Why Customer, Not Client

Customers are people; consumers are statistics.
—Stanley Marcus [1905–2002], Quest for the Best

Stanley Marcus was the son of one of the founders of Neiman-Marcus. I believe he understood customer service better than almost anyone, and I have learned many things from his books.
One of his favorite sayings was:

“No ‘market’—or ‘consumer’—ever purchased anything in one of my stores, but a lot of customers came in and bought things and made me a rich man.”

Words mean things. The words we use and the language we adopt, as a firm and as a profession, take on certain meanings over time. They become part of our culture, the way we do things.

When I began researching the Total Quality Service (TQS) and customer loyalty movements in the late 1980s, it struck me how many organizations have tried to call their customers something other than a customer.

The word client, when you look at its etymology, is an inappropriate word to describe the relationship between a professional and the person he or she serves in today’s marketplace. Client is derived from the Latin word cliens, which is a follower, retainer, one who follows his patron. In other words, a person dependent on another, as for protection or patronage.

According to my Dictionary, “among the ancient Romans a client was a citizen who placed himself under the protection of a patrician, who was called his patron; a master who had freed his slave, and retained some rights over him after his emancipation; a dependent; one under the protection or patronage of another.” Are these the type of images you want to project?

The Problem with the Contemporary Meaning

I realize words change in meaning, and they adopt contemporary usage and generally accepted definitions, and client is no exception. The Dictionary also describes client as “a person or company for whom a lawyer, accountant, advertising agency, etc. is acting; loosely, a customer; a person served by a social agency.”

But visit any governmental agency that dispenses aid to individuals, and you will soon discover they too use the word client. A social worker may have clients but I do not believe this describes the relationship we have (or want) with our customers.

What has happened to the word customer, and why do so many businesses attempt to describe the people they serve as something else? After all, customer is derived from the word custom, which is something done regularly. Therefore, a customer is a person who buys, especially one who buys regularly.

Why is it when you see the doctor, you’re a “patient,” when you board an airplane, a “passenger;” when you get into a taxi, a “fare”; to your utility company, a “ratepayer;” to your insurance company, a “policyholder;” and to a newsletter, a “subscriber”.

What’s going on here? Why not call customers what they are? Why do businesses develop a special terminology to describe what is, in essence, a commercial transaction? It is as if professionals believe we are not subject to the laws of supply and demand along with everyone else.

Partially, it’s arrogance, a way for us to feel superior about ourselves relative to our customers. After all, one doesn’t “sell” to a client; one doesn’t pander in the marketplace with non-professional advertising to attract clients; rather they rush to seek us out for our expertise, experience, guidance, etc. Does this sound like the current environment in which we operate?

The customer is sovereign, period. We may not like it, we may wax nostalgic for the good old days when customers lined up like passive sheep to be fleeced, but those days are gone, forever. Professionals can no longer place themselves above the “crass marketplace.” We must participate in it, and we must differentiate ourselves from the competition if we are to succeed.

Walt Disney insisted his customers be called “guests.” His attitude, which still permeates the entire culture of all Disney theme parks, is that the role of employees (“Cast Members”) is to entertain the guests and show them a good time. The words used to describe the people served by a business are a good indication of the attitude of the firm.

I’m not suggesting if you change your vernacular you will automatically instill a culture committed to the customer. Far from it. But the words you use to describe the people you serve says an enormous amount about the attitude of your firm—and it is the attitude and actions of your people that ultimately determine your firm’s culture.

I don’t expect many professionals to adopt the word customer. And that’s a good thing, for you. After all, you’re reading this Blog for the purpose of differentiating yourself from the competition, because competition really is conformity. Start referring to your clients as customers, and you will discover it has a salutary effect on your attitude, firm culture, customer loyalty and respect, and ultimately, your bottom line.

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