Knowing the difference between client vs. customer may not be the highest priority for building your business, but it can be a valuable distinction to consider.
In this article, we’ll talk about the differences between client vs. customer and how to address the needs of each.
Deciding between client vs. customer can be a challenge. In day-to-day conversation, or even in your marketing materials, you may slip up occasionally and use the words customer and client interchangeably, while still thinking in the back of your mind: which is right?
Some may simply think that client is a fancier term for customer, but the distinction goes beyond that. And if you can nail down which category your business appeals to, you may find more profitability in your marketing approach. You may want to even start thinking of how to turn customers into clients.
But first, let’s give the quick-and-easy difference between the two terms before exploring the nuanced relationship you have between customers and clients.
What is the Client vs Customer Difference?
The simplest way we can say it is this: a customer makes a single transaction, while a client relies on your continued, personal service. So, a business either makes products to meet the customer’s demand or provides services according to requirements set by clients.
Now, customers and clients both make purchases, regardless of the length of their relationship or intent to stick with you. Both of these relationships require attention and high-quality customer service. Both are important and valuable to success, but their differences may help you find long-term success.
Essentially, the difference comes down to the relationship you have with the person.
So, what sort of relationship are you looking for, and how can you cater your marketing materials to each group? What do you need to build a stronger base for your company?
What is a Client in Business?
A client uses ongoing services and expertise from a business. A client is typically a more formal term, as often the relationship is elevated, even personal. The formality of the term can even make clients feel like VIPs in your business. When thinking of clients, think of professional relationships like attorneys and accountants.
While a customer typically has an urgent need, a client can remain dormant for some time, only calling on you when a need arises. In the meantime, you may want to keep up that relationship with frequent communication, updates, surveys, and more.
When the time comes for a client to need your service or product, it is usually tailored to their specific needs. Think of it as the difference between someone who gets their photo taken at a theme park (buying the photo makes them a customer), versus someone who books a photoshoot at a studio (tailoring the shoot to their needs makes them a client.)
Often, with good client relationships, you’ll build loyalty and trust. The client may not use your business every day, but they’ll come back to you when they do. It’s also not always about the number of clients, but the long-term relationship and the overall happiness and satisfaction of each individual client.
Since you’ll have some clients for a considerable amount of time, you might have more resources dedicated to your success and support team. You may even have individualized account managers for clients or exclusive perks for clients that require extra costs.
These extra costs usually are worth it, as it’s still five times cheaper to retain a client than to acquire a new one. We can’t overstate the importance of providing personalized, high-quality service and support for each of your clients.
What is a Customer in Business?
The word customer is sort of a blanket term that refers to casual purchases. Grocery stores have customers, for example. Customers choose the services or goods they need and pay right away. They may return later to the same store, but it’s always for an immediate exchange of goods or services for money.
Even though your relationship with a customer is likely to be short-term, it doesn’t mean you can’t build a relationship with them. Think back to grocery store customers. Many stores offer loyalty and reward programs to encourage repeat business. But typically, customers don’t rely on the perks one single store offers – they are likely to shop anywhere it is convenient and at a good price.
Therefore, businesses that work solely with customers are focused more on the number of transactions rather than the quality of relationships with each consumer, but if you want to create a stronger base you need to find ways to get more customers and practices for happy customers.
There are generally two types of customers: intermediate customers, who buy your goods or service to create another product for sale (think B2B), or end-user customers, who are also the consumers of your products (B2C). If you sell software, for example, you might sell to both types of customers, but at the end of the day, you firmly have customers, not clients. You’ll likely use terms internally like customer success, customer service, and customer support, too.
Is it Better to Say Customer or Client?
As mentioned in a blog post about the difference between members versus subscribers, it really depends on your unique business needs.
Are most of your relationships purely transactional? Do you spend more time advertising the features and benefits of your product rather than trying to appeal to people’s individual needs? In that case, you may want to stick to the term customer.
Do you tailor your services or products based on who needs them? Do you have a relationship with those who buy from your business, those willing to pay your premiums because of their loyalty? Then, you have clients.
Of course, it’s completely likely that you have both customers and clients. There is overlap, with the difference lying somewhere between money and loyalty. The distinction becomes important, though, when you think of how to advertise to each of these groups separately. When marketing to customers, you may bring up points like the price, the features of the product or service, and the ease of use. In fact, the more your product is ready-to-use once purchased, the more you want to appeal to customers.
If your marketing language is to appeal to clients, you’ll focus more on discussing the people behind your business. You might be more inclined to mention recent reviews or testimonials. You’ll talk up your customer satisfaction rate, or how long you’ve been in business. You’ll also be likely to have a portfolio or examples of work you’ve tailored to past client needs. In this case, credibility is key.
It gets a little trickier if your product or service includes some sort of membership or subscription feature. Are those customers or clients? In those cases, you may want to simply use the term member or subscriber over customer or client to highlight the community aspect of that relationship. However, some subscription companies, like Netflix or Spotify, fall under the “customer” umbrella, because the product is not tailored to each individual and once purchased and requires no other interaction with the company.
Ultimately, calling them clients or customers won’t matter as much as if you have the right stuff for business success.
Client vs Customer: Other Terms to Consider
Now, some may balk at the transactional nature of either term. Or perhaps your business has a different, more nuanced relationship to the business-customer transaction phase, and neither customer nor client captures that relationship.
Here are a few alternates you could consider:
- Buyer – This can be anyone who makes a purchase. This is typically used for those who make B2B purchases, especially in retail and manufacturing.
- User – This is used for those who interact with your product, like software.
- Consumer – This is a person who actually uses your product. This is appropriate only when you know your customer is also your end-user, so it’s not a direct synonym, either.
- Shopper – anyone who browses several options before purchasing. This can be used interchangeably with customer, if the situation feels appropriate.
- Follower – usually reserved for online media accounts, this can be anyone who tracks a particular person or organization, so it may be applicable for clients.
- Subscriber – a person who pays for a recurring service you provide, such as paywall content on a website.
One idea is to brainstorm a list of words that come to mind with those who use your business. What do they do after interacting with you? How long do they stay around? Do they purchase right away, or browse several options? What unique descriptors collect them under one umbrella? This may help you find the right term.
Regardless of the words you use, at the end of the day, what you call your customers or clients matters. Each of these words above carries a certain connotation, so pay attention and use the most applicable one.
What If I Have Customers, But I Want Clients?
Want to turn short-term, one-off purchasers into long-standing, loyal clients who keep returning to you for help?
This question may help you tweak your marketing language to appeal not only to the group you currently sell to, but the group you want to sell to.
To start, make customer service and valuable customer experiences a core part of your business. Get to know your customers’ needs and what they come to you looking for. Do you provide the same service to each customer? Or do you find yourself tailoring your experience each time? How can you tailor that experience further?
Make sure that you are addressing customer concerns with sensitivity and efficiency. Avoid long wait times and vague replies. Provide free, clear, and honest information. If you can, individualize your response and solutions for each customer. Past experiences can certainly inform you, but since each client has a different personality and need, each approach should fit that person.
Don’t be afraid to brag about your team. If you have high standards that are consistently met, mention them. Win any awards? Put them front-and-center on your website. Clients want to know they are in capable hands, so show off how well you solve client needs.
Lastly, stay in touch! Make sure you have a newsletter or regular email updates. Send out ecards on birthdays. Create educational seminars or put information behind a paywall on your site. See if you can connect personally via concierge services. Connection is key.
At this point, you should have a clear understanding of which term is right for your business. You may even have thoughts about terms you’d like to use rather than customer or client.
Regardless, the important point is that you understand the nature of the relationship with those who purchase from you. There is nothing wrong with your business being customer-based over client-based. Not every business is set up for clients, particularly if you make an easy-to-use product. However, it’s important to know what customers are looking for so you can market towards their needs. Then, you can get back to creating tailored content focused on the perfect person for your business.
Rachel Kolman is a freelance writer and editor. She is a new resident of the Pacific Northwest, after spending the first three decades of her life on the East Coast. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and enjoys infusing storytelling elements into her content writing. She has written for a variety of publications across the web, in addition to helping clients edit and polish professional documents. In addition to writing, Rachel loves board games, good coffee, too many podcasts, and a long walk, preferably in the mountains.