Experience Blog

The Ethnography of Experience

The Social Status of Being a Customer

Gary David, PhD

Defining what it means to be a “customer” should be relatively straightforward. A quick internet search for “customer” shows it can be defined as “a person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business.” You come to a store to purchase something, and you are a customer. We can expand that to include anyone who comes into a store or business with the potential to buy goods or services. In this sense, a person “browsing” can still be seen as a customer. However, workers who see such a person as “just looking” with no intention to buy might give that person less attention than the “serious shopper.” Nevertheless, such a person still can be given access to the store to carry out his/her “looking” in an unimpeded manner. It is his/her right as a customer.

This gets into the idea of a “customer” being a social status. One of the first things you learn in sociology is the concept of “social status,” which basically refers to one’s perceived and/or actual position in society. There are two ways to obtain status. On the one hand, status can be achieved, meaning earned through the acts of an individual. Person A is a faster runner than Person B. Therefore, the faster person is ranked higher. Person C has a more respectful job than Person D. Therefore, Person C garners more respect in the eyes of others via his/her professional status. It is through hard work, or some form of merit, that people have the opportunity to earn that status.

On the other hand status also can be ascribed, meaning that the status has been placed upon a person. An ascribed status is based on some set of social criteria that is irrespective of merit. It is involuntary, meaning the person didn’t ask for this status. It can be the result of birth (e.g. being born into a caste) or the result of changing social conditions (e.g. social traits become more or less valued with changing times). Even if a person has achieved a high status position, his/her ascribed status can supersede that, acting as a kind of stigma that devalues the person.

Not seen as customer, but criminals

Not seen as customer, but criminals

Coming on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and coming up on Black History Month, it is a good time to consider the tenuous social status of being a customer. Regarding the perilous status of being a customer, we can think about the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement. Here we have African Americans (and white supporters) trying to integrate spaces that were deemed segregated in the Jim Crow South. Rosa Parks was allowed to be a bus customer, but only on the condition that she sit in the back of the bus. We have civil disobedience being aimed squarely at being denied being a customer, that if I have money in my pocket, I should be able to spend it like anyone else. I have earned the status of customer by working hard, earning a paycheck. However, I am not being judged by the content of my wallet (or character), but the color of my skin. My ascribed status trumping my achieved status.

We also can think about Charlie Craig and David Mullins. They are two men who were seeking to purchase a wedding cake from the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, CO. Baker Jack Phillips denied their order because he claimed his religious beliefs would not allow him to make a wedding cake for them as a same-sex couple. According to Mr. Phillips, to do so would not only violate his beliefs, but be an infringement on his artistic freedom. He said he was willing to make them other kinds of cakes, but not that kind of cake. The state of Colorado said that this action was against its anti-discrimination law. However, while discrimination based on race is against Federal law, discrimination based on sexual orientation is not. Mr. Phillips is appealing the case to the US Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights. Without getting into the nuances of the case, the ascribed status of being a same-sex couple (and thus not seen as the same as an opposite sex couple) came before the status of the customer. Order a birthday cake, or a retirement cake, or a “thinking of you” cake, they would be customers. A wedding cake, not so much. I’m not sure where the baker would land on a Valentine’s Day cake.

This means you, unless it doesn't

This means you, unless it doesn't

Finally, we can think of “loitering” in a business. At what point does a customer become a loiterer? Some Starbucks have taken to evicting what might be considered laptop hobos, those people who buy a coffee and scone, only to park in a seat for hours while they use Wi-Fi. Other businesses can have “No Loitering” signs inside the establishment, which can be aimed at customers who turn ‘lingering’ into ‘loitering.’ Loitering is one of those nuisance laws meant to be selectively applied toward those who are deemed, well, a nuisance. There is no strict guideline about how long is too long, or what one must do to be considered a loiterer versus a customer. Also, what if I bought something yesterday? Does that status of customer extend to today? How far in the future can I ride that status? And what if I am a “regular?” Does that get me free Wi-Fi for 3 hours, while the non-regular gets booted after 2 hours? The permutations are endless.

So what does it mean to be a customer in the social sense? How is this category constructed in the eyes of your workers? Is it shared across the organization? Are there ascribed status features that are going to interfere with your customers’ achieved status? Customers can not only be lost; they can be unmade in the course of one interaction, one encounter. Conversely, customers can be made through interactions as well.

The Temkin Group has declared 2018 “The Year of Humanity” in CX. It is a good time to consider how our humanity extends to how we construct the status of our customers. Stories abound about the opportunity (de)construct customers as a status. These stories should be incorporated into our CX training to have people reflect on the message and mission of the company, and how those with whom we are engaging are shaped by the words we use, the acts we commit, and the humanity we extend.