Activity: Defining Customers and Tenants


This is a good opening activity for a meeting, workshop, away day, or training course.

Many housing associations use confusing language to describe their customers or tenants, often in different documents. As a trainer in customer service, I think it is important to develop some consistency of language. Words can be powerful – in both positive and negative ways. Often a housing association’s customer charter refers to tenants as customers. However, in the same organisation they refer to them as service users on maintenance agreements, and tenants on tenancy agreements. It can be revealing and useful to explore these different words and also to find out which words are in prime use by staff in the same organisation. Many staff don’t like the word customer. Others feel that ‘tenant is old fashioned and think tenants should be called customers! It can get confusing.

The key issue here is that what is intended is actually carried out and lived. If you’ve decided that tenants should be referred to as customers, then that is what you should stick to consistently. If you’ve decided that a more diverse approach is acceptable then that is what you should live by. But what happens when the approach is chaotic and lacks shared awareness or control?

The activity

Write these words up on a flipchart

service user

Explore the differences in these words. Work in pairs for 10-15 minutes then feed back to the group. Use any formal documents available such as customer service standards or charters, tenancy agreements, web site content etc to compare what is being put out on paper with what people say on the phone or face  to face. Does it join up? What are the consequences of it not joining up? What changes do we need to make?


Feedback on the words is often as follows:

customer – this signifies that people have a choice,  can go elsewhere,  (and this isn’t always the case with tenants tied to agreements, especially if they are in arrears). People who see themselves as customers have more commercial expectations and also will compare how they are treated with their experience as customers with other services and product providers such as retailing. So customer tends to be about “choice”.
client – some people in special care services and also who have purchased properties see themselves more as “clients” and expect more of a “peer group” feel to dealings with the housing organisation. Client tends to be about “influence”
tenant – this is a traditional word and many people want to be called tenants and NOT customers. Tenant is the term in the legal tenancy agreement. It tends to be about “rights”.
resident – some have told me this is a more “middle class” word, yet it is also used in special care services such as residential accommodation. So it’s a bit of a mixed word. It is often used as an alternative to “tenant”. Resident is often about “permanence”

service user – this rarely used word does appear in maintenance contract and any other service agreements. It tends to be about service levels and service elements. A service user usually sees themself as someone who needs service delivery to a certain standard.

Discuss these words with the group and see if any common ground emerges. It may lead to a re-look at current documents that go out to customers… or do we mean tenants ? !


About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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