The People We Serve

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?

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