Customer or Client?

I’ve been involved in a few discussions recently on whether we have customers or clients.  For some, this may be a mere matter of semantics – saying that the terms are interchangeable.  But I think a business needs to be consistent in their reference and we haven’t been.

Customer vs Client – what is the difference?

Both customers and clients spend money with you – but the simple difference is that clients buy services and customers buy products – right?

Well that used to be the case at least.

Back in the mid to late eighties, there was a push to use the term “clients” more.  This was because clients were seen as people you had an on-going relationship with such as those who buy from accountants, lawyers or even hair dressers.  All the management “gurus” of the day pushed companies large and small to start thinking about their customers as clients.  Create relationships.  Consultative Selling. Etc.

Today, the opposite is true I think.  A “customer” is no longer seen as being more short term than a “client”.  A service company can have  “customers” just as easily as it can “clients”.  Mainstream business terminology such as “customer relationship management” (CRM), “customer experience management” and the like have contributed to this shift.

Customer or client – one term is not better than the other.  It comes down to the type of business you are and the type of business you want to be.

Which did we choose – customer or client – and why?

When we went through our web site copy, sales literature and other documentation, we found customer and client being used interchangeably.  I guess because it didn’t matter.  But I think you should be consistent in your language and by intentionally selecting one over the other, we are making a statement about the type of company we are and the type of relationship we have with our.. customers.

If customers buy products and clients buy services, then I would want to use customer every time.   Most service companies should consider “productizing” their services anyway and so perhaps changing your vocabulary will help change your mindset.  I know it has helped me.

To me, clients want a unique, tailored service every time. But in reality, they don’t need a unique service, they just need to feel special and have their perceived “unique” needs met.  Delivering a custom solution to each client is expensive and fraught with problems.  Working to create a systemized (a la The E-Myth) and productized (a la Built to Sell) business should be most of our goals as business owners.. and if that is the case, we should want to sell to and serve customers.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t give them exceptional levels of service – of course you can.  That should be the focus of your “customer experience management” program/process.

But we need to move away from thinking that a “client” is someone we treat well and a customer is a faceless order number in your accounts receivable.

So we chose Customer and are going through the difficult process of lexicon replacement therapy.  I hope you will consider which term you prefer too.


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