User Centered Design: The Difference Between Customers and Clients

So I’ve been working at this awesome company, Schoolwires, for 6 years now.

I’ll never forget my first day on the job. My director, manager and coworkers were incredibly welcoming.

I was put on the road to observe my first onsite training during my first week.

I distinctly remember saying to my coworker as we were preparing to hit the road, “How long has this district been a customer?”

My coworker looked me dead in the eye and said, “We don’t call them customers, they are our clients.”

She said it in such a matter of a fact tone that I didn’t press for more information.

It didn’t make any sense to me, I’d come from a giant corporate monster, where we called everyone a customer. I thought that if it was a good enough term for that multi billion dollar business, why wasn’t it good enough for the little startup I now called home?

After a few weeks at Schoolwires I started to notice something. Every coworker I met seemed to love his or her job.

Then I started to notice something else, our staff members legitimately cared about each and every one of our “clients” on an individual basis. Our team would go above and beyond to make sure every single “client”, no matter the size or financial gain involved, was successful.

After about a year at Schoolwires it finally clicked for me.

When I worked at that multi billion dollar corporation, our millions of “customers” were treated like faceless inconsequential account numbers. They were just a chunk of pie on a market share graph. “Customers” are the herd of people in line at Walmart or at the grocery store or at the mall, or the faceless data in a year end report.

On the flip side, at Schoolwires each and every “client” really legitimately matters.

Using the word “clients” creates a subconscious increase in respect and professionalism throughout our entire organization. Our work environment fosters empathy, camaraderie and interpersonal relationships between our staff members and our clients. It also makes a difference in the way I approach design and usability testing. I’m not designing for the faceless masses, I’m designing and testing products that can improve the lives of the clients I know and care about.

We love our clients, and our clients love us! We’ve achieved 95% or higher client retention rates for the past 5 years in a row, which is an insanely high percentage in the tech industry.

So you want your company to start adopting a user centered product design strategy? Start by calling your users clients instead of customers.

I think you’ll be surprised by how much of a ripple effect changing a single word can make throughout your entire organization, let alone the huge impact it can have on your future designs.

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3 thoughts on “User Centered Design: The Difference Between Customers and Clients

  1. I have come to understand that customers would be more retail based. The ordinary guy on the street. Clients are more business to business related. Thats how I understand it anyway. Nice post.

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