What’s in a name?

Last week, 24housing ran a twitter poll asking housing people to name their worst examples of annoying phrases. As expected there were some shockers.


Some were hated because of their jargon-quotient and affront to plain English – for example, ‘predictors of beaconicity’ (whatever that means), holistic governance and symposium.

Others were put forward because of their inability to be defined precisely – affordability, engagement, commercial – or because their meaning has come to mean something else – VfM equivalent to cost-cutting rather than cost-effectiveness, for instance.

My personal bugbear is the use of ‘customer’ in a sector where it has inadequate meaning or economic context. Referring to social tenants as ‘customers’ implies that they have choice, when they have little.

It infers aggregated economic transactions that affect the cost of goods and services provided by competitor agencies (the price mechanism) whereas in the social sector, rents and service charges are set by a plethora of agencies beyond tenants’ control (social landlords themselves, local authorities and the government).

The origins of the use of ‘customer’ can be traced back to the days when social landlords were accused of paternalism and a perceived ‘take it or leave’ approach to housing design and service delivery.

The aim was to push social housing into practices that approximated how markets operate, with customer choice paramount in determining the types of goods and services delivered and how prices are set through competition. This approach set out to change how Boards and staff saw and treated tenants, banishing paternalism – with some success.

However, in the complicated social housing world of today, where commercialism is in danger of eclipsing social purpose, we propose that the sector should drop the term as outdated, inappropriate and misleading.

Other sectors have led the way on this: The ludicrous use of ‘customer’ by some health agencies in the recent past has now largely been dropped with reversion to ‘patient’. Just unpacking the application of the term to a person with a heart attack or someone visiting A&E reveals how inappropriate ‘customer’ is.

It might seem trivial at a time of deep and worsening housing crisis to focus on this issue. But words matter. Ask anyone who has drafted legislation, or interpreted rules and regulations. Precision is paramount. And words and their use and application have power.

I’ve always thought it odd too that, in a sector which seeks to treat their tenants as customers, few social landlords have ever asked their customer-tenants what they prefer to be called. That’s why HCI poses such a question whenever it can in community and housing surveys involving social tenants.

In surveys over the last two years in all parts of the country, with more than 6,000 tenants taking part, ‘customer’ comes a distant third after ‘resident’ and ‘tenant’. More than two thirds of those surveyed chose ‘resident’ as their preferred designation.

The reasons for this have been explored in focus groups alongside the survey work. A powerful rationale is that social tenants want to be seen as equal to home owners. A catch-all terms such as ‘resident’ captures parity across tenures. Perhaps this is hardly surprising following years of portrayal of tenants in the media and by some irresponsible politicians as ‘skivers’ or welfare ‘scroungers’.

What tenants want is not to be patronised as ‘customers’ but given equal standing with others, such as home owners, who are cast as ideal citizens. Such positive portrayals are crucial in confronting negative stereotypes of social tenants.

So come on all social landlords – let’s see your New Year’s resolution being to ditch the ‘customer’ cant and reclaim ‘resident’ as the preferred appellation for those you serve.