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What Is the Difference between a Customer and a Client?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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The difference between a customer and a client can be rather confusing, and even controversial. The most commonly accepted and basic description of the difference is that a customer purchases goods or services from a business whereas a client receives services from a professional such as a lawyer or accountant. This is the most important factor that differentiates these two terms. If we wish however, we can further examine how these terms are applied in different sectors or industries.

Difference in Relationship

The term "client" may imply a protective, ongoing business relationship. 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, may return repeatedly to make additional purchases and may establish a long-term relationship with a professional.

A client may also seek advice from the professional. 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

As increased competition has created a greater need for companies to set themselves apart from each other, the use of these terms may be extended to new applications. 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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Discussion Comments
By rafamaximum — On Oct 14, 2014

I did not know the difference until I read this article. Keep up the good work.

By anon226785 — On Nov 02, 2011

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.

By anon106108 — On Aug 24, 2010

Appreciate this bit of knowledge.

By anon102253 — On Aug 07, 2010

Good definition, with simple and sober language for understanding.

By anon96343 — On Jul 15, 2010

Excellent definition. simple and easy to understand.

By anon92593 — On Jun 29, 2010

very knowledgeable article.

By anon92020 — On Jun 25, 2010

Excellent definition. Thanks a million.

By anon83235 — On May 10, 2010

nice one. Thanks.

By anon82964 — On May 08, 2010

Crystal clear!

By anon77948 — On Apr 16, 2010

Excellent definition. simple and easy to understand.

By anon76832 — On Apr 12, 2010

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

By anon75009 — On Apr 05, 2010

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

By anon54215 — On Nov 28, 2009

Thanks, am out of the confusion. great definition.

By anon32446 — On May 21, 2009

great article! thanks.

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