Client or customer?

16 Jun

This is a bit of a funny one, to be honest, but someone asked me to do a post on it, and I do try to help!  So what is the difference between a customer and a client – or, indeed, is there one?

Again, thanks to my Oxford resources for helping me work this through – examples are my own.

According to the Concise Oxford English dictionary …

A “client” is a person who uses the services of a professional organisation or person.

A “customer” is a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business.

So, really, a customer buys things and a client buys services …  I suppose a good way to differentiate it is: a client is NOT someone who buys an apple from a greengrocer, and you could buy an accounting software package from an accountant as a customer, but most people would say you’d still be their client for their services (even though the dictionary suggests otherwise); if you were just buying the package, you’d be a customer of their re-selling arm.  As clear as mud?

Maybe we should just stick with: customers for goods; clients for services.  Using the dictionary selectively but not going against it. I call the people I work for clients, by the way.

And an added bonus: “clientele” is the collective set of clients!

For more troublesome pairs, have a look at the category cloud to your lower right, or click here!


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15 responses to “Client or customer?

  1. Jan Carr

    June 17, 2011 at 1:04 am

    I don’t agree with your suggestion that a person can buy a set of accounts from an accountant.
    Technically a person pays an accounting fee for a set of accounts prepared for that person i.e. the accountant provides a service. This seems to mean that a person who has an interaction with an accountant is a client of that accountant.
    However, that same person could, for example, purchase a software package such as MYOB (to enable the person to prepare a personal set of accounts) that the accountant may be able to provide in an agency role but that is not the same as a “set of accounts”. In that case the person who could be a regular client of the accountant is acting as a customer.
    Sets of accounts are valuable outputs from accountants performing a service and are prepared from information provided by their clients.


  2. Liz at Libro

    June 17, 2011 at 4:49 am

    Thank you Jan, and you’re right, of course – thanks for helping me clarify it! I’ve tweaked the post now, so it hopefully makes more sense.

    To retain the context, the part Jan was referring to originally read “a client is NOT someone who buys an apple from a greengrocer, but a customer CAN buy a set of accounts from an accountant. “


  3. Helen

    June 17, 2011 at 7:08 am

    My husband (an insurance broker) grumbles when I refer to one of his ‘customers.’ And I thought he was just trying to be uppity by calling them clients! Now I see he has a point.


  4. Jen

    June 17, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Hmm, interesting. I work for an IT Services company and we usually refer to the companies we provide services for as ‘customers’. But then again the word ‘client’ has a more specialised technical meaning in the IT world … so maybe that’s part of the reason?


  5. Caitlin

    June 17, 2011 at 8:15 am

    But the Oxford definition you quote says that a customer can buy services, it’s just that a client doesn’t buy goods. So really, Helen’s husband is just being uppity.


    • Liz at Libro

      June 17, 2011 at 8:18 am

      I think people do tend to divide the two into goods and services, even if they don’t usually do it consciously. I will tweak my post again in a bit – these little snippets are surprisingly hard to write!


      • Caitlin

        June 17, 2011 at 1:09 pm

        Yes that’s the way it’s commonly used. I’m just pointing out that “customer” is not wrong. It’s almost like “client” is a subset of “customer”.


  6. Liz at Libro

    June 17, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Or customer is a subset of client! I’m kind of beginning to wish I hadn’t attempted this one, although I was asked to!


  7. Gill Rose

    June 30, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    And here’s something else to throw into the mix. Nurses and doctors still call their patents patients, but many other health and social care professionals/workers now call them clients.


    • Gill Rose

      June 30, 2011 at 9:08 pm

      Oops, sticky keys today. “patients”


    • Liz at Libro

      June 30, 2011 at 9:09 pm

      Ah but they’re “buying” (with their taxes?) a service rather than a product, on the whole, so the client thing still works, in fact better than customer!


  8. Nordie

    October 14, 2011 at 8:23 am

    I work for an outsourcing IT company. When we refer to “the customer” we’re referring to the company who has engaged us to provide a service to them. Which is fine until we’re talking to them and refer to “the customer” (i.e. them) in front of them. They are thinking of *their* customer (the people who use their services). it can lead to some interesting conversations! (“no we’re talking about YOU not THEM!)


    • Liz at Libro

      October 14, 2011 at 8:26 am

      Yes, that can be tricky. I work for agencies sometimes and sometimes that gets difficult – I refer to the person who actually wants the work done as the “end client” sometimes …



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