Sunday, November 28, 2010

What's In a Name? Customers versus Passengers

It's been a while since we've last chatted.  678 Partners has been having oodles of meetings punctuated by a family visit to LA which I'll tell you more about very shortly...  And then there was Thanksgiving!

On my way back from LA, I noticed something unusual.  Typically, wherever you are in the travel process, you're a "passenger" if you're the one traveling.  Whether you're checking in, going through security or what have you, that's what you're called.

It's not something I've thought that much about until that early morning flight home.  One of our flight attendants referred to us as customers while everyone else on the flight (including the pilots) called us passengers.  I thought I misheard her a few times thanks to a bum ear and even chalked it up to little sleep (it was a 6am flight) until it happened enough for me to be convinced she was calling us customers and not passengers.

Truly, I found it odd.  Some part of me really wanted to be called a passenger and not customer because that's how I've always heard people refer to me when traveling.  I can't begin to tell you why I found it odd -- maybe resistance to change or other sort of inertia.  I do know that on some level, I thought being a customer meant that I wasn't taken as seriously as a passenger.  But then I slowly came around...  and the following definitions will help demonstrate my point.

Definitions (as per

Passenger: a person who is traveling in an automobile, bus, train, airplane, or other conveyance, esp. one who is not the driver, pilot, or the like.

Customer: a person who purchases goods or services from another; buyer; patron.

Now, I did say that I initially thought that being a customer meant I was taken less seriously as passenger until I thought about it a little more.  And I looked it up.  And I changed my mind.  I want to be a customer.

Why: the word customer implies some sort of relationship or desired relationship between the buyer and the seller.  The word passenger implies something a little colder...  almost as if there's a tremendous psychological distance between the traveler and the entity making the travel possible.

Why does it matter what I'm called as long as I'm safely hurled in that metal capsule to my destination (which is what we're now reminded is the primary purpose of flight attendants)?  It matters if this airline wants to build an in airport, in flight relationship with me that matches the love letter style emails and whatnot they send to me when I'm not traveling.  By calling me a customer in flight, there's an acknowledgement that my business matters to them and that I'm not necessarily a body filling the seat.

BUT.  If you've travelled at all in the last few years, you know that this is a (somewhat) unfulfilled fantasy and (somewhat) a tall order.  And, I've told you how it can be a tall order based on personal experience.  And, you've heard about Kevin Smith's Southwest adventure and the guitar breaking mishap on United.

So, as much as the word passenger, to me, represents enormous psychological distance between the traveler and the entity making the travel possible, it turns out that it's actually a more accurate term.  It turns out that while it was nice to be called a customer for those few fleeting moments, it's a tremendous letdown because the experience doesn't live up to the promise of the word.  And, if you remember this post, the Buick salesman truly understood "customer" experience.  To equate one flight attendant's words with the salesman's actions would be utterly wrong.

Don't get me wrong, I'm going to hold out hope that I get the treatment worthy of "customer" -- a girl has to pin her hopes on something.  It's just that false words ring even more hollow as in travel service becomes worse and worse.

I know some may say to-may-to or to-mah-to when it comes to this semantic comparison of customer and passenger.  Maybe I have read a little bit too much into how words are used.  But maybe I haven't.

What your spin?

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

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