Customers Rock!

A blog about customers, their experiences, and how businesses can make sure their customer experiences rock!

Customer or client?

Posted by Becky Carroll on October 11, 2007

options.jpg I am a weekly guest on the BigBiz Show, a nationally syndicated radio program.  This past weekend, Sully, one of the show’s hosts (along with Russ) was asked this question by his daughter while they were watching a Merrill Lynch commercial:

What is the difference between a client and a customer?

We discussed this on the air.  Our take, and the opinion of several listeners who called in, is that the word “client” implies a longer-term relationship.  The word “customer” seems more transactional, a one-time activity.  Some callers suggested that “client” is used more often in a service business, such as a law firm or a hairstylist.

A similar discussion on customer vs client was had recently over at the Duct Tape Marketing blog (check out the thought-provoking comments, too).  Here is a little bit of John Jantsch’s take on this:

…the origin of the word customer is the Latin – consuetudinem, coming from one’s habit or custom – or, someone’s customary practice do something repeatedly. The root of client is the Latin cliens, more closely related to the idea of a follower.

I don’t know about you, but I know I want my customers to know, like, trust, call and refer me repeatedly. I want them to grow accustomed to my blog. I want it to be their custom to think of me whenever they need a practical marketing tip. So, customer it is for me.

Most callers into the radio show felt the word “customer” had negative connotations.  They wouldn’t want to be a customer; they would rather be a client or a guest (this latter term is what Disney uses for all of their visitors).  When did “customer” become a bad word?  Has the poor reputation of some customer service departments rubbed off?

There is another angle here as well.  Perhaps there needs to be a different word altogether for someone who not only buys from us, regularly and repeatedly, but who also actively engages with us.  For example, the difference between a radio listener and someone who calls in, or the difference between a reader of a blog and a commenter.   This is someone who joins in on the conversation; a person who is actually seeking out a relationship with a company.  We could call them “joiners”.

All right, your turn! 

What do you think: customer vs client?  Or do you have a better word?  What would you prefer to be called by a company with which you do business?   Sully and Russ told me they had quite a few emails on this topic.  Let’s beat them with our comments.  Are you in?
(Photo: 3pod)

11 Responses to “Customer or client?”

  1. Karin H. said

    Hi Becky

    I had the same discussion recently with our business adviser (mentor even). As a retailer, we are used to the word customers, as in ‘they give us their custom’.
    Point of view of Richard C – our ‘company doctor’: customers like to feel important, calling them clients gives them – the client – more the feeling they – the client – are important to you.
    Being Dutch from origin, that language makes it easier for all: everyone who buys from someone is called a ‘klant’ – in the English dictionary I found four translations for it: customer, client, patron and even ‘punter’.

    So, there you go. (We’ve started to call our ‘klanten’ clients by the way – much nicer ring to it)

    Karin H. (Keep It Simple Sweetheart, specially in business

  2. Becky,

    I’m not sure that my thoughts are going to be much help but…

    I think of customers as those served within B2C and clients as those served within B2B. Much of that is because I think of a customer as someone who goes to a business to buy something; whereas a client goes to a business both to buy things and to get advice. I don’t think many customers ask for advice any longer, as they can access the same information as a sales staff. However, clients receive specialized products and services that often require inside knowledge to understand their value and the “what’s in it for the client.”

  3. Hi Becky,

    Lewis’ take on the issue works well when the “client” is a business, but when you get in to B2C, there isn’t an real right or wrong. Ask anyone who performs personal services (lawyer, hairdresser, etc. but clearly B2C) they they will typically refer to customers as “clients”.

    In retail, plenty of customers ask for advice (how does this look on me, what size TV should I buy), but they are typically not referred to as “clients”.

  4. Doug said


    I wrote a post about this a while back. Here were my thoughts on the subject:

  5. HI Becky,
    As they say on the radio….”long time reader, first time poster here.” Love the blog and your thoughts on making the customer’s experience rock.

    I’ll agree with the other comments that I’ve always approached it as a client is someone who buys advice or services, and a customer is someone that purchases a product. Then again Peter Drucker said, “That the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.”

    In the long run what’s more important is to move them from being a customer or a client to becoming an advocate. Clients and customers do business – advocates create business. And what’s the best way to create an advocate? That’s easy……deliver an experience that rocks!

    Forget customer service, it’s all about the experience.

    Doug Fleener

  6. […] Customers Rock!: Customer or client? […]

  7. Karin, thank you for the Dutch perspective! Keeping it simple is key to this as well, and using the word client shouldn’t upset anyone.

    Lewis, I appreciate your thoughts on this one. Client does seem to imply a longer relationship, but perhaps for only some types of businesses?

    Doug M, I agree that there isn’t really any right or wrong on this one. How about seeing what the “customer” wants to be called? 🙂

    Doug H, thanks for sharing your post on this topic; it is a good one!

    Doug F (wow, I have never had this many Doug’s comment!), glad you decided to chime in. Thank you for the compliments! I love and completely agree with your statement: “In the long run what’s more important is to move them from being a customer or a client to becoming an advocate.” Delivering an experience that rocks is indeed key. You rock, Doug!

  8. […] b2b, transaction Customer or Client? 25 Oct 2007 Becky Carroll of Customers Rock! posed this question two weeks ago (but since CustServ was down for about 10 days, I was not able to join the […]

  9. […] Becky asks, “What do you think: customer vs client? Or do you have a better word? What would you prefer to be called by a company with which you do business?” […]

  10. Gilda said

    I can’t stand it when folks at the bank, retail store, etc. start calling me a “client” or a “guest”. To me it smacks of a marketing ploy rather than any sincere desire to serve me.

    In fact, I find it insulting – like I won’t recognize marketing manipulation and will overlook cruddy merchandise or indifferent service or high prices just because I’m so thrilled that the clerk at the local MegaMart calls me a “guest”.

    A Customer and Proud of It

  11. Gilda, your comments give a very good perspective. Retailers, are you listening? One cannot assume a customer is ready to move to the next “level” of relationship just by changing what you call them. And using those terms without really backing it up by other actions is indeed insincere, only paying lip service to customer centricity.

    If this was a company where you had an excellent relationship and had strong customer loyalty, would it change how you feel about being called “client” or “guest”?

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