Customer vs. Client

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between a customer and a client? Substantially, not much — but as we all know on some level, the exchange of currency for goods and services is more about the style than the substance. Savvy merchants have blurred the distinction in the interests of encouraging business by conferring prestige on potential purchasers.

First, word origins: Customer’s root word, custom, ultimately derives from the Latin verb consuescere, “to accustom,” and the sense of a person who buys something from another perhaps stems from the idea of purchasing as being a habit. Client (the plural can be clients or clientele) also comes from Latin, in the form of clientem, “follower,” which may be related to the root word of incline. This sense persists in the phrase “client state,” referring to a nation dependent on another for security or other support.

The two terms have traditionally differed widely in usage: A customer is simply a recipient of products or services in exchange for money. Even though the relationship to the provider might be long lasting, the sense is of discrete exchanges. By contrast, a client is engaged in a more qualitative relationship in which the provider generally applies professional skills to offer often intangible commodities such as legal services, insurance policies, and the like. (Another distinction is that a customer is more likely to visit a retail establishment, whereas a client may more easily receive services without being physically present at the place of business. The escalation of mail-order business spurred by online retailing, however, has blurred this distinction.)

Because of the greater perceived value associated with provision of professional services, businesses not normally classified as providers of such have taken to referring to their customers as clients. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that; why shouldn’t an auto mechanic refer to people with car trouble as clients rather than customers? As I mentioned above, it’s all about the prestige: A streetwalker services customers, but an escort sees clients.

Synonyms for customer and client are available, but they have their limits: A buyer is someone who pays for something, but the word also refers to someone employed by or otherwise associated with a company who purchases things wholesale to later be sold as is or as part of a retail product by that company.

Patron is more limited in connotation than customer or client; it generally refers to someone purchasing an aesthetic experience such as a performance or a meal rather than carting items from a shelf to a checkout stand. It also applies, however, to a supporter (as in “a patron of the arts”) or a guardian (as in “a patron saint”).

Guest is an elegant way to describe someone acquiring lodging or otherwise remaining on the business premises for an extended time but seems pretentious for other usages. Meanwhile, consumer seems too impersonal and is best reserved for referring, in singular or plural form, to connote a typical person who buys products or services or the general public in that role.

Other synonyms such as user (or “end user”) are highly specific to technological products and services, and yet others are clunky (purchaser, vendee) or describe someone on the way to becoming a customer or client but not yet there (prospect, shopper). Your best bet is to weigh customer and client and, with candor, determine which is more appropriate for the context.

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2 Responses to “Customer vs. Client”

  • Phil South

    As a professional writer and trainer of writers, I refer to my students as customers internally, but I think publicly students has a much less commercial ring to it. Obviously students pay their teachers but the transaction has, and should, have a ring of loftier goals than a simple exchange of cash for information. Maybe I just have delusions of grandeur.

    That aside I have to say I loathe the terms buyer/prospect/shopper as they connote someone driven by either greed or mania, a slant eyed, scrooge-like seeker of ultimate bargains, and will buy from anywhere that has the lowest price. I much prefer customer.

    A customer is someone who buys something from you on a repeat basis, not because you are the cheapest, but that they like the quality of your eBooks or training, and they trust your experience and hang on your every word. You know your customer’s name, and you know a little of the content of their character. A customer is standing with you on a two way street. A buyer merely rushes up to you on that street, presses a wad of sweaty money into your hand before stuffing your wares under his coat and fleeing into the night before you change your mind.

    A consumer is someone who only consumes, and doesn’t produce. I like the idea, deluded as it may be, that my customers/clients/students are a part of the ecosystem and make as much as they buy. End user is a mildly mocking (and slightly bawdy sounding) term which bespeaks the cold dead hand of tech support. Patron has too many connotations of patronising for my taste, no matter how philanthropic the person concerned.

    To me the words best suited to people who buy stuff from me are customer (someone who buys from you often), a client (someone who pays through the nose for bespoke services and understandably expects a lot), supporter (a patron who treats you more like a professional and less like a chauffeur), sponsor (someone who advertises with you but doesn’t tell you what to write about), reader (a customer who comments intelligently enough to show they read what I write), and best of all fan (someone who follows you like a devotee, buys all your work now and in future and most importantly tells all their friends).

    Of all of these I crave fans the most. I love those guys.

    Phil South
    Creative Genius Programme

  • Peter

    In reaction to Phil, from someone who works in a company delivering technical equipment, including engineering servicesm, to industrial clients.

    A remark to your opinion about the term end user:
    “End user is a mildly mocking (and slightly bawdy sounding) term which bespeaks the cold dead hand of tech support.”

    We distinguish between clients and end users, because the person(s) specifying, ordering and paying for our products (the company) are not the people who actyally work with our systems “hands-on”. So for pricing, contract, progress, liabilities etc. we have to consider the client, but for actual functionality, smooth integration, knowledge etc. we must consider the end-user.
    In my opinion refering to the end user does not “bespeak the cold dead hand of tech support”, but shows techies have a warm hart for the needs of end-users, despite the cold hard money and performance driven attitude of the bean counters. 🙂

    Regards,
    Peter van Orselen
    just a technical support engineer

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