The words “client”, “customer” and “consumer” are often confused for one another and used interchangeably (especially the first two terms). Many businesses don’t distinguish between the three and don’t really need to either.
However, if you launched a startup or if you’ve been running a small business, and need to plan/determine your business goals and growth, then it’s useful to know the difference. Let’s start with (paraphrased) dictionary definitions:
Someone who uses the professional services of an individual or company. (Archaic definitions include a dependent or someone under the protection of somebody else.)
A person who buys goods or services from a business (which includes shops).
Someone who buys good and services for their personal use; or someone who eats or uses something.
So what are the connotations of each?
A “client” implies a long-standing relationship as well as the purchase of services, solutions, advice, etc., from (for example) law firms, marketing agencies and health care. These services and solutions can be personalized and customized for the client.
Businesses should generally aim for clients above all, because with those come ongoing business, loyalty, referrals, brand ambassadors and so forth. Usually a client relationship is deeper, requires more involvement, and is more fruitful.
A “customer” suggests a one-time sale – like buying something from a grocery store, restaurant, amusement park, etc. However there can be “repeat” customers. It’s usually only focused on an economic exchange: the purchase of goods/products for a fixed price.
Consumers are usually thought of as the end user – the person who actually uses the product or service. So what’s the difference between a customer and consumer? A mother who purchases diapers from a store is a customer, but her baby (who’ll use the product) is the consumer.
Consumer is more impersonal and often refers to the use of technological products and services (paid or not).
Who makes the distinction and why
Someone involved in real estate, for example, would find the value in differentiating between clients and customers. Nowadays, people involved in business are changing their mindsets regarding these terms, and are focusing on building a client base that requires more attention and better service. Additionally technology, with its advanced CRM systems, allows for deeper customer relationships. In return, clients offer long-term business, and are advocates for product and services.
In the end though, it’s just semantics. Business relationships thrive on mutual respect and benefits, not labels: “It really doesn’t matter if you call your customers customers, as long as you always treat them like clients.”