Loud are the cries of anguish when the Gazette employs the words ‘customer’ or ‘consumer’ to describe people who use a law firm. To many solicitors, the connotation is unmistakable. At best, the word signifies race-to-the-bottom commoditisation – at worst, a process of breakneck deprofessionalisation. But isn’t that a tad alarmist?
Doctors rarely have ‘customers’, it is true, but then the word is utterly incongruous in a medical context, because getting your health fixed is always a forced ‘purchase’ (nips and tucks excepted). As commercial values saturate the National Health Service, it will be interesting to see if that perception changes.
Accountants too seem largely to have been spared. Why is there no Accountancy Services Consumer Panel? Perhaps because the public don’t really use accountants in the same way; the relationship is generally mediated through a corporate entity.
At root, it depends on the kind of work you do. Clifford Chance doesn’t really have ‘customers’ (corporates again), but DBS Law does, and is not ashamed to say so. The Birmingham firm’s Cabinet Office award is an object lesson in how to enhance both its personality and professionalism through the inculcation of ‘customer service values’.
Or ‘client service values’, if you prefer. The terminology doesn’t really matter. What lies behind it does.