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Customer, Client or Consumer

We all have a reasonable grasp of the meaning and use of the words "customer", "client" and "consumer", and we often interchange them in our conversations and documents on quality or service.  However, from a Service Management perspective, there is a difference that IT service management professionals should be clear about.

Why is this even important enough to devote an article (albeit a small one)?  The truth is that today, Customer Focus is a pivotal element in just about every quality management system or service/process  improvement programme around the world (IT or otherwise). So let's be crisp in our understanding and contextual use for customer.

I also want to distinguish the term consumer (or end consumer) from a paying customer.


The Customer involvement and focus is a key practice in both TQM and TQC  (at least in Japanese version).  Customer is essentially defined and referenced in ISO9000.  Customer satisfaction is a business alignment with CMMI.  The Customer is also a critical point of reference in the DMAIC cycle of Lean-SixSigma (eg. the SIPOC map, also used in TQM in the 1980's).

The ITIL Service Life Cycle begins with identifying Customer needs, with benefits designed for improved Customer satisfaction.  In our suggested quality system for a small business (TBM), we have put Customer Focus at the top of the core practices.

Let's start with a dictionary definition (I'm using the Collins Australian, 1989 edition):

Customer:   1.  A person who buys (products or services).  2.  (Informal)  A person with whom one has to deal (eg. a rough customer).
Client:           1.  Someone who seeks the advice of a professional personal or organisation.  2.  A customer.
Consumer:   A person who buys things for his/her own personal needs.

Note that the definition for consumer above is weak and limited.  It should read:  "A person who uses acquired goods and services" (not necessarily purchased themselves.  For example, our children (and thieves) are "consumers", but not always purchasers of what they consumer.  Note the 2 meanings for client, one is a synonym for customer. The other meaning of client is a special customer seeking professional advice or services, from for example, a lawyer, IT consultant or medical specialist (or perhaps even a SixSigma Black Belt specialist).

Here's how Wikipedia defines the three (abrieviated):

Customer:   customer (also known as a clientbuyer, or purchaser) is the recipient of a goodserviceproduct, or idea, obtained from a sellervendor, or supplier for a monetary or other valuable consideration.
Client:           A customer or client, a recipient of goods and services in return for money or other valuable consideration.
Consumer:  The end user or the product or service.

Note that client is termed as another word for customer, and that Wikipedia lists 2 types of customers:

  • An intermediate customer or trade customer (more informally: "the trade") who is a dealer that purchases goods for re-sale.
  • An ultimate customer who does not in turn re-sell the things bought but either passes them to the consumer or actually is the consumer.

The definition also provides an alternative split of customer types (introduced by Six Sigma practitioners) -

  • An external customer of an organization is a customer who is not directly connected to that organization.
  • An internal customer is a customer who is directly connected to an organization, and is usually (but not necessarily) internal to the organization. Internal customers are usually stakeholdersemployees, or shareholders, but the definition also encompasses creditors and external regulators.

To summarise, the term customer can comfortably used to define any external person or organisation purchasing goods or services (professional or otherwise), or an internal user of your services, product parts or processes. 

I recommendfor consistency, that you avoid interchanging the term client, unless it is clearly defined in your company's policy and procedures.

Also note that a consumer is an end customer who may or may not have purchsed your product or service, but who is definitely impacted by the quality of the goods.

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Whilst I found this article informative and useful, I think it is probably a bit of "overkill" on the topic of defining the customer. I'd like to see a more comprehensive article (or blog discussion) on best approaches to providing great customer service.
I personally believe that customer service (and support) needs to be about 25% "proactive", and then how our staff are trained to manage the "reactive" 75% is also critical to excellent customer service. Looking forward to some good material and discussion on this important topic.

Thanks, Willie.   Good feedback and a fair comment.  I like to see the occasional oxymoron used judiciously.  In response to your request, KenD has added an article on the topic of Customer Service.

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