Sales: Do You Have Customers or Clients?

Whether you have customers or clients is more than a matter of semantics. Some businesses use the term “clients” in an attempt to class up their image. Attorneys usually have clients. Kentucky Fried Chicken doesn’t, regardless of what they might say. Nordstrom? …We’ll see.

I am loath to fall back on the hackneyed “Webster Sez” device in writing (try reading some high school essays. It seems about one in three start that way), but here is the dictionary approach, mercifully shortened.

A Customer is one who purchases goods and services

A Client is one who uses professional services.

I’m sorry, but those definitions are both weak and useless. The type of services (or goods for that matter) have little to do with whether you seek customers or clients for your business.

Customers are buyers who establish a relationship for the purposes of conducting a transaction.

Clients are buyers who conduct a transaction based on a relationship.

So a storefront attorney who offers cheap wills, incorporations and other standard form-based serviced has customers, despite the fact that he is a professional. An attorney who creates detailed estate plans has clients.

Costco has customers. They go there to buy stuff at good prices. Nordstrom has clients. Going to Nordstrom is their buying decision. What they buy depends on the need of the moment, but whatever it is they are buying it at Nordstrom.

eBay has customers. Amazon has clients. Ah Ha! You disagree? I argue that Amazon has proven that they can attract buyers who are looking for power tools and skiwear, pet supplies and perfume. I have clients that sell those things through their own web presence as well as through Amazon. The numbers Amazon can produce for any retailer are breathtaking.

They don’t promote power tools, they promote how Amazon serves its clients. Amazon has extended their client relationship to other vendors as a substantial profit center of its own. In fact, how much of Amazon’s profits are still from selling books? They sell clients.

How about your company? I hear many owners say “Our business is based on relationships. Our clients work with us because we have long-term relationships with them. Of course, that S.O.B. down the street who is cutting prices is taking a lot of them away.”

News flash- those are customers, and they aren’t buying on relationship. They may be buying because they see value in what you sell, and there is nothing wrong with that, but that doesn’t make them clients.

A very few high-class call girls have a strictly limited client list. The rest have customers.

Perhaps the world’s greatest curmudgeon, George Bernard Shaw, once argued at a society party that everyone had their price. A well-dressed woman demurred, to which Shaw reposted “Madam, would you consider sleeping with me for a thousand guineas?” She allowed that for such a large sum she would have to consider it. “Well then, how about sleeping with me for a shilling?”

Certainly not!” she exclaimed. “What do you think I am?

Shaw’s immortal comment “We’ve established that, my dear. Now we are just haggling.” is a classic. Like most classics, it endures because it is so true.

Clients or customers? The answer is what you want it to be, but regardless of price, customers aren’t clients just because you say they are.

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2 Responses to Sales: Do You Have Customers or Clients?

  1. Clint Moar says:

    Ha! Love the Shaw comment…
    Thanks John.
    This is one that I’ve always wondered about as well…I never liked the word “client”, felt like those using it were trying to sound important…I’ll never be a lawyer so they’ll always be customers (buying something)…

  2. John, thanks for your article. I agree with your distinction between the two. Perhaps, though, it does not go far enough.

    It seems to me that “customers” purchase goods and services which have been commoditized; that is, items for which little value derives from an ongoing relationship with the supplier or intermediary providing the commoditized goods or services.

    “Clients,” on the other hand, purchase some goods, and more often services from people or businesses whose approach, advice and supplementary services they trust and value. Therefore, the elements of “trust” and “value” figure into the distinction between the two.

    Finally, those of us who have clients need to recall that the meaning of “trust” and “value” must be based on the buyer’s personal perception … not our own. Too often, we focus on what we believe is valuable rather than focusing on “value” as defined by the client/buyer.

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