Many marketing gurus use the terms customer, client, and consumer interchangeably. But it turns out that they all have slightly different meanings.

Yes, people will understand what you mean if you use one term in place of the other, but if you want to be accurate about the way that you think about your clients, customers or consumers – whatever they happen to be – then you need to be clear on definitions.

What Is A Customer?

A customer is a person who receives goods or services from a business.

Traditionally, a customer was viewed as a person who had a brief interaction with a firm that ended when they left the premises.

For instance, you probably only interact with your grocer when you pay a visit to his store, and not the rest of the time. Likewise, you become a customer when you buy ice cream from a van on a day out to the beach or when you pay an entry fee to a museum.

It’s a fleeting interaction that starts and ends with the transaction. It’s not something ongoing.

Today, however, this concept feels a little dated. While it was once the case that customers had one-shot interactions with businesses, it’s not so much the reality anymore. Most businesses (even retailers) have multiple touch points with customers through a range of channels (like social media and apps), making the old notion of a ‘customer’ a little dated.

Customer Vs. Client

This definition of a customer was initially devised to set it apart from the notion of a client – a person or business who receives ongoing professional services.

Good examples include an older adult receiving domiciliary care or a company getting management advice from a consultant.

But it’s probably better to think of a client as a particular type of customer: one who receives professional services, rather than something fundamentally different on account of the ongoing nature of the relationship.

It’s perfectly possible for customers to have ongoing relationships with retailers. If you don’t believe me, think about how many people are addicted to checking the latest updates on their eBay accounts.

What Is A Consumer?

The word consumer comes from “consume.” A consumer, therefore, is the person who winds up consuming the goods.

A mother, for instance, might buy her baby formula from a supermarket. She is the customer of the supermarket, but the baby is the consumer because it is the baby who will ultimately drink the milk.

There are other examples. The government, for instance, pays for medications for people in Australia. It is the customer of the pharmaceutical companies. But it is the people taking those medications who are the consumers.


It’s important to be aware of these distinctions but not to live by them. Ultimately, there are blurred lines between all these concepts. A customer can quite easily be both a consumer and a client. And a client can also be a consumer. What’s most important is the context in which you use the terms.