Clients or Customers

In our firm we’ve always referred to those whom we serve as “clients.” This goes back to my high school days when I began working on a survey crew during summer vacations, and I suppose I didn’t know any different. I also have heard some firms refer to those whom they sell services to as “customers.” Which is the correct term?

I reviewed the definitions of both words in the Merriam-Webster and American Heritage online dictionaries and found considerable information and discussion on both. Here is some of what I found:

  • Client (noun): likely derived from the Middle English Anglo—French or Latin terms; client, cliens, clinaire.
  1. The party for which professional services are rendered.
  2. One under the protection of another who engages professional services or seeks advice.
  3. A person served by a social agency.
  4. Services rendered by a lawyer, accountant or social worker.
  • Customer (noun): derivation not given
  1. One who buys goods or services.
  2. Informal—An individual with whom one must deal: A tough customer.
  3. A person who buys from or patronizes an establishment regularly.
  4. A current or potential buyer.
Right away I noted similarities and differences. First, it appears as though “client” is a much older term than “customer,” having its origins in Middle English, French, or Latin. No derivation of “customer” is given so I assume the term may not have come into existence until currency replaced battering as a form of procurement for goods and services.

Second, I observed that the professions of surveyor and engineer were not referenced as examples of those providing professional services to others. Could this have something to do with doubt as to whether we are professionals and act professionally in providing our services?

To confuse the argument, some of us feel that using the term “customer” implies a one-time sale of goods in exchange for money, and the implied contract goes no further. We’ve all had the experience of, “You bought it. You own it. It is yours.” Caveat emptor! What about, “The customer is always right?”

Recently, I spent a considerable amount of time in a ski shop outfitting my granddaughters with ski boots. One bought a brand new pair and the other brought in an older pair that required modification. The boots weren’t even purchased at that shop. Even though we were considered “customers” there, we received better service than many professionals give their clients. The shop made us feel that they were going to adjust the old ski boots no matter how many trials it took, regardless of whether it was possible at all. They made an investment in our family for the long term, and we will return to make more purchases.

The term “client” has come to mean a lasting relationship and concern for the individual over a long period of time, often through many years or multiple projects. At our office we treat all of our clients as though their project is the most important one in our office. Good client service is very important. When a problem arises, the project manager provides the needed service immediately. We maintain our client relationships even when we don’t have an active project with them by contacting them regularly. Sometimes we call to see if they need help budgeting a large project or just to find out how business is going. After all, if their business is going well they may work for us. We also provide our clients with perks like calendars that feature photographs of some of our projects (one might even be their project), coffee mugs, hats, and personal thank-you notes.

I suggest that the classic dictionary definition of “client” doesn’t go far enough. I believe a relationship with a client is all about our profession, a client’s lack of technical understanding, and a position of trust. Our profession includes years of technical education followed by years of experience and finally licensing by the state to be able to offer services to the public. You can’t go hang a shingle or purchase a franchise, find a suitable office, hire untrained staff, and start a surveying or engineering firm overnight. I think our clients understand this. If not, why is so much of our work obtained by word of mouth, excellent references, and our firm’s good reputation? I believe that in most cases our clients hire us because they know they have a technical problem, which they don’t understand and they know they can’t solve themselves. This is the main reason they engage us, whether it is to perform an ALTA survey, prepare a base map for a large engineering project, solve a boundary problem, or create a new subdivision and all of its appurtenances.

This brings us to the position of trust. Customers buy new cars, houses, clothes, and appliances regularly. Most have a very good understanding of what they want or do not want. However, many of our clients purchase our services infrequently, have no knowledge of what we really do, and therefore must trust us as professionals to apply our technical training and experience along with excellent service to solve their problem. I often mention to our staff that all our clients see are sheets of paper, and they have very little understanding of the work effort that is represented by them. They depend on our expertise to solve their problem in an expert way (which they really don’t understand), timely, and within their budget.

Although there are many similarities, I’ll continue to use the term “client”!
Ed Bergeron, LLS, PE, has been the president of H.E. Bergeron Engineers, located in North Conway, NH, for 36 years. He has a BS in civil engineering and an MBA. He is the author of A Pocket Guide to Business for Engineers and Surveyors, published by Wiley. This book is reviewed on page 32.

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