JANUARY 1998

Customer or client?

In Dutch there's one word, "klant". In French there's one word, "client". In Spanish there's one word, "cliente". So how is it that in English we have the possibility of choosing between two words, and does our choice have any importance? Are the two words - customer and client - interchangeable?

A custom-made approach

The trend towards a more personalised approach in business dealings with other companies or persons - a repercussion, perhaps, of political correctness and the so-called "caring nineties" - has resulted in preference being given to the word "customer" over the more formal "client". This is particularly the case in companies' advertising material and in their direct communication with those purchasing their goods or services, and could be interpreted as simply reflecting a desire to give a good impression to the world in general and to entertain more amicable relations with those prepared to part with their money to their benefit. After all, if you want someone to buy what you're offering, you want to seduce that person into feeling at ease and to give him the impression that he is receiving a friendly service.

However, whilst it is nowadays the "in thing" to use the word "customer" when addressing the outside world - the word itself suggesting a greater degree of politeness (though not formality) and personalisation than "client" which has a cold ring about it,- when you are discussing your customers within your own company, for example at a staff meeting or board of directors' meeting, these customers will suddenly be referred to as clients.

It's all a question of context - a marketing tactic, one could almost say. When addressing the outside world, companies want to appear "customer-friendly". But when a firm's customers are discussed within the four walls of the enterprise, they become little more than vehicles of sales figures or... clients.

Don't rule out using "client"

However, one should not draw the conclusion that the word "client" is wholly negative, or that using it should be avoided. There are some (again, more formal) contexts in which use of the word "client" is more appropriate. A good example is in reports or surveys about other companies.

Loss adjusters, accounting firms, auditors, etc., periodically have to commission or draw up reports on the financial situation of companies, and in such reports, which discuss various aspects of the company's trading position, financial situation and prospects, the entities purchasing its goods or services would normally be referred to as clients, not customers. For example: "In the textile sector, the company has some major clients which have remained loyal to it for more than twenty years".

Dictionary definitions do not really help to clarify the difference between the two words, although they do highlight one or two specific meanings for each. The Collins English Dictionary gives the following for "customer":
"1. a person who buys 2. Informal. a person with whom one has dealings: a queer customer".
The first meaning here clearly refers more to an individual buying something in a store (for which we always use the word customer).

For "client", it gives:
"1. a person, company, etc., that seeks the advice of a professional man or woman. 2. a customer. 3. (in the US) a person who is receiving aid from a welfare agency. 4. a person depending on another's patronage".
The first meaning here refers to someone who contracts the services of a lawyer, psychologist, etc. There was a major film, called "The Client", revolving around the relationship between a lawyer and her client.

Which or who?

Finally, a word about one of those awkward questions that arise. Do we use "which" or "who" in relative clauses after the words "client" and "customer"?

Clearly, if we know that we are talking about individuals (for example, the customers of a shop), we use "who". But when referring to the companies purchasing the goods or services of another company, we can in most cases use either "which" or "who", although of course grammatically, because a company is an entity, we should use "which". The justification for using "who" is the idea that company (like "team", or "class") is a body of people.