Client vs Customer: Key Differences and When To Use Which

Women paying for goods with credit card

Since you’re here, I bet you’re wondering what is the answer to client vs customer dispute…

Is there a real difference between client and customer??

Well, let me first tell you that I’ve been there.

For many years, I was neutral in a client vs customer fight. I thought both words have the same meaning, and so I can use them as synonyms.

As it turns out, that’s not a thing!

And while in a day-to-day talk a few lexical mistakes may slip through, it won’t be the same in business communication.

When you try to appeal to your audience you have to use the right words. Plus, you should sound knowledgeable enough, so they want to trust you.

Today, I’m going to show you how to understand the client vs customer dispute, on which side to stand and whether it really matters!

Table of contents:

  1. Definition of a customer
  2. Definition of a client
  3. Key differences – Client vs Customer
  4. So… I have clients or customers?
  5. Alternatives to customer and client

First, I’ll explain the definition of client and customer (separately) so later we can clearly see how both are different.

Definition of a customer

“There is only one boss. The customer.” – Sam Walton

When it comes to the dictionary definition a customer is a person or an organization that buys something from a shop, store, or business.

Right away, we can see that customer is a word that we mostly refer to in regards to casual purchases.

And that should be no surprise as the word comes from the Latin ‘custom’ which simply means ‘practice’.

Therefore, we can understand a customer as a person who buys goods frequently or has a habit of doing so.

Client vs Customer: Women happily walking with a couple of shopping bags

What?! It was 50% off!
That’s also why we define a customer as a person who purchases goods or services in exchange for money.

Also, it’s important to mention that the customer doesn’t get involved in a long-lasting relationship with the business he purchases from.

This means, that the whole sales cycle is usually short.

Of course, brands can build a good relationship with their customers – and they should! – but since they don’t rely on only one or two customers, they can focus on other parts of their business.

For a more day-to-day example: You can think of a customer as a person who uses one-off services – goes to the store or eats in a restaurant.

Definition of a client

“The best way to look at any business is from the standpoint of the clients.” – Jamie Dimon

Again, let’s start with a dictionary definition.

A client is a person who uses the services or advice of a professional person or organization.

Straightforward, we see that a client is more of a ‘formal’ form of a customer.

That’s because a client is involved in more specific types of purchases, namely services.

This means a guy who goes to buy a few apples and pears is not the store’s client but a customer.

Yet, if you go to the lawyer to help you get out of that deadlock situation then you’re his client.

Client vs customer: Scene from The Billions

Now, that was a real deal!
When it comes to the client the sales cycle tends to be quite long. Therefore, the relationship between both entities also tends to play a significant role.

For a day-to-day example: Think of a client as a person or entity who uses professional services such as a law firm or a design studio.

Key differences – Client vs Customer

Now that we know the definitions of both client and customer, let’s take a look at key differences between both.


The first and the most obvious difference in the client vs customer fight is the meaning.

Thus, just to recall.

Customer means a person who buys goods and services from the company. While the client refers to a person who looks for professional service from the business.

Relation with the seller

The other key difference is the type of relation that a client and customer have with the other entity.

A customer engages in a transaction with the company. That means, it is probably a one-off purchase. Thus, the seller doesn’t have to build a strong relationship with the buyer.

On the other hand, a client engages in a fiduciary relationship with the company.

This means both sides work on long-term goals and a long-lasting relationship. Plus, the business has to focus on creating a strong bond with the client in order to make him come back.


A third difference in the client vs customer dispute is the matter of an agreement.

The customer, as he makes an only one-time purchase, needs no formal agreement between him and the seller.

Yet, the client engages in a long-term relationship that can be oftentimes hard to predict. Meaning, an agency or a firm may not be as relevant as it seemed to be at first. Thus, both sides need a formal agreement that will include things such as:

  • Quota
  • Deadlines
  • Responsibilities
  • Expected results
  • Projected results
  • And more…

The offer

While this difference between client and customer doesn’t touch on either client or customer directly, it shows us how businesses that target both groups differ.

First, we have companies that target customers. Such entities can offer both products and services.

And on the other side, we have companies that have clients, which, as you’ve probably already guessed, offer services only.


This difference is strongly linked to the relation one.

Namely, businesses that have customers tend to build relations with less longevity that the ones that have clients.

That’s, of course, because they don’t rely on long-term goals and rather just aim to score one-time sells.

On the other hand, businesses that have clients have to do their best to keep clients from churning. After all, they rely on the relationship they create.

Personal attention

Last but not least is the matter of personal attention that vastly differs in the customer vs client dispute.

That’s because whenever you want to create a long-lasting relationship you need to put more personal attention towards another person.

Think of it like about a date.

You’d go out with a guy or a girl and hope that she or he likes you.

You wanted to create a relationship, not hoping for a one-night stand. Thus you did your best to grab their attention and show your benefits.

On the contrary, if you were looking for a quick score, all you had to do is lie about who you are and show how ‘awesome’ you are.

Sure, you might achieve what you wanted, but there’s no chance you’d ever meet him or her again.

Customer vs Client: Joey from Friends

Unless you’re Joey, of course!
And business is just like that.

While businesses who have customers can’t or, at least, shouldn’t lie about their offer, the personal attention is less required in their case. Here, the quality of a product should do its job.

The same aspect is much different in regards to client-based businesses. Here, personal attention is highly required and should be a priority as you want to keep the client for as long as it is possible.

Plus, you hope he’ll come again and do business with you on a recurring basis, for example like website building businesses.

So… I have clients or customers?

After all is said and done you should have a good outlook on the topic.

Yet, if you’re still wondering: Do I have clients or customers?

Let me give you a few examples of companies that are client- and customer-based.

Customer vs client: Inside of an agency office

An agency like the above has clients
Client-based companies:

  • Law firm
  • Design studio
  • Accounting firm
  • Insurance agency
  • Real estate agency
  • Advertising agency
  • Health care provider

Shelves with soda drinks in a supermarket

A supermarket, on the other hand, has customers
Customer-based companies:

  • Bank
  • Restaurant
  • Retail store
  • Supermarket
  • SaaS product
  • Service station
  • Amusement park

As you can see, typical service-based companies such as agencies and studios have clients.

Their priority is to get only a few, yet, high-ticket clients and stick with them.

Customer-based companies that are, for example, retail stores and restaurants usually rely on many customers that make one-time purchases.

But, as you can see, these are not businesses that can just be unappealing to their customers. While the relationship of the single trade is much shorter compared to client-based companies, they also need reoccurring purchases to function properly.

The real difference lays in the volume.

Businesses that sell to thousands of clients simply can’t focus on personal attention and fiduciary relationship. Logistic-wise it’s not really possible.

Alternatives to customer and client

-Wow! That’s a lot of confusion for just two words!
-I agree.

But maybe, just maybe, we can find some alternatives that will help us resolve the client vs customer dispute.

Below, I list a few words along with their definitions that, in specific scenarios, can be used as
alternatives to words customer and client.

Buyer – A person who makes a purchase. It can also be used in regards to a person employed to select and purchase stock or materials for a large retail or manufacturing business.

User – A person who uses or operates something. Nowadays, mostly used in regards to software users.

Consumer – A person who purchases goods and services for personal use.

Patron – A customer of a shop, restaurant, etc., especially a regular one.

Clientele – The customers of a shop, bar, or place of entertainment.

Purchaser – Synonym to a buyer. A person who buys something.

Habitué – A resident of or frequent visitor to a particular place.

Shopper – A person who is shopping.

Whenever you get stuck with customer vs client in your mind, go back to the above list and consider using one of the alternatives!


Sometimes it all DOESN’T matter!

But man… You’ve just told me that it’s crucial to use customer and client properly!

That’s true. But it doesn’t matter who you serve or sell to when it comes to customer service.

More than 50% of your audience wants to go straight to the source and call a company directly when they have an issue.
And that doesn’t change, no matter if you have clients or customers.

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With CrazyCall you’ll build an efficient helpline using tools such as an IVR and local phone numbers. This way your customers (or clients!) get an easy way to reach your business and quickly resolve their issues.

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Wrap up!

Not so long ago I was also the part of the client vs customer word-fight.

And I kid you not, it wasn’t easy to find the answer online.

Mostly, the information is quite confusing and you end up thinking: “That’s the same thing!” While the reality is much different.

Hopefully, at this point, you know which is which and this piece brought some clarity to the client vs customer dispute.

Plus, now you know who you serve (or sell) to!

Yet, if you’re still having trouble remembering who is a client and who is a customer, go back to the Definition of a customer section.

There you can read that customer comes from Latin ‘custom’ which simply means ‘practice’.

Remember that custom can be understood as “regular business” which can be understood as typical selling, retail stores, and supermarkets.

This connotation should help you quickly recall which is which.

Okay, two words, so much to say!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece and if you’d like to check out some more informative content, check out the rest of CrazyCall Blog!