Presentations, arduous hot points discussions come and go but each time we speak about people we do services for and who pay us, we use different terms – customers, consumers, clients. Sometimes it’s like pain in the neck each time different, and we may feel confused. The question has hit the point: how to call those we work with? Who are we for – a client or a customer?
Better understanding comes from etymology, as nature helps understand and feel notions deep.
The term “a customer” (late 14c.) originated from “a custom” (12c.) that meant “habitual practice” from the Old French. A customer possessed the meaning of “somebody doing something regular”, then “customs official” (14c.) and then synonymized with the word “a buyer” in the early 15c. Then it got a more generalized meaning of “a person to deal with” (late 16c.)
“A client” (late 14c.) came from Latin “cliens” which originally meant “a follower or a retailer” and then in Anglo-French it became “client” (c. 1300) – “someone who lives under the patronage of another”. The root “clie –“ means “to lean” and the notion of the client is close to “a person who leans on another for protection”. The word got the meaning of “a lawyer’s customer” which was attested in c.1400. The following two centuries extended it to any customer who feels interest in care and management.
Still there are differences between them in the conventional business context.
Say “a client” or “a customer”, understand “a person and / or a business who pays for the services or products”. In the business world these terms are frequently used, interchanged or juxtaposed but culturally they possess different meanings and uses. Is there anything distinctive to differentiate between them, especially facing the fact that in the Russian or Ukrainian languages they have similar nuclear translations? Let’s face the fact that in the Russian and Ukrainian languages these terms have similar nuclear translations, but understanding the distinctive difference between the shades of meanings is important.
Traditionally these terms are identified via a customer’s or a client’s behavior, form of engagement, absence or presence of agreement, offers and focuses of the companies they work with, longevity of business relations and personal attention to them.
Customers are usually viewed in B2C. They can be different – intermediate and end-users (consumers), one-time or repeat ones. Both are those who are just interested in what your company provides and come to buy its services or products. Customers are engaged in transient relations and conduct business with the companies on a transaction basis. They are ready to buy and pay for purchases; they use ready-made fixed-form products already priced to sell but may not be the end user consumer. They can consume services but goods attract more. Usually their purchases are not supported with the agreement but with a check / receipt. Customers are good for the companies that sell. These companies reap their profit and don’t focus too much on long-term relations or personal attention to customers, seeing them once in a while and being more focused on customers’ quantity rather than relations. The thing is that changing business strategies or approaches converts business relations and your customer may turn into your client.
Clients are commonly in B2B, and they deal with companies – buy their professional services or solutions. Clients are with the companies for long and build close fiduciary professional relations with them, supported with the legal agreement. Clients use ongoing personalized advice, specialized solutions from the businesses from healthcare, IT, law, design, accounting etc. Clients are definitely for the companies that provide service. These companies’ priorities are long-term relations and high personal attention to know “the big picture” of their clients, i.e. doing business on a consistent basis. The higher quality of personal attention to the client by the company, the steadier and more regular the profit is. But be careful: an incompetent sales approach may turn a client into a customer or lead to their loss.
Do only selling and serving draw the difference border between a customer and a client?
We go deep and can shed light on other aspects.
Comprehension. Those who work with people view them differently due to official functions they bear or business mindset they have, i.e. employers and employees view suppliers differently and call them differently. This depends on the personnel’s extent of being informed and aware, business tasks, strategies, objectives and behavior. Thus, sales may call them customers, engineers or accountants would name them customers or clients, marketing would say they are clients, the boss will name them clients or partners.
Obligations. Companies working with suppliers have obligations. Following these obligations shows how the companies treat people and what these people are for these companies – customers or clients. If legal obligations are low or minimal, companies deal with customers who feel little or no interest in the facts the company may disclose and don’t require the company's further steps. They are like those seen once in a blue moon but treated with fairness, honesty and integrity. If the company follows its obligations on fiduciary duty and wants to know more about those it works with engaging them in the events outside their primary service, it surely treats a client. Thus the company promotes and protects the client’s interests in the real transactions and discloses all facts on the client’s demand.
Competence. Knowledge and experience of those who need products or services is the criterion to set relations with the companies. If one has enough knowledge or experience about the product and / or service they need and feel comfort about it, it is an example of customer relationship. But if the scope of knowledge and experience of the one the company works with is limited, then the client relationship is preferable. The one will feel comfort in the process, then.
Complexity of services and tangibility of the products. Meeting with the company sales, one speaks about their needs. If they need simple transactions or tangible products, build customer-based relations. If the services people need are complex, intangible and take much time and the company involvement, there is a chance to build long-term client-based relations.
Depth of intimacy of the business relations. Clients are developed and are usually the results of the business approach. Commonly it takes time to turn a customer into a client or become a client for a company. Clients strive for partnership, advisory and trust. To build deep client-based relations companies devote much time, sales visits, meetings, presentations, follow-ups and personal attention to be understood. They try to be business-minded willing to satisfy needs and / or finding expert solutions which will help clients achieve their business goals. It’s easier to stay a customer, be a regular loyal user of the company’s product / service but tend to short exchange it for money without personal involvement.
Businesses do with people. Businesses build relationships. Let them be built on loyalty, price and value, experience and trust, and then your customers may turn into clients.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash