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What Is the Difference Between a Customer and a Client?

Customers might purchase a service or product only once, but good customer service can bring them back.
Lawyers and other professionals often form long-term relationships with clients.
In general, both terms can refer to a person or organization that buys goods or services.
The term "client" is often reserved for customers who require long-term, dedicated service from a company.
Article Details
  • Originally Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Revised By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 August 2014
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The difference between a customer and a client can be rather confusing, and in some instances, both terms may be used to refer to any type of business patron. When a company has ongoing interaction with someone, that person tends to be referred to as a client rather than a customer. The term "client" tends to suggest the need for long-term care and consideration. There are also some industries in which one term is preferred over the other due to the typical way in which people do business.

Difference in Relationship

In general, the difference between a customer and a client is that a protective, ongoing business relationship is formed with a client, but not necessarily with a customer. For example, a customer might walk into a store one time, choose a few items, and make a purchase before leaving. A client, on the other hand, comes back repeatedly to make additional purchases and establishes a long-term relationship with a company. This difference can be subtle, but it is important since many businesses want to establish these long-term associations.

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A client may also seek advice from the business he or she has a relationship with. While most companies have customer service, there are also client "care" or "service" departments in many corporations that help people stay informed about their options and make decisions. Those who depend on their relationship with a business, such as a client with a lawyer, need information that protects their interests, while a customer might just want to purchase goods and services.

Companies that Make Distinctions

The distinction between these two types of patrons can be vital for some companies. In real estate, for example, the difference between a customer and a client can be quite important. A customer is typically someone using a real estate agent to help oversee the buying or selling of a house, but the agent does not act directly on his or her behalf. In contrast, a client allows a real estate agent to represent him or her and expects all information known by the agent to be used for his or her benefit.

Lawyers typically have clients, though someone who hires a lawyer to create a legal document but does not wish to have representation might be called a customer. While healthcare professionals have "patients," it is expected that a healthcare worker acts on behalf of patients and shares all important information with them, in much the same way companies work with clients.

Differences in Name Only

In general, both terms can refer to a person or organization that buys goods or services. As increased competition has created a greater need for companies to set themselves apart from each other, however, these terms have become more commonly separated in their use. Some technology companies, for example, have begun using "client" instead of "user" because it suggests a more meaningful relationship between the company and the person using its software.

Word origins also show the difference between a customer and a client. For example, the origin of the word "customer" dates back to Middle English of the 1400s and is related to the word "customs" as ways of doing things. The word "client," on the other hand, was also a part of Middle English vocabulary, but it dates back even further. It is derived from the Latin word cliens which means "dependent" or "follower," stressing this difference in relationship.

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Discuss this Article

anon226785
Post 42

I was under the impression that a customer is someone who comes and buys the goods/services one time then leaves, whereas a client has an ongoing relationship with the business.

anon106108
Post 33

Appreciate this bit of knowledge.

anon102253
Post 32

Good definition, with simple and sober language for understanding.

anon96343
Post 31

Excellent definition. simple and easy to understand.

anon92593
Post 29

very knowledgeable article.

anon92020
Post 28

Excellent definition. Thanks a million.

anon83235
Post 24

nice one. Thanks.

anon82964
Post 23

Crystal clear!

anon77948
Post 22

Excellent definition. simple and easy to understand.

anon76832
Post 20

Thanks. i am a professor and this definition has cleared my confused mind.

anon75009
Post 19

I like the way it explains the difference. Simple and upfront. Thank you.

anon54215
Post 5

Thanks, am out of the confusion. great definition.

anon32446
Post 2

great article! thanks.

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