Is your business built around customers or clients? Are you simply a purveyor of products and services to your customers or do you enlighten, add value, inform, advise, counsel, and advocate on behalf of your clients? There is not only a definitional difference between the terms customers and clients, but there are also tremendous strategic, operational, and philosophical differences between companies who sell customers and those that serve clients. In today’s post we’ll go beyond semantics and definitions to get at the core of some principles that can radically improve your business, your brand, and your future…

While many people may think of the words client and customer as being interchangeable, nothing could be further from the truth.

The definition of a customer is simply someone that buys goods or services. The term customer is an external reference that puts the emphasis on selling. At first blush I’m sure some of you might be wondering what’s wrong with that, but before you draw any conclusions let’s look at the definition of a client…The definition of a client is someone who is under your care and protection.

This is an internal reference that places the emphasis on serving. In other words, if you have customers your goal is to get them to buy something, and if you serve clients your goal is to look out for their best interests. Think about it like this…is your personal preference to be sold or served? When you’re in the marketplace as a consumer do you seek out professionals whom you can trust or peddlers selling a product?

If you think carefully about what I’ve written thus far you’ll find that you really shouldn’t be seeking customers after thinking through the definitional differences provided above, rather you should be looking to serve clients. Your goal should not be to find customers who make a one time purchase simply because you have the “goods” they need right now. Rather your goal should be to build sustainable relationships with clients who value your professional advice based upon the strength of your brand and the need for your expertise. Another way of examining the contrast between clients and customers is to ask yourself whether you desire to be paid for what you do for your clients, or what you hand your customers.

The distinctions being made in this text are really much more than splitting hairs over semantical differences…they boil down to accepting a philosophy and buying into a mindset that separates selling from advising, serving, protecting, and stewarding. The sad reality is that many businesses still operate their sales organizations with the same principles and techniques they were using in the 70’s and 80’s. Trust me when I tell you that your prospective clients have heard it all before and can see the worn-out, old school closes coming a mile away. They can sniff antiquated selling strategies and will tune out on your presentation such that it’s actually over before you even get started. Stop selling customers and start servicing clients…

If you are operating on a franchised one-size fits all sales model you are likely missing substantial opportunities and are not even aware of it. If you focus on cultivating client relationships you will become indispensable for what you know (the experience, knowledge, and information you can transfer), how you add value, and how you make clients feel about the interaction. When you do that, you’re building a client base, not a customer list. When you peel back the layers on healthy client/professional relationships the one thing you will always find as a constant is a bond of trust, which in turn creates the much desired, but rarely achieved, result of a loyal business relationship. Well conceived client/professional engagements are sustainable relationships with ongoing opportunities for both parties.

Bottom line…companies built upon a client-centric focus attract and retain better talent, command premium prices, have more highly regarded brands, create loyal client relationships, and generate more revenue over the lifecycle of a relationship. Regardless of the business you’re in, if you make the paradigm shift in thought, and in action, from customer to client your business will become a healthier and more competitive enterprise.