Label Matters: Distinguishing Clients from Customers

Label Matters: Distinguishing Clients from Customers


The term semantics is commonly used to ridicule arguments over the choice of similar words, such as murder or kill, theft or robbery, and teach or facilitate. Word choice does make a difference, however, both in how people think about themselves in a situation and how they perceive others to be thinking about them. The common phrase ‘I’m sorry,’ for instance, suggests the person saying it has done something so negative as to impugn their entire character. It can certainly apply in some cases, but more neutral terms are available to denigrate the action instead of the person, like ‘my bad’ or ‘I apologize.’

The choice of labels for those you do business with is extremely important. Use of the terms client and customer will have a psychological impact on the relationship from both ends. Though not obvious at first glance, a closer look at the differences between these labels will help you determine which is most appropriate.

Defining Client and Customer

A customer is defined as a person paying to receive goods or services from another entity. It hails from Middle English. Customs officers were in charge of collecting fees for goods passing into and out of the country. A customer became the colloquial term for a person paying these fees.

Clients are a type of customer, and the dictionary distinguishes the two by referring to clients as customers of a professional service. Doctors and lawyers have clients because they generally do not provide one-time services. If you face legal trouble at some point, you are most likely to call your lawyer instead of a random lawyer from the phone book, even if only for a referral. The word originated in Roman times when a client ruler would be installed to govern a conquered territory, or a territory might agree to become a client state of the empire in exchange for protection from enemies.

Common Uses of Each

Customers are most commonly found in the retail world. Many customers will have favorite places to shop or eat, but it is acknowledged that this economic relationship can end at any time for any reason. A customer may find a competitor’s coupon and choose to have dinner there. Regular customers, especially friendly ones and those who tip, may be ore highly valued, but they are still customers.

Clients are long-term customers. Clients will not use another professional without good cause. Professionals learn intimate details about their clients’ lives and businesses in order to provide better services. This contrasts with customers who tend to purchase standardized products at listed prices. Someone shopping for a suit at a department store is a customer while someone using a private tailor is a client.

The words you use change the way you think. Often this change is a subtle, subconscious one. Employees in professional fields, especially receptionists and clerks, should refer to those using their services as clients. The same goes for high-end retail outlets. Clients are more likely to feel valued and return for more services. Client should not be used in other retail situations because it establishes unreal expectations for employees and customers.

About the author: Richard Little writes for higher ed blogs and web sites. He writes about mba online programs as well as other business-related issues.

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