On Client v. Customer

When speaking at conferences aimed at professionals I often use the term customer rather than client to describe the buyers in the professional relationship. Sometimes I can visibly see some people winch.

I know what they are thinking, “This guy doesn’t even use the correct word to describe the people I serve. What can he know about this industry or my business?” I see these contortions so often that I usually have to have a side bar conversation to explain myself. I fear if I do not, the rest of what I have to say will fall on deaf ears.

This post is about why I prefer customer to client. But first, a story about growning up in the Kless household in Levittown, NY.

My Dad loves Latin. I mean he really loves Latin. (For a short time he tutored a post-Vactican II educated priest who felt he, the priest, had really missed out on something.) My Dad especially loves taking English words and breaking them down to the Latin roots to gain greater insight into their meaning — in other words, the etymology.

Did you ever see, My Big Fat Greek Wedding? If you have, I am sure you will remember the running gag in which Nia Vardalos’ Dad, portrayed superbly by Michael Constantine, asks, “Give me a word, any word, and I will show you how the root of that word is Greek.”

Well, in my house it was like that only with Latin instead of Greek.

I will always remember the time my Dad explained that the two root words compounded to make up the English word mortgage are mortuus- meaning “death” and –gage meaning “pledge.” A mort-gage is a “death pledge.” Yes, Dad, yes it is. Crystal clear now, right!

As a result of this upbringing I tend to look up (as I do not have my Dad’s memory for such things) the original meaning of the root words (Latin, Greek, or otherwise). This, of course, brings us to the word client. The origin is from the Latin cliens, a variant of cluens meaning ‘hear or obey.’ Further still the word derives from the suffix –klei meaning “to lean.” We see this reflected in the English words incline, decline, and recline.

The term originally denoted “a person under the protection and patronage of another,” a ‘leaner’ if you will, who needed to be propped up and fixed so they did not ‘lean’ anymore. These were people who needed to be protected by an adviser, usually in a legal proceeding. 

In ancient Rome, lawyers did not charge for their time or anything at all for that matter. All citizens had to be represented before a court by a lawyer for free. (Interesting model.) We still see this with Legal Aid (“if you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you”) and in social work. Social workers, too, have clients. You see it is very much a patron/benefactor relationship and at worst a derrogatory one at that.

Customer on the other hand derrives from custom — “a practice followed by one as a matter of course.” The word custom as far back as can be traced in Latin has this same meaning — “to become accustomed to.” There are no negative associations with the word that I can trace.

It is my belief that professions can/should/do aspire to this kind of relationship. We want the people we serve to look at us as a practice to be follwed as a matter of course. We want it to be their custom to engage with us, not come to us when they need propping up or fixing.

I think changing the language around this relationship is important. Words matter. Semantics matter. It is for this reason I believe professionals should speak of their customers, and not their clients.


  1. Gerhard says:

    Interesting timing as I have been thinking about this subject. I just hired a new employee from Latin America (new immigrant) and figured that it was a good opportunity to speak in Spanish with him so that I could keep it up. I’ve always made sure to use the word customer anytime I speak or write. But now find myself talking about my “clientes” customers in Spanish.

    Well there we have it for always wanting to use the right words 😉

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