Every single business in the world has clients or customers of some kind. If you don’t, then something is going quite drastically wrong! But, no matter what sector you work in, there is a common debate.. that can often be found. That is, what’s the difference between clients and customers, if indeed there is a difference at all? Some people are ambivalent in this debate. They are happy to use the two terms interchangeable and agree that there isn’t really a difference. On the other hand, some people are firm believers that there is indeed a big difference and it’s important to get the terminology right for the specific situation you’re in.

Where do you sit on this debate? Who are clients, really? Is there truly a difference between them and customers? In this blog post, I aim to answer these questions to help you make up your own mind. Whether you believe that your business has clients, customers, or a mixture of both, it’s important that you treat them in the way they want to be treated if you are to hang onto them and ensure their loyalty. And, knowing the key differences can help you to do just that. So, without further ado, let’s jump into this debate…

Who are clients?

To define the concept of clients, let’s first take a look at a dictionary definition. The dictionary defines ‘client’ as:

“a customer or someone who receives services”

Surely that ends the debate there? Clients and customers are the same thing! After all, the dictionary definition of ‘client’ literally defines them as customers! However, if we dig a little deeper, we can come across the ‘Business English’ definition of a client, which is:

“someone who receives professional services from an organization”

From this definition, we can infer that ‘clients’ are involved in the purchase of services over products, and there is a focus on the professional world and business. So, who are clients? Does your business have them? If you provide professional services of any kind (such as a lawyer, business coach, marketing, IT support, and so on, you probably have clients instead of customers if you’re going off the above definition.

Who are customers?

people discussing who are clients

Now we have defined the concept of clients, what about customers? Again, the dictionary definition of a customer is:

“a person who buys goods or a service”

Now, if we’re trying to define who are clients, this makes things a bit more complicated again! This definition mentions a customer can be someone who buys goods or services. So, we can’t distinguish clients and customers from what they buy alone. The real differentiation comes from the formality of the transaction. Think of clients as those who buy a business service (so, quite a formal transaction by nature), and customers as those who are not necessarily making a business-related purchase (such as those in a supermarket, restaurant, local small business, or online shop).

Clients vs customers: what’s the difference?

Now we’ve defined who are clients and customers, is there really a difference, or is it just nitpicking? In a way, clients and customers are the same thing. However, I would suggest that, while a client is also technically a customer, someone who is purely a customer is probably not a client of the same business. While we have touched upon the difference already, they can be looked at on a deeper level. So, some of the differences include:

The sort of goods being sold

What does your business do? There are so many types of businesses out there. Perhaps you own a local cafe or shop. Maybe you sell products online. Or, you could provide services that don’t contain a physical entity, such as business coaching. In the simplest terms, a client is somebody who purchases a service, while a customer is somebody who purchases a physical product. There are exceptions to this rule, however, which we will discuss in a bit more detail below.

The setting of the transaction

The setting and context of how and where the transaction takes place is also important when deciphering the differences between customer and client. We’ve already touched upon the fact that the term client tends to be used more in a business setting and customers in a less formal manner. After all, it’s unlikely that a supermarket would refer to its patrons as ‘clients’. And, on the flip side, someone who provides professional services is far less likely to refer to their patrons as customers.

What’s the relationship between seller and purchaser?

When looking at who are clients and customers, it’s also important to consider the relationship formed between the two parties, i.e. the seller and the person buying from them. When the term customer is used, the relationship tends to be short-term. Of course, you may purchase from the same shop more than once, especially for necessities like food, but your relationship with the business that sold you that food ends once you pay for it and leave. The supermarket doesn’t continue to check in with you and build a personal, long-term business relationship.

The opposite tends to be the case for a business with clients. Services, especially in the business world, tend to encourage a longer-term relationship than the purchase of products. Often, there is a long-term goal involved in purchasing a service, so the seller and purchaser work together over a greater period of time to reach those goals and form a stronger working relationship. In short, a customer probably receives little personal attention from the seller, whereas a client receives more and hopefully forms a longer-lasting relationship with whoever is selling to them.

Formal agreements

You have probably never walked into a shop and had to sign some form of agreement in order to purchase what they’re selling. In this way, you are a customer. However, clients often have some type of formal agreement between them and whoever is providing them with services. An agreement is a good thing to have when working together long-term, as it helps to set expectations on both sides. An agreement could contain elements such as:

  • Deadlines
  • Responsibilities of both parties
  • Predicted results from the relationship/ provision of services
  • How long the services are to be provided for (and any other contractual elements)

Is there ever a time when clients aren’t business-focused?

hairdresser answers the question who are clients differently

The short answer is, yes! This is quite a complicated debate, which is why there seem to be so many opinions on whether there actually is a difference between the two terms and if it really matters which one you use. So, who are customers outside of a business setting? Some examples of people who provide services that aren’t aimed at organisations or businesspeople could include personal trainers, therapists, or hairdressers. While they may choose to refer to their patrons as customers, it’s probably more likely that they’re described as clients. While customers would not necessarily be the ‘wrong’ term, many of these business owners or employees prefer to use clients because it is purely a service being offered; they do not sell products.

So, does it really matter?

Hopefully, this article has helped you to better understand who are clients and the differences between them and customers. In short, clients tend to purchase services in a business setting, while customers purchase goods in a more informal, shorter-term setting. But, whether you refer to your patrons as customers or clients is, at the end of the day, entirely up to you, even if it’s not necessarily the norm.

But should you care? Does it matter which term you use to refer to them? Well, ultimately, it’s unlikely that your customers or clients will get too offended if you refer to them using the opposite term to what they’re used to. But, it’s certainly a good business practice to use the ‘proper’ term. It makes you seem more professional and shows your customers or clients that you value them. Also, it demonstrates that you fully understand the relationship you have with them (eg, is it a business relationship? Or, is it more informal, such as a regular customer at your shop?). This can help them to develop a more favourable opinion of you that keeps them coming back to you for products or services, time and time again.

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