Customer vs. Client

As I write about small business marketing strategies I’m often confronted the choice between the word client or customer when referring to those folks you exchange goods and services with for money. For the most part the words are interchangeable, but seem, culturally, to possess different meanings and uses. In the main, client is more often used by someone referring to a professional service such as a law firm. Customer is more likely the word of choice for a retailer or plumber.

The idea for this post actually goes to Ridgely Evers, founder of NetBooks. In a brief discussion he mentioned the origin of the word customer is the Latin – consuetudinem, coming from one’s habit or custom – or, someone’s customary practice do something repeatedly. The root of client is the Latin clients, more closely related to the idea of a follower.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve know I want my customers to know, like, trust, call and refer me repeatedly. I want them to grow accustomed to my blog. I want it to be their custom to think of me whenever they need a practical marketing tip. So, customer it is for me.

Both words compared from the Online Etymology Dictionary.

client – 1393, from Anglo-Fr. clyent, from L. clients (acc. clientem) “follower, retainer,” perhaps a var. of prp. of cluere “listen, follow, obey” (see listen); or from clinare “to incline, bend,” from suffixed form of PIE base *klei- “to lean” (see lean (v.)). The ground sense is of one who leans on another for protection. In ancient Rome, a plebeian under protection of a patrician (in this relationship called patronus, see patron), originally in Eng. “a lawyer’s customer,” by c.1600 extended to any customer. Clientele is 1563, from Fr. clientèle, from L. clientela “relationship between dependent and patron.”

custom – c.1200, “habitual practice,” from O.Fr. costume, from V.L. *consuetumen, from L. consuetudinem, acc. of consuetudo “habit or usage,” from consuetus, pp. of consuescere “accustom,” from com- intens. prefix + suescere “become used to, accustom oneself,” related to sui, gen. of suus “oneself,” from PIE *swe- “oneself” (see idiom). Replaced O.E. þeaw. Sense of a “regular” toll or tax on goods is c.1325. Customer (14c.) meant “customs official” before meaning switched to “buyer” (first attested 1409). Customary is from 1523.


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