Ana Khlystova
Mar 21, 2019 | 5 min read

Full disclosure.

I’ve been using the words ‘client’ and ‘customer’ interchangeably for five years now (wow, it’s been five years already since I started my content marketing path, who would have thought).

The thing is, when you write about a business, you always need more ways to name people who are using your services or tools. It’s all pretty much the same for me – clients, customers, users, subscribers, consumers, you name it. Or is it?

Turns out the ‘client vs customer’ conundrum is one of the biggest mysteries in the business world — right between ‘who on Earth has ever used Google+’ and ‘why Facebook is still a thing after all the scandals’.

There are numerous articles on the topic, people keep asking this question on Quora on an all too regular basis – but there’s still no clarity there. Is there really any difference between customers and clients? And if so, what is it?

Client vs customer

Truth is, a client and a customer are indeed similar notions with the main difference lying somewhere between money and loyalty. From what I understood after thorough research, the word ‘customer’ is more about a one-off operation which involves money. On the other hand, the word ‘client’ describes something more long-term and ongoing.

In a nutshell, customer = payments, client = relationships. But it’s way more complicated than that as clients also pay money and customers also have their relationships with service providers. My mind boggles already.

  • According to Collins online dictionary, ‘a client of a professional person or organization is a person or company that receives a service from them in return for payment.’
  • The same source gives the following definition of the word ‘customer’: ‘customer is someone who buys goods or services, especially from a shop.’

Now, let’s talk some examples.

‘Customer’ definition

So basically, businesses that provide one-off services like stores and restaurants have customers.

While it’s true that these customers can be loyal to brands and return to them regularly, the nature of their relationships is always the same. Customer chooses whatever services they need and pay right away. They can come later, choose these or other services and pay for them again. It’s always about the immediate exchange of services for money.

It may even seem that the word ‘customer’ gained itself a hint of negative definition, but nothing can be further from the truth. I mean not for nothing do they say that the customer is always right. Customers pay money for exactly the things they need, so yeah, they have a right to getting top-notch quality goods.

‘Client’ definition

Clients, on the other hand, pay for personalized or highly professional services like legal advice, graphic design, real estate consultation. For instance, it’s commonly considered that attorneys and accountants have clients, not customers.

Obviously, clients also pay for services they receive, but it’s more of a long-standing thing. People can be your clients for years paying you regularly or only from time to time when they need your help. I’d say it’s a question of loyalty when it comes to clients.

The key part here is all about being highly specialized and personalized. Clients receive services tailored specifically for their needs. If a person’s seeking financial advice, they’ll receive tips applicable to their situation only. If they’re hiring a lawyer, their case will be handled with all possible attention.

As Paul Davis, CEO of Bite-Sized Books, put it so accurately in his answer on Quora:

At a deeper level, by using the word client there is a semantic benefit, in that it removes the immediate cash exchange from the picture. In that way, having taken the concept of money out of the picture, it makes the relationship more equal and gives an impression of some form of quasi-partnership. It is an illusion of course, but it is one that the professional services organizations are very jealous of.

Just to give you an idea, here are some examples of businesses that have clients vs businesses with customers:

Are there any less confusing ways to name a customer or a client?

Let’s be honest. In the B2B sector, these semantic borders are blurred. No one will be throwing rotten tomatoes at you if you use both of the terms, but even then it can be not enough.

Thankfully, there are other words in the language (also, sending my love to the Oxford dictionary for this one):

  • Consumer is a person who actually uses a product. Customers can buy stuff, but not necessarily use them, while consumers are its end users.
  • User is a person who uses a product, especially when it comes to software and apps.
  • Patron is a customer of a shop, restaurant, etc., especially a regular one. Yeah, I know, not your ordinary word choice, but I don’t see why not.
  • Buyer is a person who makes a purchase. This term can also be used for a person employed to select and purchase things for a large retail or manufacturing business, which can be a little confusing.
  • Follower is usually used in relation to social media. To be more specific a follower is someone who is tracking a particular person, group, organization, etc. on a social media website or application.
  • Subscriber is a person who receives a publication or a service regularly by paying in advance. This one is actually my personal favorite, too.

So, do I have clients or customers?

Now, if you’re still confused about where your business stands on the ‘clients vs customers’ thing, you can still use all these other words.

As a software provider, you can have users of your product.

If it’s a subscription-based service, people become subscribers.

And if you manage to build a strong community around your business, loyal users will become community members.

B2C use case

As I’ve already mentioned above, business-to-consumer sector can have both clients and customers depending on what services it provides.

If you work with each person separately with a great level of personalization, then you have clients. And if your services or products are the same for everybody, then it’s customers.

B2B use case

Same principles apply to B2B companies as they also can have both customers and clients.

If you run a SaaS or product business like HelpCrunch (yours truly), then we’re talking about customers here. People come, choose whatever services they need, pay money and just use them. We don’t sign any agreements and don’t build our toolset from scratch for each customer separately.

Say what you will, but I really like the word ‘customer’. Suffice it to look at all the key things B2B companies hold so dear. They provide CUSTOMER service and struggle to collect CUSTOMER feedback. At the end of the day, it’s all about CUSTOMER satisfaction. These are all important metrics that every business wants to grow and improve.

Don’t you think that the word ‘customer’ is somehow more general and shallow in comparison to ‘a client’. By all means, you still can make your services personalized, even if you’re dealing with customers. For instance, we at HelpCrunch do provide a personal onboarding assistant to every newcomer on top of having attentive and helpful customer support.

On the other hand, there are B2B companies like business development or design agencies which provide personalized services with personal attention to each particular case. So yeah, they definitely have clients.

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As a linguistics degree holder, I’ve always appreciated the true power of language. For decades, some people have been confusing words like their/there or your/you’re, which made a hell of a lot of other people very angry and sad.

And even though the choice between ‘a client’ and ‘a customer’ isn’t that pressing, things like good spelling, grammar, and punctuation represent your brand to the world and, generally, make a good impression.

That is why it’s so important to carefully choose your words and pay attention to their meanings.

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One comment

  1. the client vs customer thing was literally a mystery to me for YEARS, great job clearing it up ?

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