Patrons, Customers, Clients, and Guests

Libraries have worked hard to be accessible to the communities we serve. We hope that our strong commitment to service makes those we serve feel welcome and supported by what we offer. There has been quite a bit of discussion about how we describe those we serve.

Patrons: Patrons is the traditional description of those who use library services. There have been some critiques of this term. It puts some people off.  For me, I think of the term in the very traditional sense, as in a “patron of the arts.” My patrons are as special to me as the Medicis. They make the library happen. They deserve the best treatment and a hearty welcome.

Customers: Although it has traditionally been used in retail business, customers is a term that has gained popularity in the library world. The advantage to this term is that almost everyone understands what it means. It seems friendlier and less formal.  It also helps to contextualize service quality. We talk about great customer service, and most people understand what to expect or envision.

While the library world has settled to some degree into two camps: Customers or Patrons, retail businesses have been moving away from using the word customer. They use Client or Guest. Why do they do this? They understand that language matters and they want the people who use their services or buy their products to feel special. They also want to help their staff to understand this special metaphoric framework.  I would not be surprised if some enterprising young startup might actually use the term Patron for their clientele.

Guests: We associate the idea of being a guest in someone’s home or at a party. We as guests expect to be treated well and to have a good experience. The staff, in this case, are our hosts.

Clients: Clients is a term that has been reserved for law services, consulting and other high-level services. There is a strong sense that a client deserves great treatment and that the staff are the professionals who support the client.

There are benefits to each of these culture-based terms for patrons. Let’s consider the benefits:

  • Understandable
  • Friendly
  • Traditional
  • Special Experience

I was recently at the ALA 2015 conference. A panelist talked about new models of services. She briefly mentioned patrons as Members. Members. It is understandable and friendly, while still conveying specialness. It also has a familiar traditional ring to it.  I think if a team worked with membership as a metaphoric frame, several great innovative ideas would come out of it: special designed member cards, ad campaigns, member perks, and so on.

While I am still happy to call my patrons patrons, and I am just as happy when others call their patrons customers, I will continue to follow this issue as it evolves.

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