When it’s OK to use the C Word

It’s pretty clear that the majority of the disability sector just doesn’t relate to the language of business. We see it all the time in our consulting work – when we talk about things like cash flow and working capital, we’re met with glassy eyes.  The articles we write on marketing are always the least popular. And when we drop the C word into conversation with providers, it often goes down poorly.

But despite what people might say, Customer is not a dirty word. We reckon it’s actually a pretty good one – and here’s why.


Thinking (and talking) like a business does not make you the Wolf of Wall Street.

Marketing is a pretty alien concept to most in the disability sector. When people think of marketing, they think of fat cats smoking cigars, brainstorming ways of selling more Coca-Cola to children. Many disability staff see a shift from “person” to “customer” as part of a dehumanising process of exploiting people for profit, reducing it all down to focus on financial relationships.

There’s two major problems with this perspective. The first is that it is built on the idea that doing good and doing well financially are mutually exclusive. And that simply isn’t true. We know in the disability sector that the number one referral source is word of mouth. If you want to retain your customers and attract new ones, the single best thing you can do is care about the customers you already have. The better service you provide, the more likely people are to tell others about it or purchase more services from you. There is a direct correlation between doing good and doing well. And you can bet your bottom dollar the reverse is true as well.

The second problem with avoiding the concept of Customer is that it can be paternalistic to fail to define where an organisation’s role in a person with disability’s life begins and ends (or to define it in terms of a service provider to customer relationship). The current way of doing business means providers can inadvertently limit the ability for a customer to exercise their choice and control.

It’s as if to say, “but our role is so much greater than just providing x hours of x service, we are more integrated than that in a person’s life and we can’t even begin to explain it”. While there is something very giving and open about this approach, it restricts is the ability of either party to walk away. Without clarity around what a provider is effectively selling to a customer, it can be difficult to compare alternative support options. Though the current approach seeks to support, it ultimately fails to empower.


Rejecting the word Customer might be preventing you from confronting some hard truths.

There are still a lot of people stuck in denial about the need to become business savvy under the NDIS. Rejecting the word customer can be another way of rejecting the (inevitable) sector-wide change. This is particularly true when it comes to avoiding confronting some hard truths, like the financial viability of services. It’s certainly easier to defend an unviable service when you regard your position its role in a person’s life as irreplaceable.

Unfortunately for staff in denial, the change is coming and rejecting the C word won’t get them where they need to go. The NDIS has taken service level decision making away from organisations (governments and charities) and given it to customers operating in contestable markets.

The time has come to adapt to a market-based system – and accept the language that comes with it.