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Customer vs. Client? When Does Terminology Really Matter?

Unsure whether to call someone a customer or client? Learn the key differences and use the right term every time to strengthen your professional communication.

Brad Bartlett
15.05.2024

 

Picture this: you're a business owner, and you've just referred to a long-term client as a "customer" in an email. In the grand scheme, this long-term professional relationship has been a work in progress for nearly 2 years, so you click "Send" without a second thought.

Suddenly, you're second-guessing yourself. "Wait, should I have said 'client'? Does it even matter?"

The reality is that it does matter - especially if you're aiming at turning a person from a potential "customer" into a long-term "client."

Sure, the terms "customer" and "client" are often used interchangeably. Still, there are situations where using the right term can make a significant difference in how you communicate and build relationships with those you serve. In fact, a recent study found that 86% of agents report customer expectations being at an all-time high, with personalization high on the list.

To give you an upper hand in the client vs. customer argument, let's take a closer look at when—and why—you should use customer or client in your sales engagement. You might just find that high-quality customer service depends on how you engage with your SaaS customers and prospects—even by name.

Do Names Really Matter? In Customer Relationships, Yes.

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of when terminology matters, let's define the key players in this discussion: customers and clients.

"Customer"

A customer is typically someone who purchases goods or services from a business. This term is often used in retail or transactional settings, where the relationship is primarily focused on the immediate exchange of a product or service for payment. Customers may be one-time buyers or repeat purchasers, but the relationship generally revolves around a specific transaction.

"Client"

On the other hand, a client often implies a deeper, more ongoing relationship. Clients are more common in service-based industries, such as consulting, legal services, or financial planning. The relationship between a business and its many clients and customers is often built on trust, personalization, and a sense of partnership. Clients may work with a business for an extended period, and the focus is on providing tailored solutions to meet their unique needs.

So, which title should you be using in your sales and customer relationships? Whether you are dealing with casual purchases or a long term client relationship, it matters how you communicate with clients/customers.

High Quality Customer Service Requires The Right Terminology

One of the most significant external challenges is the potential for marketing misfires. You risk alienating or confusing your target audience when you use the wrong term in your marketing materials or communications.

For example, if you're a high-end consulting firm and refer to your clients as customers, it may diminish the perceived value of your professional services and fail to convey the level of personalization and expertise you provide. This misalignment can lead to lost opportunities and a weakened brand reputation. Or, if you use industry-specific jargon without explaining it to your customers, they may feel excluded and struggle to understand your message.

On the other hand, using the right terminology can strengthen your relationship with current and potential customers. Clients buy advice from consultants and expect to be treated as such. When you address them as clients, you acknowledge their need for guidance and establish a partnership mentality. This creates a sense of trust and respect, which are crucial for maintaining long-term relationships.

Internal Confusion and Inconsistency

The significance of terminology extends beyond external interactions—it's crucial within your team as well. Employing accurate terms enhances clarity and prevents frustration among team members. Misunderstandings about the nuances of customer disputes or the depth of client relationships can lead to inconsistent messages and subpar service. Such communication gaps can prevent your organization from seizing opportunities to foster trust, loyalty, and enduring partnerships.

Consider this: 71% of consumers anticipate personalized interactions from businesses, and even more (76%) get frustrated when companies fail to meet that expectation. (Source: Next in Personalization 2021 Report by McKinsey)

This statistic underscores the need for precise communication. By ensuring your team uses the correct terms consistently, you're not just dealing with semantics. You're demonstrating a profound respect and understanding of your relationships with clients, acknowledging their unique needs and expectations, and thereby solidifying your business connections.

Aligning Language with Your Business Model

Whether you are the business owner or the team marketer, you have to ask yourself: "Am I using language that accurately reflects the relationships I've built and the value I provide?"

Taking the time to understand and apply the correct terminology, you can strengthen your connections, improve your marketing efforts, and ultimately drive better results for your business.

Precision in language is a powerful tool in building and maintaining customer relationships. Whether you're dealing with customers or clients, using the right terminology demonstrates your commitment to understanding their needs and providing the highest level of service. It's a small but significant detail that can set your business apart and help you build lasting, successful client relationships.

Using The Right Terms In The Right Context

You might be wondering, "When does using client vs customer actually make a difference in customer success?" While it's always best to use precise language, there are specific situations where the distinction between "customer" and "client" is particularly crucial.

explenation of when to use customer vs. client terminology

In Legal and Contractual Contexts

In legal and contractual settings, the terms "customer" and "client" can have different implications.

For example, in some industries, the term "client" may be used to denote a fiduciary responsibility, meaning that the business has a legal obligation to act in the client's best interests. In these cases, using the wrong term could lead to confusion about the nature of the relationship and the level of responsibility the business has toward the individual or organization.

And when you're working with contracts, it's key to use precise language to avoid confusion between client vs customer legality.

In Marketing and Branding

Consistency in your marketing and branding efforts is essential for building a strong, recognizable brand identity.

When you use the same terminology across all your marketing channels, from your website to your social media profiles to your email campaigns, you create a cohesive brand experience that reinforces your values and expertise. Inconsistent use of "customer" and "client" can lead to confusion and dilute the effectiveness of your marketing messages.

In Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

In customer relationship management, using the right terminology can help you better segment and target your audience. When you make it clear whether an individual or organization is a customer or a client, you can tailor your communication, offers, and support to their specific needs and expectations. This level of personalization can lead to increased customer satisfaction and loyalty and, ultimately, better business outcomes.

In Industry-Specific Norms

Some industries have specific norms or expectations when it comes to using "customer" or "client." In the financial services industry, "client" is often the preferred term, as it implies a higher level of personalization and trust.

On the other side of the spectrum, a retail "customer" is used, as the relationship is typically more transactional. Understanding and adhering to these industry norms is all about knowing what your clients expect from their professional service.

In Evaluating Your Own Business Practices

To determine when the distinction between "customer" and "client" matters most for your business, take a moment to evaluate your own business practices. Consider the nature of your relationships with existing clients, the level of personalization and support you provide, and the expectations of your target audience. By understanding these factors, you can make informed decisions about when and how to use these terms effectively.

In Communicating Your Value Proposition

The way you use "customer" and "client" can also impact how you communicate your value proposition. If you're using "client" to emphasize the personalized, high-touch nature of your services, make sure that your value proposition reflects this level of service. On the other hand, if you're using "customer" to highlight the accessibility and convenience of your offerings, your value proposition should align with these attributes.

This strategic alignment is not merely beneficial; it's potentially lucrative. Research indicates that companies excelling in personalization generate 40% more revenue from these activities than their counterparts. Aligning your terminology with your value proposition is not just good practice—it's a significant business opportunity.

Getting Practical: Customer vs. Client In Action

To better understand the real-world implications of using "customer" versus "client," let's explore some practical examples across various industries and business scenarios.

Example 1: The Boutique Marketing Agency

Imagine a small, boutique marketing agency that specializes in providing customized, high-touch marketing strategies for a select group of businesses. They pride themselves on developing deep, long-term relationships with their clients, and their services are tailored to each client's unique needs and goals.

In this case, referring to their clients as "customers" would be a misstep. The term "customer" implies a more transactional relationship, which doesn't align with the agency's value proposition of personalized, strategic partnerships. By consistently using the term "client" in their marketing materials, contracts, and communications, the agency reinforces the value they place on building lasting, collaborative relationships with loyal clients.

Example 2: The E-Commerce Retailer

Now, let's consider an e-commerce retailer that sells a wide variety of products to a large, diverse customer base. Their business model is built on providing a seamless, convenient online shopping experience with competitive prices and fast shipping.

For this retailer, using the term "customer" is more appropriate. The relationship between the retailer and their customers is primarily transactional, focused on the purchase and delivery of products. While the retailer certainly values their customers and strives to provide excellent service, the nature of the customer experience and relationship is less personalized and more focused on meeting the customer's immediate needs.

Example 3: The Financial Planning Firm

A financial planning firm works closely with individuals and families to develop comprehensive, long term success well-term financial strategies. Their services often involve managing sensitive financial information, providing expert advice, and guiding clients through major life transitions.

In this context, using the term "client" is essential. It emphasizes the trust-based, fiduciary relationship between the law firm, the financial planner, and the individuals they serve. The term "client" also underscores the level of personalization and commitment the firm brings to each relationship as they work to understand and support their clients' unique financial goals and challenges.

Example 4: The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) Company

Consider a SaaS company that provides a cloud-based project management tool for businesses of all sizes. They offer a range of subscription plans, from basic to enterprise-level, and their customer base includes a wide spectrum of industries and business types.

For this company, the choice between "customer" and "client" may depend on the specific context and the level of service provided. For their self-service, entry-level plans, short term "customer" may be the most appropriate term, as the relationship is primarily focused on providing access to the software.

However, for their higher-tier plans that include dedicated support, custom integrations, and consultative selling, the term "client" may be more fitting to reflect the elevated level of partnership and collaboration.

Client vs Customer - The Right Words Matter in Customer Success

From phone calls to in-person engagement, your long term success depends on your proper use of client vs customer terminology. It may seem silly, but missing the mark in your client based services could cost high-value professional relationships or ongoing services.

To keep it simple, follow these tips:

"Customer" typically refers to a more transactional relationship, while "client" often implies a deeper, more personalized partnership.

Using the right term consistently helps to reinforce your brand identity, values, and the nature of your business relationships.

The appropriate term may vary depending on your industry, business model, and the level of service you provide.

Consistency is key, but it's also important to adapt your language to fit the context and audience when necessary.

By using the right terminology and prioritizing consistency, you can see immediate value and more productive relationships with your customers or clients and ultimately drive better business outcomes.

Connect & convert potential clients with CallPage

Now that you know the role that tiles play in customer acquisition and the ability to retain clients, it's time to put these insights into practice. The tool that can help you connect with potential clients faster or customers is CallPage.

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