Content Strategy

Client Versus Customer: How the Customer Relationship Is Defined by What You Call Your Audience

By Jonathan Crowl on January 29, 2018

Your company would be nothing without its customers. Or perhaps a better term is clients. Or maybe members, if you're a subscription-based service. Or, if you're an app-based service, maybe users.

You can see where this is headed. Your company has a target audience, and you might have a sharp understanding of that customer relationship through buyer personas and audience research. But when it comes to addressing them directly as a group, the terminology you use is interchangeable. The typical debate is "client" versus "customer," but depending on your industry and business model, the options could be even more diverse.

If the name you want to give your consumers feels like a small decision or a game of semantics, you're not going crazy. It is a small decision. But it's a small decision with big implications, especially where your marketing voice is concerned: How you address your customers (or clients) will affect how they perceive themselves and their relationship with your brand.

Even if you aren't aware of it, the terms used to describe customers have at least a subconscious impact on how that relationship is seen by your consumers, your employees, and even yourself. Carefully choosing these terms of reference is one simple way to take advantage of consumer psychology while implicitly defining the scope of the business-customer relationship.

Why Words Matter

In the case of "customer," this term is one-directional and transactional: Customers spend money with businesses and receive products or services in exchange. The relationship moves in one direction, and the terms of this relationship are plainly understood by everyone involved.

The pessimistic view is that, according to Steven Denning for Forbes, "'Customer' communicates that I am hardly more [than] a wallet from which some firm is trying to extract the maximum amount of money."

This isn't an inaccurate description-in fact, it describes many B2C relationships. But that doesn't make it a dirty word in every instance: Being a customer has its own form of empowerment, captured in the well-worn phrase "the customer is always right." It might be the perfect word to describe your customer base, but you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't examine why this term fits better than others.

Consider "client" as an alternative. This typically conveys a more structured relationship, potentially a business one. Lawyers have clients because they enter into a contracted, representative relationship. The relationship might be ongoing, as in the case of freelance contractors who do work for businesses on a monthly basis. Agents of any kind-real estate, booking, etc.-have clients whose interests they represent in business deals.

A B2B software company might choose to refer to its customers as "clients," with the goal of emphasizing their interest in helping them succeed. But if that software is delivered via a subscription-based service, the brand might prefer to call its customers "subscribers." The same goes for consumers who pay a monthly fee for streaming services, although that same company might prefer to enlist the term "users," since the existence of users implies paid subscriptions, and because "users" translates more naturally into stats and reports revolving around engagement.

Marriott member

Image attribution: y m01229

Or, to imply a deeper relationship and insider status, brands might choose to call their customers "members." In most cases, this needs to be accompanied by some sort of relationship entered into by consumers. Co-ops like REI have members because you can purchase a lifetime membership and receive dividends-these consumers are literal members of a cooperative business. But other brands reserve the "members" label for consumers in loyalty or VIP programs. Sephora's "Very Important Beauty Insider" (VIB) status is a membership level achieved when you register for a free Beauty Insider membership and spend at least $350 on Sephora merchandise. In other words, by putting your money where your mouth is, Sephora shoppers can elevate themselves from "customer" status to "member" status.

Credit card brands have been calling their customers "members" for years, with many even branding their customer service helplines as "member services." By making small adjustments to the language used to address their customers, these businesses have been able to convey a sense of exclusivity and status while reframing their transactional dynamic as ongoing relationships where both business and consumer are invested in the success of one another.

Which Choice Is Right?

There has to be a degree of practicality involved when choosing how to address your consumer base. Inaccurate or inauthentic terms are painfully easy to see: Just imagine how off-putting it would be if a Walmart cashier referred to you as a "valued client." The term used to describe your consumers needs to have some tangible basis in the relationship-which is to say that if you want to call them "members" instead of "customers," you'll need to find some rationale for that honorific, whether through the establishment of subscription fees, rewards programs, or some other framework that conveys an ongoing relationship.

With subscription-based models so popular in both B2B and B2C industries, this ongoing relationship is becoming a more pressing business priority. As such, many of these brands are examining how the language used to address their customers might need updating to better suit their business goals.

And if they aren't in this phase of consideration, they should rethink their strategy. For businesses unsure of the right path forward, they could consider using various marketing channels-email, social, etc.-to conduct A/B testing of certain honorifics. Perhaps testing reveals that content enjoys higher engagement for "members" than "subscribers." Or it might merely conclude that your suspicions were correct: "Customer" receives poor engagement and drives weaker ROI, proving that the status quo isn't an option.

The question of client versus customer is an important one for every brand to consider. And as your business model changes, the right answer to this question might change over time. But don't ignore the other alternatives that may provide a better fit for how you address your consumer base. This simple word will have a big impact on how you cultivate your customer relationships.

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Featured image attribution: Aral Tasher


Jonathan Crowl

Jonathan Crowl specializes in digital marketing and content creation for both B2B and B2C brands, with an emphasis on startups and technology. His past and current clients include B2B brands IBM, LinkedIn, Mad Mobile, Oktopost, BrightSpot, and Waze, as well as B2C brands Porsche, Epson, and PayPal. He lives in Minneapolis.