Customer vs. Client

Customer vs. Client: Is There A Difference?

A “customer” can be defined in different ways, as can a “client.” How do you know when a customer is a client, or the other way around? Should you treat a customer any differently than you would a client?

Does it even matter?

The answer is, it depends. But before we weigh in on the importance of the two terms, let’s look at a few different frameworks for the use of the terms customer and client: longevity, scope of work and industry, and depth of the relationship.

LongevityCustomer vs. Client

A graphic designer may work with a client for a 6-month long project. A stockbroker may handle one client’s portfolio for 20 years. However, longevity becomes irrelevant in businesses that have customers for life. The customer who visits a clothing shop every single year to purchase a suit, some ties, and a pair of shoes will probably never become a “client” in this scenario. However, the relationship between the shop and that lifetime customer can easily outlast those of the designer and the stockbroker combined.

The takeaway: Both the longevity and customer lifetime value of the shop customer might be greater than the design client or the investor. Longevity is generally not a good differentiator of customer versus client.

Scope of Work and Industry

Historically, certain industries have adopted different terms, and these have dictated the usage. Retail stores, whose patrons generally only re-engage with the store and its staff when they need something new, have historically used the term customer. Other industries regularly consider their paying customers as patients or clients. A few industries that have used the word client are as follows:

  • Advertising
  • Real Estate
  • Business Consulting
  • Legal Services
  • Financial Planning

One of the reasons scope and industry have historically framed the terms customer and client this way is due to the traditional differences in the depth of the relationship with the customer or client.

Depth of the Relationship

This concept refers to the level of  involvement and time you have with a customer. defines customer in a purely transactional way involving the consumption of goods and services. Here, the relationship is not very deep. The same site’s definition for client is geared toward the involvement of a “professional service provider.” Typically, hiring someone for their specific set of skills (i.e. attorney, agent or PR professional) makes you their client, and implies that the relationship is much deeper and requires more involvement.

An article in the Houston Chronicle weighs in on the customer vs. client subject as well: “Where products or services need a lot of personalization and customization, patrons are often thought of as clients.”

The depth of relationship, which is often tied to industry, is probably the most common differentiator of when someone is called a customer or a client. Yet, the line is becoming more blurred, as technology, affordable CRM systems, and customer experience design is resulting in more organization personalizing interactions and deepening relationships with those traditionally labeled customers.

What Does It All Mean?

Does the label you bestow on your customers make a difference? On the one hand, the label is mere semantics and does not determine whether an organization creates Hero-ClassTM customer experiences. On the other hand, language matters and the term client gives the implication of a person who is more than a transaction and who deserves attention, care, and a relational approach.

If a retail store employee called someone a client instead of a customer, would they treat him or her differently? Would they be more attentive to him or her? Would the quality of service be any different? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely unless the word had deeper cultural ramifications within the organization. It’s more about the view of the customer than the label on the customer.

In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter if you call your customers customers, as long as you always treat them like clients.

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By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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