Do words matter? Client v Customer in professional services

31st January 2016

There’s a lot of talk about customer-focus, customer-centricity, customer engagement and customer experience these days. But I’ve found that many of us – and not just in marketing – don’t understand what this truly means; we are still too focussed on what we do – our products and services, our tasks and our outputs – instead of continually asking ourselves a critical question: ‘does this matter to our customers’?

Knowing our customers has never been more important. As marketers, we know this, it’s a given, because B2B and especially professional services are so heavily relationship-driven. And yet, I would guess that most of us in B2B and professional services marketing mostly think of our customers as organisations and job titles. So how well do we really know our customers? Do we actually think from a customer perspective?

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You may have noticed that throughout my blog posts I always use the word ‘customer’ when talking about the people we do business with. When, in reality, in professional services, we call the people we do business with our ‘clients’. Have we ever given much thought to why this is and what it might mean?

I ask because a lot of the language we use is idiosyncratic to professional services and is a major influence on our perceptions and perspectives. Those of you who know me know that I’m continually fascinated by the ways in which the language we use, the words we speak, impact how we think and behave.

So – as I’ve done before – I looked up the definitions of the words client and customer in the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • A client is ‘A person or organization using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company’
  • While a customer is ‘A person who buys goods or services from a shop or business’

Did you catch the major difference in these definitions?

A client ‘uses’.

A customer ‘buys’.

It’s a subtle but important distinction in how we think about and engage with the people we do business with.

Somehow in professional services we have completely gotten away from the concepts of buying and selling, as if those activities are vulgar or beneath us, as if money never changes hands and we magically win work. We talk about ‘decision-makers’ instead of ‘buyers’, we speak of relationships instead of sales. We focus on bids and pitches, our expertise and experience, instead of the very real emotional drivers of our customers’ buying behaviours.

Because the buying decision – even in professional services – is an emotional decision. Those decisions may be justified and rationalised with facts and stats and data, but ultimately our customers don’t just buy our services, they buy us and all that we represent to them on an emotional level.

And by continuing to speak about our ‘clients’, the conversations we have and the stories we tell become conversations and stories about us and what we do, instead of about the issues and things that really matter to our ‘customers’.


Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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