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Client – definition and meaning

A client somebody who buys goods or pays for services. Companies and other organizations may also be clients. As opposed to customers, clients usually have an arrangement or a relationship with the seller.

For example, you are a customer if you buy a cup of coffee at a train station from a cafe stall. However, the stall owner is the client of the coffee supplier, especially if there are credit terms.

In other words, the stall owner is a client of the coffee supplier because they have an arrangement.

When paying for physical goods, we use ‘client’ and ‘customer’ interchangeably. Therefore, the stall owner is also the coffee supplier’s customer.

However, only clients pay for the services of a professional. For example, if you pay for the services of a lawyer, you are the client.

Even if you have no business arrangement with the lawyer, you are still the client and not the customer.

Psychologists call the people they treat either clients or patients.

Client and customer are often different
People spend time getting to know their client’s needs. Sellers build a relationship with their clients. When a customer buys something in a shop, the seller immediately focuses on the next customer.

According to the Financial Times Lexicon, a client is:

“Someone who pays for services or advice from a professional person or organization. Someone who buys something from a seller. A computer connected to another computer that controls it, for example in a network.”

Some linguists say that ‘customers buy something from others’, while ‘clients are under the protection of others.’

However, many examples clash with this explanation. The explanation is true when we look at the treatment of clients and customers. The video at the bottom of this page looks at this difference.

Client-centric companies have their clients as the focus of their attention, rather than the product.

Client in computing

In computing, clients are pieces of hardware or software that access a server’s service. The server is usually on a different computer system. In such cases, the client accesses the service through a network. The term applies to the programs’ or devices’ role in the client-server model.

Client in computing
When smartphones or computers communicate with a server via a network they are the clients. An example of a network is the Internet. (Image: adapted from Wikipedia)

Servers and clients may be computer software run on the same machine and connect via inter-process communication techniques. The servers wait for clients to initiate connections that they may accept.

We first used the term when referring to devices that couldn’t run their stand-alone programs. However, they could interact with remote computers through a network.

In ancient Rome, a client was a plebeian who lived under the patronage of a patrician. A plebeian was a commoner while a patrician was an aristocrat.

We may refer to people who are receiving something from a government bureau as clients.

The word ‘client‘ emerged in the English language in the fourteenth century. It came from Anglo-French ‘clyent.’

Psychologist and client
It is common for psychologists to refer to their patients as clients.

Some idioms

While ‘client’ idioms are rare, those using the word ‘customer’ are very common. Here are a few:

An Ugly Customer is somebody who is likely to become angry or aggressive. For example “Be careful with Harry when he has been drinking, he can be an ugly customer. I’ve seen him punch people for no reason.”

A Cool Customer is somebody who remains calm, even in very stressful situations.

Orson Welles client quoteOrson Welles (1915-1985), an American actor, director, writer, and producer, once said: “As a producer, sitting on the other side of the desk, I have never once had an agent go out on a limb for his client and fight for him. I’ve never heard one say, ‘No, just a minute! This is the actor you should use.’ They will always say, ‘You don’t like him? I’ve got somebody else.’ They’re totally spineless.” (Image: orsonwelles.org)

An Awkward Customer means a troublemaker. It is somebody who won’t behave in the way you’d expect them to.

The Customer is Always Right is a phrase sellers use. Happy customers are more likely to buy things and to come back for more. Therefore, if you always accept that they are right, they will be happy.

A Tough Customer is somebody who is not easy to satisfy. Dealing with them is difficult. We often use the idiom when advising somebody not to approach. For example “John is a tough customer. I’d stay away from him if I were you.”

A Slippery Customer is a clever, elusive, and deceitful person.

Video – Difference between client and customer

In this Stampings is my Business video, the speaker explains what the difference is between clients and customers.