Why don’t we call our customers “clients”?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how easy it is to lose sight of the goal of the project and instead focus on whatever means someone first thought was a good starting point when the project was first conceived of. And I think it all comes down to words.

The first years I was working in this business, I didn’t see any distinction between “the user” and “the customer”. Once I started seeing the distinction, I started to understand that the person who is going to use the system we’re developing is not the person who defines what the system should do and neither of these is usually the person that pays me to develop the system. So I starting distinguishing between the product owner, that is, the customer and the end user. But the product owner often calls the person I call “end user” his “customer”. What’s going on here? Let’s check the dictionary:

CUSTOMER
Main Entry: cus·tom·er
Pronunciation: \ˈkəs-tə-mər\
Function: noun
1: one that purchases a commodity or service
2: an individual usually having some specified distinctive trait

CLIENT
Main Entry: cli·ent
Pronunciation: \ˈklī-ənt\
Function: noun
1: one that is under the protection of another : dependent
2a: a person who engages the professional advice or services of another
2b: customer
2c: a person served by or utilizing the services of a social agency
2d: a computer in a network that uses the services (as access to files or shared peripherals) provided by a server

I’ve seen suppliers approach their work by asking for a specification of a product to deliver and then trying to deliver something to that specification for payment. The mental model is that of a customer going to the grocery story asking for “eight pounds of CRM software”. My experience with organizations with this sort of mindset has always been unsatisfactory.

On the other hand, I’ve seen suppliers approach their work as an agent of the organization that pays them. “Our job is to enable someone else do their job better.” This totally changes the way an organization deals with this relationship. The word “customer” may not be conductive to this sort of thinking. Instead, we should think of ourselves as agents acting on behalf of a client. As an agent, your responsibility is to enable your client. This includes helping your client to find better means of reaching their goal.

By the way, wikipedia defines the word “agent” as “a person who is authorized to act on behalf of another (called the Principal or client) to create a legal relationship with a Third Party”. If the “third party” is the computer, then a good developer is an agent acting on their clients behalf in dealings with the computer software.

Why doesn’t the software industry use the word “client” instead of “customer”?

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
This entry was posted in English, Extreme Programming, Non-technical. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Boogaboogaboo!

    Jeg liker bloggnavnet ditt! :)

  • Trond Arve

    A big American consulting company has been calling their customers “clients” for years. Seems like you're drifting their way… ;-)

  • Trond Arve

    A big American consulting company has been calling their customers “clients” for years. Seems like you're drifting their way… ;-)

  • Trond Arve

    A big American consulting company has been calling their customers “clients” for years. Seems like you're drifting their way… ;-)

  • Trond Arve

    A big American consulting company has been calling their customers “clients” for years. Seems like you're drifting their way… ;-)

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  • Betauser

    To avoid confusion with

    2d: a computer in a network that uses the services (as access to files or shared peripherals) provided by a server

  • Haha. :-)