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.
Understanding Customer vs. Client
The terms “client” and “customer” are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings, particularly in a business context.
- Client: A client is someone who receives professional services or advice from a company or professional individual. The relationship is usually ongoing and involves a deeper level of trust and engagement. Clients are often associated with personalized services, where the service provider tailors their offerings to the client’s specific needs.
- Customer: A customer is someone who purchases goods or services from a business. This relationship is typically transactional and may be short-term. Customers usually select from available products or services without expecting them to be customized to their personal requirements.
- Clients: Examples include individuals or businesses working with law firms, consulting firms, accounting firms, or advertising agencies. For instance, a business seeking legal representation in a court case would be a client of the law firm.
- Customers: Examples include individuals shopping at a retail store, ordering from a restaurant, or buying a product online. For example, a person buying a book from a bookstore is a customer of that store.
- Relationship Duration: Clients tend to have longer-term, ongoing relationships, while customers engage in shorter-term, transactional interactions.
- Service Customization: Services for clients are often customized, whereas customers generally purchase standard products or services.
- Level of Engagement: Client relationships usually involve a higher level of engagement and interaction compared to customer relationships.
- Nature of Offering: Clients typically receive services, while customers purchase products or services.
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:
- 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.
BusinessDictionary.com 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.
7 Tips to Turn Customers into Clients
- Understand Their Needs: Take time to understand what your customers need and want, and tailor your services to meet those needs.
- Build Relationships: Focus on building strong, personal relationships with your customers. Personalized communication and attention can convert a one-time buyer into a long-term client.
- Provide Exceptional Service: Consistently delivering high-quality service can encourage customers to engage with your business on a more ongoing basis.
- Offer Customized Solutions: Show your customers that you are willing to adapt your offerings to their specific requirements.
- Follow-Up: Regular follow-up and check-ins can help in maintaining the relationship and showing customers that you value their business.
- Encourage Feedback: Ask for and act on customer feedback to improve your services and show that you are responsive to their needs.
- Loyalty Programs: Implement loyalty programs to reward repeat business and encourage a longer-term relationship.
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-class 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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