‘Client’ or ‘customer’: does the label matter?

Earlier this month, I was invited by the Executive School of Management, Technology and Law at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland to deliver a keynote presentation on the topic of whether ‘client’ or ‘customer’ is a distinction with or without meaning.  Although I had mulled this over many times before, this was the first time that I had really given it any sustained thought.  I was slightly surprised by my conclusion!  I had previously been of the view that it was largely a matter of personal preference (or prejudice), but in the end lawyers sold and – whatever they were called – others bought, and the label didn’t really matter.  I’ve now come to the view that it really does matter.

Since the 1980s, there has been a noticeable shift and general decline in the use of the descriptions ‘client’, ‘patient’, ‘passenger’, and so on, to portray the relationship between an individual who has qualified and been authorised to conduct certain activities in the service of others.  In their place has been a widespread move to the language of markets, consumerism and customers.  In my presentation (and in the follow-up paper, available here), I explore why this shift has happened, what it signifies, and whether or not it matters.

As an over-simplification, and based on a sense of popular conception and usage, the following descriptions might be associated with certain labels:

  • ‘clients’ are passive beneficiaries in a dependent (possibly long-term) relationship;
  • ‘consumers’ are active designers of their own service choice in a free market; and
  • ‘customers’ are (usually short-term) transactional purchasers of a commodity.

These different descriptions not only offer a different label but also suggest a different relationship with different underlying assumptions, a different identity, and a different balance of power.  Any shift in label would therefore suggest a shift in one or more of these components.

If labels signify differences, then labels must suggest distinctions in meaning.  They signify not different types of people, but different types of relationship.  As such, they each privilege some aspects of the relationship over others in their description of function or power and, in doing so, incorporate a preference or predisposition (and possibly even prejudice).

Increasingly, the totality of relationships that lawyers have with those who buy their services will have simultaneous elements of ‘client’, ‘consumer’ and ‘customer’.  It will clearly not be helpful to have such a relationship characterised by just one of those labels with its implicit, but very different, assumptions about the nature and foundations of the relationship.

Clinging to traditional notions of the ‘lawyer-client’ relationship will not survive the world of the twenty-first century and its shifts in the balance of power between lawyers and clients.  But over-emphasising the position and power of consumerism and transactional customers will not help either: such a shift risks losing the public good benefits of ‘responsible lawyering’ with its commitment to higher duties than merely oneself, one’s profession, or even (dare I say it?) to one’s clients.

I used to think that the label didn’t really matter: whatever was going on was the same, whatever it was called.  But I now think that it does matter.  We need clarity and mutual understanding about the underlying relationship; but we also need to recognise that the modern conception of that relationship now needs to be more extensive, flexible and responsive than it has been so far.

7 thoughts on “‘Client’ or ‘customer’: does the label matter?

  1. Hi Stephen – my initial reaction was an almost default “lawyer snob” approach that “customer” is too low brow for law, but the definitions you give make a lot of sense. Certainly, clients in the sense you describe, are harder to come by and clients/customers are generally not as loyal as they perhaps once were. Lawyers must work harder to maintain relationships but also to strike the right balance between not hard selling but being more proactive as to helping clients understand that in most cases, clients are well served if they spend some time and money with a lawyer more often and not only when a problem arises – very much akin to the dentist-patient relationship!

  2. In the Residential and Nursing Home sector over the last few years, those for whom we care have been referred to as residents, patients, service users, and clients depending on the politically correct mood of the moment! At least we have managed to avoid customers – but only just! Whatever the label, we have to remember that these are individual human beings, with a lifetime of fascinating memories and achievements. To try to label them in any other way is hardly seems appropriate.

  3. Im not sure it is so much of a question in marketing circles but there is a notable difference between ‘client’ and ‘customer’. A ‘customer’ is someone who makes a purchase out of habit, a series of transactions – whereas a ‘client’ (derived from ‘clientem’) suggests a ‘follower’ of another, a relationship of dependancy and one in which the service performed is customised according to needs.

    A ‘consumer’ has had different meanings at different times but there has been a trend in marketing for many years – moving away from the consumer as a ‘commodity’ towards the consumer as an ‘individual’ – evidenced by marketing trends such as permission based marketing and mass customisation.

    Its an important question which has been asked in legal spheres since the introduction of ‘Tesco Law’ and the threats (that have not yet materialised) that service excellence will be delivered by the super-brands. But as I said in my blog post: https://www.rokmanlaing.co.uk/service-quality-in-law-firms-sympathy-for-the-devil/

    “……Supermarkets have high tangibility and visibility of output. Their levels of inter-personal attentiveness is low. Service staff are not core service providers. ‘Customers’ undertake transactions. Choice is high and the wider service environment is a key component. But legal services aren’t like that. They couldn’t be any more different……”

    My view is that the label matters most. Its fundamental to service performance. Even for providers of standardised legal services with low levels of complexity or divergence I would not advise them to refer to anyone as a ‘customer’.

  4. I’m a retailer and we’ve always dealt with customers. People have different opinions but I think a ‘Client’ is “I know some you don’t know so you need me. A ‘Customer’ is someone who can shop around and can choose where to take their business. In the end it doesn’t matter where what you call them as long as you treat them like customers and every morning you should stand up and say out aloud “I need my customers more than they need me” because thats the truth.

  5. Interesting blog post Stephen.

    In future, I believe that the notion of a partnership between the law firm and their client/customer will grow. Implicit in this is a symbiotic not parasitic mutually beneficial relationship that is longer term, more relational and less transactional in nature. This would also help lawyers to see research into their clients’/customers’ needs, market & competitive analysis, looking at trends etc. as a vital investment & priority and not worry about spending time that is not fee-earning, which they often do at the moment. The law firm model and its 5-8 hours + fee earning a day pressure really goes against the growing need for lawyers to block out quality uninterrupted time to do more in depth strategic thinking and analysis to understand their clients/customers, and define and sustain their own differentiation and competitive advantage, the rewards from which are not always immediate.

    It really is time for lawyers to start with the needs of the individuals and businesses that they are serving, whatever they call them.

  6. Stephen

    Thanks for sharing. My only question is to whom does the label matter?

    Lawyers want the most compliant entity that they can find — the less push back the better.

    What we’ve yet to see in any meaningful way is the introduction of Tribes (see Seth Godin’s book bearing the same title) where they take most if not all of the power away from the lawyer. As Jordan Furlong as positied, and with which I agree, the client (or whatever label your like to ascribe) is your biggest competitor, and until lawyers undrstand that they will still continue to argue the semantics.

    Best wishes

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