Posted by: johnocunningham | February 23, 2014

Client or Customer: Which Would You Rather Be?

Having spent a good bit of my career in the practice of law and in retail companies, I often ask myself: “Is it better to be a client or a customer?”

Professionals may be quick to argue that being a client is much better than being a mere customer, but based on my experience as a provider and as a client and customer, I am not so sure.

Here are the positive and negative points I associate with being a client.


1. A client enjoys the legal protection of “privilege” in connection with certain substantive communications with a professional.

2. A client is owed certain professional and sometimes fiduciary duties (i.e., a professional must disclose and avoid conflicts of interest, etc.).

3. A client can report a professional who fails to fulfill his professional obligations to a professional licensing authority (run by that profession).


1. A client is first “targeted” as a prospect, and then, by many firms, hunted and harvested.

2. A client is “measured” for return on investment by many firms, and prioritized based on “potential.”

3. A client is often treated as if they “belong” to a lawyer or a firm, and jealously guarded as property more than catered to as a person.

On the other hand, here are the positive and negative points I associate with being a customer:


1. A customer is “king.”

2. A customer is “served”…  and must be served quickly to be kept.

3. A customer has a right to be demanding, fickle and value-conscious, and someone who serves a customer knows it.

4. A customer is someone a merchant values, and all merchants compete to give a customer the very best service and value possible.

5. A customer generally is greeted, served promptly, and then asked about their service experience.

6. A customer knows that he or she is “in charge.”

7. A customer has lots of choices in the marketplace, and merchants who serve customers never forget that.


1. A customer enjoys no legally “privileged” relationship with a merchant, and the merchant owes the customer no fiduciary obligation.

2. A customer cannot report a merchant in an unregulated trade to a licensing authority (although a customer can make reports to the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau and a host of other state, federal and voluntary agencies dedicated to commercial fairness).

That is the balance sheet, as I see it, and it makes me think that perhaps professional service firms would be more successful if they treated clients like customers (albeit customers who enjoy certain legally protected forms of privilege and duty).

If you have any observations on being a client vs. being a customer, please feel free to post a comment.

A client is


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