To many organizations, a “client” and a “customer” are pretty much the same. But in reality, there are differences — at least to us, anyway. And recognizing those client vs. customer differences has helped us be more strategic about the “client” experience we’re striving to provide and perfect.

We get it, though: sometimes it can feel too fussy to focus on this word over that word. When someone is so concerned with using the right word, it can be like a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. But when it comes to these particular words, there’s a reason we’re pausing on them and being particularly thoughtful about what we choose. 

Hang in there with us while we review the differences between a client and a customer, what those differences mean to us, and why all of this is important in the first place.

Client vs. customer differences

According to the Oxford dictionary, a customer is “a person or an organization that buys goods or services from a shop or business,” and a client is “a person who uses the services or advice of a professional person or organization.” HubSpot puts it more succinctly: customers buy products, and clients buy advice and solutions. In the end, what people are buying is less important.

Because both clients and customers buy something from an organization, the two terms are often used interchangeably — and especially in the SaaS world, which is where we live and breathe. But for us, that’s where the similarity ends.

We think about it like this: customers are mainly taking part in a one-time transaction to satisfy a short-term or singular need, while clients are taking part in a business relationship over time that satisfies a series of needs. 

Instead of facilitating short-term “buying and goodbye-ing,” our organization seeks to develop long-term connections and partnerships with our clients throughout the buying journey and over a period of many billing cycles. It’s how they know that they mean more to us than just the moment of purchase, and it keeps us accountable to them in more meaningful ways. 

Why the difference is important

When an organization has a relationship with a client vs. a customer, the entire strategy around service, support, and the overall client experience changes. Instead of relying on a frontline customer service team that churns through phone calls, emails, and chat sessions, the organization focuses on building and nurturing a connection with each client by elevating the level of access and personalization it provides. 

This is not to say customer service teams — in the way we described them above — aren’t necessary or don’t provide value, because they certainly do. We just mean that once your business pivots to thinking about its customers as clients, there’s much more that needs to go into the concept of “client service” than what would otherwise be offered. 

Ultimately what we’re talking about is taking an interest in your clients’ success and doing everything you can to ensure it. 

The role of client success

Client success is not just about support — or, the immediate steps or actions needed to solve a problem or fulfill a request. It’s about developing a partnership, cultivating empathy, and optimizing the overall experience clients have with the organization. Client success comes from listening to and interacting with clients in authentic, productive ways, as well as seeking answers to questions like: 

  • Is the client using the product or solution in the best way possible that meets their unique needs? 
  • Is there expert knowledge or advice to give the client that would dial up the success they’re already experiencing? 
  • What are the client’s long-term goals that the product or solution can help them achieve? 
  • What problems — old or new — have yet to be solved by the product or solution? And how can collaborating with the client help the organization better understand and address those problems?

Client success, in many ways, is also reciprocal.

Whereas a customer can walk away if all they needed was an immediate answer to an urgent issue, maybe dropping the product or solution after one billing cycle or less, a client sticks around — often for years. Clients are interested in the full breadth and depth of the product or solution and transform themselves into power users. They ask questions and want to expand their knowledge. They willingly give feedback that can be used to improve the product or solution, and they’re curious about upgrades and how those might benefit them. 

Together, an organization and its clients go forward, each impacted by and invested in each other’s outcomes. None of this is possible if the business strategy stays in the realm of the “customer.”

How we’re helping our clients succeed

When we decided to think about our buyers as clients instead of customers, everything changed. As a client service first organization, we’ve deliberately laid the groundwork for client success in who we recruit and hire, how we train and incentivize employees and the service methodology and processes we use — all of which enable us to provide an exceptional client experience and build lasting, collaborative partnerships with our clients.

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