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What to call B2B buyers is a constant debate in marketing circles. Are they clients? Customers? Both?
To get to the bottom of things, we asked more than 30 B2B marketing professionals what they call their buyers.
The most common refrain: They’re “clients,” since that indicates partnership, rather than a transactional relationship. But there are certainly shades of grey.
Jeff Neal, Capital Coating
We refer to our business relationships as clients. Everyone involved with the buying process (the seller, the buyer and the supplier) all pitch in with their recommendations on the best roofing service and products, to fit the client’s needs. We are not selling commodity items. We are selling custom-fit solutions that are designed based on client input and feedback, which makes the entire process a group effort.
Muhammad Ali Sangi, PureVPN
Working for a B2B company, we usually treat our buyers as our clients. Clients are the one who wants a professional service. Customers or users just want to buy products or your service and don’t further want to be in touch.
Gokhan Aktas, Teksan Tin House
We refer to them as clients. I feel like client has more of a relationship and professionalism behind it compared to customers, who are the recipient of any good or service.
We are a B2B SaaS company, and we refer to our buyers as customers. I believe that as a general principle, 99% of buyers in SaaS are referred to as customers.
Customers decide on which services to purchase and what subscription levels they want. They decide how much they are willing to pay. SaaS doesn’t have complicated agreements or contracts, and the services are standardized. With a few exceptions, there are no customizable toolsets for each customer.
Unlike customers, clients would invest in a product or service for the long term. Relationships with clients are not transaction-focused but more concentrated on the big picture and getting continuous benefits from your product. A customer may stay with you for a couple of months, but a client usually stays for years. Therefore, a client wants long-term professional support from the SaaS company compared to a customer who just purchases your products or services.
As a result, every SaaS company’s goal should be to grow its client base by turning customers into loyal clients.
Kirsty Finlayson, Chameleon
We never use the term clients. For us, that seems like a more agency style way of speaking.
Customers is our go-to term for companies that pay for our services and use our products. You can differentiate between their plan by adding that before customer, e.g., free trial customer, Growth Plan customer, and so on. We use users as a general term for people who use a product. So, the customers of our customers are the ones we refer to as users.
Riccardo Weber, True Innovation
I differentiate this way:
- Customers are buying products
- Clients are buying services
- Users are potentially either or none of the above as they may or may not
be (directly) involved in the purchasing process
Jon Hall, Switchbird
Over two decades, I have built and sold two SaaS companies serving SMBs and the agencies who serve SMBs. I’m currently running a third, which helps businesses capture and convert leads via text. Our primary customers are marketing agencies who use or private-label Switchbird for their clients.
The specific nomenclature of clients vs. customers vs. users is pretty important to us internally. It establishes expectations for the relationship. We think of customers as paid passengers on a voyage, whereas clients are more like charters. They direct where the ship will go (within some bounds). As a SaaS company, our eventual goal is to scale the number of customers who adopt a mature product for exactly what it is. But as an early-stage SaaS company we consider all of our customers to be clients as well.
Amanda Haynes, Ganttic
At Ganttic we have clients. The term customer emphasizes the money exchanged for a product, client emphasizes the relationship. SaaS like Ganttic is not a one and done kind of purchase. And our clients expect more than just a transaction.
People who choose and utilize Ganttic are looking for a way to get their jobs done. And doing so often requires technical support, guidance, and someone to answer questions along the way. Our team’s relationship to clients is just as important as the initial purchase. As such, it’s only logical to convey this relationship in our marketing and branding.
We also utilize the term user in our actual product and in some of our resources on our blog or knowledge hub. This is mostly in reference to things that can be accomplished in Ganttic and how to perform certain functions. Users is also preferred to customers because when a company buys one of our packages, the company isn’t the one using it. People are. And so it makes sense to emphasize the people.
Borja Prieto, FROGED
We use them all:
Customers: the actual business who’s paying us
Clients: internal users from those companies (e.g., an agent opens a support ticket, then the client is the person opening the ticket and the customer is the company)
Users: our customers’ end-users.
For us, it’s an easy way to organize our company since everyone is using the same language. It seems obvious but when you start to scale and you’re like 30, 50 or 100+ employees in the company, it makes a difference in terms of productivity and efficiency, since all internal documents, processes, etc, use the exact same nomenclature.
Shahmeer Khan, Invozone
At Invozone we prefer to call buyers clients because there’s a
difference (at least in the market). Clients are the ones who
want professional support/services from a company. Users are referred to
as the end-users who actually use the product/service and customers are
mainly one-time buyers. So to avoid any sort of confusion I think it should
be kept in this way.
Maggie Bolt, The Poirier Group
We are a management consulting firm and we refer to our buyers as
clients. Clients suggests a longer-term relationship that is built on
trust, alignment and accountability vs. a one-time customer who can buy
something small at a retailer.
Rachel Foley, Map My Customers
We use all three of these terms depending on the situation. At Map My
Customers, we sell sales software to both independent sales reps and sales teams. In general, we refer to indy reps as customers and the team owner/buyers for teams as clients. That reflects in how we service our buyers. We have a team of customer support reps for chat and email support. However, our client services team operates
more as account managers for our teams/clients.
Outside of the support department, our Product team refers to both
customers and clients as users as an umbrella term.
Andrea Lukonic, ServiceMaster Janitorial Partners
The nature of our business is looking for long term relationships that we
can tailor and adjust in each situation. By common definition that is a
client and that is what we use.
We also do one-time project work where we do refer to the business as a
customer that we would like to turn into a solid client.
While the service we offer is tangible we also want to cultivate trust and
confidence in our level of experience and that is probably the biggest
difference in our use of the term client.
Shakera Thompson, TKA Law Firm
I run a B2B law firm and while many might not immediately think of buyers when they think of a law firm, businesses are buying legal services when working with my firm and are therefore buyers. I refer to these buyers as clients, largely because it is customary in the legal industry but also because clients denotes a more personal relationship.
The terms Customers or users suggest a more transactional and often short term relationship, whereas the term clients suggests an ongoing professional relationship.
Zach Passarella, Supplement Manufacturing Partners, Inc.
More often than not, we will refer to our buyers as clients. It is because we treat them better than your average customer, they have a dedicated account manager and are always there to help them succeed. Their success is our success, so they are more than just a customer.
Mark Chambers, English Blinds
We have clients; this was not strictly a conscious decision, but this is the
terminology we use and I think the term that best reflects the nature of a
B2B sales relationship.
Customers to me is a generic term that makes me think about a mass of
buyers who might make just a one-off purchase and/or not be overly selective about who they buy from. It also makes me think of B2C sales far more than B2B.
The term clients reflects, in my mind, a more personalized approach to
selling, and implies the building of long term relationships with other
businesses and achieving loyalty from them, nurturing their account and
fine-tuning their experience with us. Ultimately the term clients respects
the caliber an individuality of each B2B account and buyer.
Kim Smith, Clarify Capital
We refer to the majority of our buyers as customers because they’re purchasing a product from us and we typically aren’t providing any professional advice or services. Generally speaking, we tend to reserve the term “client” for buyers who receive professional services from us or who consistently and regularly buy our products.
Rahul Gulati, GyanDevign Tech Services
A client is someone who sits and stays with you through thick and thin. If
you are serving 10 quality clients, they feed you for life. A client is
defined by their trusted relationship with you
A customer is only transaction focused. They are focused on pricing and
results. More concerned about money and not on trust or relationship. When you look for customers, there are higher chances of churning.
Sara Lane, SimplePin
I manage all the marketing for a B2B fintech company in the insurance space. When talking about our users directly, we refer to them as clients because, in my opinion, client refers to someone who you are building a business relationship with where as, when using the nomenclature of customer, it becomes more transactional.
Katie Schwartz, Business Speech Improvement
I offer speech coaching, a service, to my clients. If I offered a product
to them, they would be my customers.
Jim Pendergast, altLINE
We’re a division of The Southern Bank Company’s lending group focusing on small businesses. We refer almost exclusively to those we work with as customers.
We think customer better represents the tone and nature of the services we provide. It’s also worth noting the banking and finance world can be a bit stuffy and old-fashioned with its nomenclature. Client used to be the operative word in the financing world given how often services are ongoing. Yet we’ve found we can use the word customer and still create that intentional, respectful, and service-forward set of interactions with a more approachable word choice.
It’s important for all businesses to remember it’s about walking the walk while you talk the talk. Using the more formal-sounding client is fine, but you better make sure you step up for your servicing interactions and dealings to support that lingo. It’s way more important to understand who you are as a brand and what kind of market you’re serving, then use language accordingly, then pick the fancier sounding word just because it’s the industry standard.
Jessica Ayre, Text Request
At Text Request, we call people who use Text Request software customers.
We often refer to the people they work with as ‘clients’. Our customers
typically refer to the people they serve as clients, and we do the same to
distinguish more clearly.
Andrew Taylor, Net Lawman
I operate on a B2B and a B2C scale, but mainly the former. I work with a lot of other businesses ensuring they have the right kinds of legal documentation they need without the expense and the time.
They are customers to me. A client (again, my personal understanding) is
someone who reciprocates some kind of benefit – aside from money and since I am purely providing a service, they are my customers, not my clients.
Adri Montero, Master Control
At MasterControl, a document control software company, we call our buyers “customers.” While they are users of our product, we feel “user” is a little too distant to the relationship we have with our customers. We build a relationship with them during the sales process and then keep those relationships long into their terms with us as users. They are true customers of our product, and therefore earn that name.
David Ciccarelli, Voices
At Voices.com, we refer to our community of all registered users. Since we operate a two-sided freelance marketplace, we connect clients with professional voice talent. When referring to both clients and talent, I refer to them collectively as Big C Customers. The reason is because I was taught that the purpose of a business is to create a customer, a quote attributable to the late Peter Drucker.
Kim Chan, DocPro Services Limited
Most professional services use the term clients whereas most product sellers use the term customers. Users are normally for more standardised services provided by online businesses.
We launched at the beginning of this year and we picked the term Members instead. We provide professional documents but not specific legal solutions so neither Clients or Customers are appropriate.
We prefer the term Members instead of User since we are not just providing legal templates to our members, but also creating a community where our members are also sharing their documents for the common goods. We hope for more interaction with members where members can also request documents from us.
We would prefer people to sign up as Members instead of as Users.
Adam Hempenstall, Better Proposals
We refer to people who buy our product as customers. I would say that
“clients” are people who buy services and with whom you have a more
intimate business relationship. You know their situation, their business
goals and you work more closely with them. On the other hand, a customer is
someone you sell a product to and you don’t have much of a relationship
with. Agencies have clients, SaaS companies have customers – that’s the way I see it.
Jeff McLean, McLean Company
Words have impact. They have meaning and connotation that we may relate to if only on a subconscious level. When marketing to other businesses, we should see them as clients just like any others. We want to appeal to the decision-makers and money people, and know how to address their unique needs in a way that seeing them just as “customers” would fall short of.
David Zaleski, Upstart Epoxy
B2B marketing needs to be customer centric in the sense that customer
experience should be at the forefront of the company culture. So far, the
international business to business landscape has fallen woefully short of
delivering the type of deeply focused customer service that retains
customers and drives customer lifetime value. How we refer to the people we serve isn’t as important as offering the highest possible quality of
customer service that we possibly can.
Natalie Ruiz, AnswerConnect
At AnswerConnect, we call the people and businesses who partner with us and trust is to support them around the clock clients. To us, the term ‘client’
implies an on-going relationship in which we get to support our clients. On
the other hand, the term ‘customer’ relates better to purchases of goods or
a one-time engagement.
Ottomatias Peura, Speechly
We have clients. There are several reasons why.
As a B2B company in the SAAS industry, we focus more on the long-term needs of the users of our product. We support them and nurture our relationship throughout. For us, *client* denotes this ongoing relationship.
The term customer, for us, is used more in B2C and points to a more
fragile relationship where consumers buy a product for short term use.
Think of a grocery store, for example. They have customers that buy bananas and milk. This a much shorter transactional interaction where, after the sale, there is not much of a continuing relationship between store,
customer, and the use of those products.
In contrast, we are constantly aware of continuing to build on our
relationship with our clients after they have purchased our product in
order to give them the best experience with it for as long as they use it.
John Peterson, Safe Drive Gear
I deal with both customers and clients and there is a clear difference implied by the nomenclature.
In our definition, a customer is an individual who seeks to buy a car.
A one-off purchase that involves a single transaction – payment for a
product. And that will generally be the end of our relationship. Few
customers will be back, at least not for a number of years. And
anyway, this kind of customer is more likely to shop around.
A client suggests a more regular relationship, an ongoing business
relationship involving more time and of course money. A company such as
a rental agency or delivery company may need bespoke or
tailor-made needs. It’s more formal than a walk-in customer, requires a
higher level of service, more permanent – and of course more lucrative.
Raj Dosanjh, RentRound
All groups of people getting value through a product or a service of a
company are its users. Users are the people who interact with a B2B company through digital media and technology. Customers are the users who pay for the value created for them, which results in the revenue stream of a company. Client, on the other hand, pays for values customized to their desired requirements and exact needs.
As a B2B company, we prefer to call our buyers as customers as the
customers are the ones buying the value of our services and products.
Whereas, if our buyer requests customized services and high-end
consultation, then we refer to them as clients.
Francesca Nicasio, Payment Depot
At Payment Depot we refer to our customers as members. The reason we do this is that our business model is set up so that clients pay a small membership fee to use our services.
Michael Hammelburger, The Expense Reduction Group
We’re a service-oriented firm providing cost reduction services to our clients. We refer to them as clients because they seek our professional support in the areas of cost management. They don’t purchase products but instead avail of our services.