Client vs. Customer

I was discussing the differences between a client and a customer with some colleagues of mine the other day. They eventually decided to refer to the people who pay them for their services as customers. However, it got me thinking about the difference between a client and a customer?

To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the people who pay others for their services or products as users, not clients or customers.

I look at clients as more users of a service having to do with people. Consultants, lawyers, and so on have clients. It is more of a relationship with an individual instead of a company. I also associate clients with services where the user will only use the company one or two times at most. It isn’t a constant or recurring thing. For example, web designers refer to their users as clients. Most companies don’t need a web design monthly.

Clients also has to do with client relations. Some companies just call customer service “client relations,” but that isn’t what I feel client relations is. Client relations, to me, is the pro-active building of relationships with users. Finding out what they like, don’t like, and tailoring solutions to the user is what client relations is to me.

Customers are different than clients. I usually advise companies that deal with recurring services or products to refer to their users as customers. Customers are not inferior to clients – it is just a different type of product/service. Companies like phone companies, web hosting companies, cable companies, and so on refer to their users as customers.

Customer service is also a great phrase and one that customers easily associate with. It leaves plenty of room for responding to service queries, building relationships, and more. It’s not an odd one and rarely feels awkward.

Guests, Members, Patients, etc.
Some industries have specialized phrases to call users. They have guests (hotels and often, restaurants), members (associations, communities, clubs, etc.), patients (doctors or hospitals), and so on. If your industry has a specialized one, remember, you don’t have to use it. Going above and beyond the norm is a great way to show that you care about your users.

Be consistent.
The most important thing when it comes to referring to your users is being consistent. It’ll take a bit of getting used to at first, but after a while, it comes very naturally. You’ll never thinking about referring to your users as clients after a few weeks of referring to them as customers. Just work hard to remain consistent for those first few weeks and you’ll be fine.

2 Responses to “Client vs. Customer”

  1. Glenn Ross said:

    May 08, 07 at 7:33 am

    Perhaps, and I’m open to feedback here, businesses use the term “clients” when their employees have more of a 1:1 relationship with them. Attorneys for example. There are exceptions here, but generally, the term “customers” is used when the relationship is “one to many.”



  2. CustomersAreAlways said:

    May 15, 07 at 1:23 am

    Clients, Customers and Consumers: What’s the Difference?…

    Service Untitled has a great article pointing out the differences between “client” and “customer”.  Many people use these words interchangeably, but I guess there is a distinct difference between the two.  When I was a…