ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

June 1999

Articles
100 Percent Waterproof

Taking Teams To A Higher Level

Making The Soft Stuff Hard

The King Of Leadership Programs

Merger And Acquisition: The Six Deadly Sins



Columns
Enough Is Enough

by Peter Block

Tick Tock, Your Life Is Like A Clock
by Greg Smith


Features
Sorry We're Closed: Diary Of A Shutdown

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Pageturners
Book Review

Site Unseen

 

Enough is Enough
by Peter Block

I want to resign my position as a customer. It was a fun job for a while, so I do it with some reluctance. It gave me unlimited entitlement to make unreasonable demands. I could return tires to Nordstrom's men's department, have shoes resoled three years after I had worn them out and if my whim was not satisfied, I could ask to talk to the person in charge and expect special treatment.

Well, it's no fun anymore.

For one thing, I can't find a human being to complain to. Customer service has been turned into automated response. Businesses have adopted the lip service of customer care while at the same time reducing their service costs and making personal contact the response of last resort. I don't mind so much talking to a machine, but when it finally sends me to a website, I feel rejected and disabled.

Plus I don't like having my wire tapped and listened into for the sake of customer service quality, nor do I like waiting on the line because they are busy serving other customers. Instead of being mad at the company, I find myself being irritated at the other customers who are calling in at just the moment that I need some service. The companies are not only cutting their customer service costs, but they are turning me against my fellow customers.

Entitlement Gone Wild
More important though, the customer-delight obsession has made me greedy. If my hotel pillow is too soft or too hard, if my foot locker does not fit into the overhead compartment in the airplane or if the restaurant menu dos not have a low-fat, high- protein, eggplant burger served in architectural style with my name spelled out in French-style green beans, I feel deprived and never go back to that wretched place again.

This greediness easily turns to crankiness and ultimately to an unearned entitlement. This is most dangerous when the customer thing is applied to the non-business world; to government and education for example. If I blow off a business because it doesn't please me, so what. But when we think that an institution like government is there to satisfy our every need, we risk dismantling an institution that is vital to our community and to our own eventual well being.

As a result, I no longer think it is good for us to think we are the customers of government or customers of our local public school. Let me just address government and leave the public schools for another time. When government begins to talk of citizens as customers, it creates an unfulfillable myth about the relationship. To call me a customer means that all that is required of me is an economic transaction. I pay my taxes, and then you meet my needs. Calling me a customer too easily means that nothing is required of me, only to be served. This inevitably leads to anger on the part of the citizen and futility on the part of government.

Some examples:
If my neighbor is too loud, puts signs in front of their yard, has a dog that howls at the moon or puts their garbage out three days before it is picked up, I call the cops.

If the building inspector enforces the code and does not let me build a guest cottage on the part of my property that is wetlands, I cry totalitarianism and the usurpation of private property.

If the motor vehicle department does not pick up on the third ring, does not operate out of an automated machine a block from where I live or makes me come to their office when I forget to send in my renewal, I cry poor service.

If I get a ticket for speeding when others were going faster, I cry discrimination.

If my taxes go up because we need a new water treatment plant, or land fill or a salary raise for public employees, I cry "government waste."

Customer Limits
Calling me a "customer" gives all of these complaints an institutional legitimacy. It creates the expectation that I am always right. It ignores the possibility that my self interest is often at the expense of others and undermines the good of the larger community. It allows me to blame government for not feeding my self interest and prevents them from confronting me with the fact that what I have asked them to do I should have been able to handle myself.

If I knew my neighbor and neighborhood, I wouldn't have to call the police. If I cared about the environment, I wouldn't try to build the guest cottage. If I accepted the reality that my car and driving can potentially endanger the lives of other people, I might consider the ticket a wake-up call. If I came to realize that it is my consumptive life style that generates the waste that we have no way of getting rid of, then I would not keep asking government to do what it rightfully should turn back to me as my responsibility.

In a subtle way, the shift from citizen to consumer also takes power away from the citizen. When I am a consumer, I become dependent on someone else to satisfy my needs. I now look to an encyclopedia of specialists to solve my problems of health, environment, education, family and neighborhood. I look to government to solve the problems of community just like I look to the hotel to solve the problem of my sleep and the restaurant to solve the problem of my nutrition and sensual pleasure.

The Possibility of Partnership
Better for government to keep talking about citizens as partners than customers. The customer language sells well, but for all the wrong reasons. It lets citizens off the hook. When government and citizens are partners it makes a demand on the citizen without letting government ignore its responsibility.

When do I start to realize that something more is required of us as citizens? That what we complain about in government is a projection of the blind side of our own experience. In the detail of our complaints about government, we specify our own isolation, our own emotional and human wastefulness and our own casual attitude about the good of the whole and the next generation.

So, take me off the customer rolls. Send me home when my diaper is wet, my water bottle is empty. Say no, when I want police, fire, social worker and city manager, to be more responsive to my needs and take my side in conflicts with other citizens that I have neither the will or the relationship to resolve for myself.

It is time for us to ask the public servant to say that if we are upset with our neighbor, we might go over and talk to them. If we have forgotten how to do that, send us to a website where we get some guidelines about the seven habits of effective citizens.

Role Reversal
If we are wedded to the world of customers, lets reverse the direction. Let government become our customer. We can talk about how we want to better serve government. Lets survey government employees, asking how well supported they are by the citizens. If citizens get a low rating, we can initiate a citizenship improvement program, do some training, create an accountability system where we each have to earn vouchers for the right to complain by caring for our own and doing our part in serving our community.

This will bring some balance back to the equation. In the process I might reclaim my citizenship and the ownership of my community that was lost in my entitlement. I might begin to invest in my neighbors and accept that the human and physical environment are dependent on our willingness to be responsible for their preservation. Realizing that the quality of government and community is my creation, might revive volunteerism and allow us to sustain a public sector which from the beginning has been the cornerstone of our democracy.

June '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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