Clients or Customers? The Difference Matters More than You Think

Clients or Customers? The difference matters more than you thinkWhen you listen to sales reps and managers talk about the people they sell to, it’s not uncommon to hear them use the words “client” and “customer” interchangeably. For example, at some point you’ve probably heard a sales rep say something like: “Our target customer is SMBs in the financial sector and these clients’ pain points include…”

Sound familiar? We’ve all done it. And while that interchangeability might seem relatively harmless, the reality is that the subtle differences between the two matter quite a bit. In fact, when you’re talking to people who recognize these distinctions, you might leave the wrong impression or, even worse, hurt your credibility with important decision makers.

So, what are the differences between clients and customers?

From my perspective, a client is a person whose business you have a vested interest in, and for whom you perform as a partner within their business. Not everything you provide is billable. And not every opportunity you’re awarded was shopped with the competition for the best price.

Put another way, you’re a respected part of the client’s business.

They value your expertise and recommendations, and while you want to be successful, it’s obvious to them that your primary objective is to make them successful.

A customer, on the other hand, is someone who you help meet a need. They have a problem and you address it.

You might still invest long hours in determining the right solution and they might still invest a great deal in purchasing that solution, but these types of buyers don’t typically recognize the full value of all you have to offer beyond your solutions. As a result, you don’t take time to present new ideas, perform quarterly review meetings, or call them spontaneously. You might still like these people and the business relationship may be amicable. But neither of you are investing in creating a long-term relationship. It’s a transaction.

Now, which would you rather have?

Personally, I want every customer to be a client because it means they respect my full value as a consultative seller. If you agree, here are three simple ways to begin treating your customers like clients:

  1. 1.     Change how you refer to them. If you want customers to be clients, start calling them clients. This will guide you and the customer into a different mindset.
  2. 2.     Examine new areas you can add value. This might include bringing a new idea to every meeting, helping them identify unique ways to address their strategic business objectives, or holding a project review meeting with their staff.
  3. 3.     Show them that you care about their success. This might seem simple enough, but it does take effort. You need to make truly helpful recommendations, and find ways to help the client that don’t always involve them handing you a check.

Remember the old adage, “dress for the position you aspire to”? I think this is a similar circumstance. We must not only treat our prospects and clients the way they deserve to be treated, but also speak of them as if they have already achieved that level of consultative service and attention.


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