Client vs. customer?

A client seeks out an industry professional’s services, while a customer purchases goods or product services from a business.

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What is the difference between client and customer?

The nouns client and customer are conceptually similar, but we generally use them for different circumstances: 

  • A client seeks out the services of an industry professional, such as a lawyer, accountant, personal caretaker, or private investigator. 
  • A customer purchases goods or product services from a business, such as a grocery store, internet service provider, or subscriber services like Spotify. 

A common misconception about clients and customers is that one purchases goods or services for business development while the other acquires products for personal use. However, there are many clients who seek out regular services unrelated to business, such as therapy, personal training, or even interior design. 

Another popular assumption about these terms involves service duration, where we associate the word “client with long-term relationships and “customer” with short-term ones. But anyone who regularly does their own grocery shopping or pays monthly cable bills knows this is untrue. This is especially easy to debunk for writers, graphic designers, or physical therapists, who might only work with a client one time. 

A more accurate way to distinguish these titles is to notice whether a service involves contracts, a licensed or trained professional, and personal attention. If so, the correct word is often “client,” not “customer.” 

What does client mean?

Client is a late Middle English noun that stems from Latin cliens or client-, a derivative of Latin cluens (‘heeding) and cluere (‘to hear, obey’). Altogether, these terms evoke an image of someone who is “at the call of another.” But according to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the noun’s original denotation described someone under the protection and patronage of a legal advisor (Chantrell 99). 

Today, the word client takes on a broader connotation to describe: 

  1. Anyone who purchases professional services from an individual or business entity. For example, 
  • Clients involved in high-risk industries seek out legal services on a regular basis.”
  • “Our client is seeking professional advice on SEO best practices.” 
  • “The client is unhappy with the illustrator’s template pricing.” 

    2. Someone who is “dependent” or under the protection of an adviser. 
  • “The client’s law firm is seeking damages upwards of $500k.”
  • “Private health care facilities avoid client injuries by limiting unnecessary furniture and removing sharp objects.” 
  • “A real estate agent contacted our landscaping company on behalf of their client.” 

    3. A network computer, workstation, or software that receives or utilizes data from a server or outside program.
  • “SaaS clients typically involve web browsers or desktop applications.” 
  • “Outdated web clients don’t provide high levels of security.” 

Clients vs. clientele?

If you can believe it, clients, clientele, clientage, clientelage, and clientry are all plural forms of the noun client. But when it comes to everyday English, the word clients is the most common and recommended plural form. Garner’s Modern English Usage regards clientele as pretentious and easily misused while denoting the latter plural forms as “invariably inferior” (Garner 173).  

Synonyms

Account, buyer, consumer, customer, end-user, guest, patron, purchaser, regular, shopper, user, vendee.

Antonyms

Broker, merchant, seller, shopkeeper, tradesman, vendor.

What is the definition of customer?

The noun customer dates back to late Middle English as custumer from custume or custom, which meant ‘habitual patronage of a business.’ This initial meaning has carried over to present usage, where we use the noun to reference: 

  1. An individual or organization that purchases goods or services from a business entity. For example,
  • “The retail store is not known for its customer service skills.”
  • “Businesses use social media to attract new customers.”
  • “The restaurant owner works hard to develop an ongoing relationship with their customers.” 
  • “Most graphic design software offers customer support for their users.”

    2. A distinct type of person that you have to deal with or tolerate. For example, 
  • “While my parents are sweet, my brothers are tough customers to please.”
  • “The amusement park is ‘The Happiest Place on Earth,’ but my child was a very unhappy customer.” 

Synonyms

[1] Account, buyer, client, consumer, guest, patron, purchaser, shopper, vendee. 

[2] Character, creature, fellow, human, individual, man, party, person, soul, woman. 

Antonyms

[1] Grocer, retailer, vendor. 

[2] Animal, beast, critter.

How to use customer vs. client in a sentence?

The easiest way to navigate English is to learn by example. Let’s take a look at how popular platforms use the words customer and client by topic. 

Professional service vs. customer service

  • “Using [Amazon Web Services] is a choice made by Amazon’s client businesses, not its hundreds of millions of end-users, or customers, or whatever, whom I suppose we may as well now just call ‘the public.’” — The New York Times
  • “It’s not yet clear if the dog walker was targeted because of his celebrity client, the captain said.” — AP News
  • “For Wall Street firms, an inability to offer Bitcoin to those clients raises the risk of losing them to other managers.” — Bloomberg
  • “Many fashion brands have invited plus-size models to their runways. Fewer are creating collections designed for this customer.” — Vogue Business

Technology

  • “A proxy client-server executes banking-level security protocols and enables user authentication to verify the sender and receiver, blocking outside intrusions.” — NASA
  • “Instead, I’ve written most of my articles in Word Online… wrote and responded to emails in Gmail and the Outlook Web client and, per usual, spent far too much of my time checking Twitter and Facebook.” — Wall Street Journal

Types of people or things to tolerate

  • “… a team of three officers snared the “slippery customer” – thought to have been an escaped or dumped exotic pet – using a ballistic bag.” — The Guardian
  • “A “rude” railway boss who made scathing replies to complaining customers on Twitter has had to apologize.” — BBC

Additional reading for client vs. customer

If you enjoyed learning the difference between client and customer, check out The Word Counter’s lessons on topics like:

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between client and customer with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: All client relationships are long-term while customers are short-term. 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. A ____________ purchases consultation services from a professional person or agency. 
    a. Customer
    b. Client
  3. A ____________ a customer purchases goods or product services from a business.
    a. Customer
    b. Client
  4. Which of the following is synonymous with “client”? 
    a. Vendee
    b. Merchant
    c. Semantic 
    d. Broker
  5. Which of the following is sometimes synonymous with “customer”? 
    a. Grocer
    b. Character
    c. Account
    d. B and C

Answers

  1. B
  2. B
  3. A
  4. A
  5. B

Sources

  1. Chantrell, Glynnis, Ed. “Client.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 99.
  2. “Dazio, S. “Lady Gaga’s dog walker shot, French bulldogs stolen in LA.AP News, APNews.com, 26 Feb 2021. 
  3. Client.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  4. Client.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  5. Customer.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  6. Customer.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  7. Garner, B. “Client and customer.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 173. 
  8. Herrman, J. “What, Exactly, Is Amazon Web Services?The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 9 Feb 2021.
  9. NASA Helps Bring Airport Communications into the Digital Age.” NASA, NASA.gov, 22 Dec 2020. 
  10. Natarajan, S. “Morgan Stanley May Bet on Bitcoin in $150 Billion Investment Arm.” Bloomberg, Bloomberg.com, 13 Feb 2021. 
  11. Northern rail boss apologizes for ‘rude’ customer tweets.” BBC News, BBC.com, 27 Apr 2018.
  12. Press Association. “’Slippery customer’: police snare carpet python in London park.” The Guardian, TheGuardian.com, 11 Aug 2015.Stern, J. “Chromebook Pixel Review: $1,000 for a Laptop That Only Surfs the Web?The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com, 11 Mar 2015.