• Sarah@VHFY

Customers or clients? Is there a difference? What about in SaaS terms?

Updated: Jan 6

Customer Success, Customer Journey, Customer Experience - they're all buzzwords of today but when you think about it, companies implementing Customer Success talk about the companies they do business with as 'clients'.


So should you be calling it Client Success, the Client Journey etc? Or are they interchangeable and it doesn't really matter?


For me, I have been working with 'clients' for 10 years or so. I found myself recently changing to talk about Client Success and Client Journey.

  • Client is more formal than customer and as we’re working in a professional environment, I believe they deserve the term of client

  • A relationship is built with a client and a relationship usually means longer term (not just in the dating world, in the business world too!)

Let's not take my thoughts as final though! Let's dig a little deeper into the two words. Their origins and their use in business, specifically SaaS.


So, starting with their origins, where better to start than The Oxford Dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary describes the two words in the following way:

  • Customer - (n) 1. a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business. 2. a person one has to deal with (an awkward customer)

  • Client - (n) 1. a person using the services of a professional person. 2. a customer.

I asked my mum to forward a photo of each from the dictionary so I know the source is 100% correct. She sent the photos with the comment “I think it’s a little outdated”. I disagree though, in general terms, I believe them still to be true.


Back in the day, a customer would buy your product or service. They would buy your product or service once, maybe twice, three times if you’re lucky. If we look at this in SaaS terms, they’d be buying a subscription to your product or service but not always seeing the true value, hence it not being recurring revenue for long. We still see this in today’s world. A company buys a product or service but they don’t always realise the true potential by investing the time or money.


If there is a longer term commitment, we usually refer to the company as a client. The company wants to engage with the product or service and will more often than not purchase professional support to receive the most from the product or service.


Over time, a relationship is built. The client enjoys working with the product or service and the team behind it. The client becomes loyal and an advocate of the product or service.

If the product or service then takes this another step forward and works hard on the relationship, it becomes a partnership. The client and the product or service work together. The client is not only loyal and long standing, they also look at the bigger picture. Are there other modules to be using, other areas of the business? Where is the product or service going and how can the client support the product or service?


In order for the product or service to grow a blossoming partnership, the product or service needs to also invest in the longer term. The product or service needs to create successful processes for onboarding, success and advocacy - the whole journey, so that the client receives a positive experience throughout.


If we refer to Gainsight, they refer to Customer Success as "the business methodology and relationship-focused client management“. I do believe this makes sense but I’m going to throw it out there, we want clients right? The reason for Customer Success being a growing industry is because we now see the value of investing in our clients and we want to turn our customers to clients.


I therefore take us back to my thoughts at the beginning of this post. You’re working hard on your ‘customer’ journey because you want clients, you don’t want customers. You want loyal clients who will bring you recurring revenue year on year.


As we’re gaining ‘clients’, we’re talking about a great experience for our ‘clients' to ensure advocacy and longterm commitment so I believe we should be talking about Client Success, Client Experience and the Client Journey.


Let’s be consistent - let’s be OPTIMISTIC - let's presume when a work order is signed, that the company is going to be a client and not just a customer, therefore we’re working with our clients on Client Success and the Client Journey.