referred to as “associates,” a term promoting the ideals of equality and respect. Yet this same company recently lost a class-action sexual discrimination lawsuit, allegedly has fired associates for union organizing, and was forced to pay millions of dollars to employees who were improperly denied overtime pay. Clearly, the associate label stands in stark contrast to management’s prevailing attitudes and behaviors.

Do the labels you currently use create a path that promotes “converting” the people you serve into the next level of label? If patrons/agency seems to be the ideal relationship, do policies, attitudes and behaviors gradually transform users into consumers, and then into customers in preparation for the ultimate achievement?

Finally, a pointed question to ask: How would you treat people if you were the only game in town? The retailing establishment mentioned above often drives out competitors who cannot match the low prices, leaving the behemoth alone in the market. Could that dominant position underlie the treatment of their associates?

If we believe that “The use and acceptance of terms describing the relationship between the professional and the person served by the organization should not be taken lightly,” then we will take great care selecting the proper label(s) for the people we serve.

Work cited:

Edginton, C.R., et al. “Leisure programming: A service-centered and benefits approach.” 4th ed.. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at