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.

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