Customer or Client?

One of the things that bugs me in IT development is that the business is too often referred to as “the customer”.  “Customer” implies a transactional relationship.  A customer purchases from a seller; there is little incentive for any meaningful relationship as it will ultimately come down to price.  The buyer wants to pay as little as possible, the seller wants to charge as much as possible.

All to often IT is seen as a cost centre rather than a driver of business innovation and profit.  Maintaining the transactional language to describe the relationship between IT and the business helps perpetuate this.  We need to stop thinking of the Business as our customer.  Instead of “customer” we should look to other professional services for our metaphor.

Professions that involve a more personal, relationship driven approach to their business use “client” rather than “customer”.  Whilst retail banking has customers, wealth management talks about clients.  I think it is a subtle but important difference.   The relationship between IT and the business should not be seen as transactional, it is more consultative in its approach.  Structuring our relationship as consultant-client is a small but important first step to redressing the perception of IT as a commodity.


  1. Peter Gillard-Moss · Monday, 10 November, 2008

    I think the use of “customer” comes from a wider epidemic where marketing has saught to reduce everything to a transactional relationship. For example on the trains we are referred to as Customers and no longer Passengers (try googling “passengers not customers” for general reaction to this).

    Another issue I have though is the phrase “The Business” as if it is some seperate sentient entity which exists beyond the physical world, with a twist of omnipresence and infallability, untouchable by us mere mortals and definately something which should not be questioned. If we aren’t the business who is? All the while IT refer to “us” and “The Business” we have a problem.

  2. Agile: The Client/User dilemma at Mark Needham · Tuesday, 11 November, 2008

    […] reading Marc’s post about the Customer or Client naming dilemma I was reminded of another situation I have noticed in software development – the […]

  3. Laughing John · Wednesday, 12 November, 2008

    I agree entirely. In a large enterprise the problem is not just in a name however.

    Accounts departments often internally charge IT out to “the business” which leaves the IT department no time given to proactive development because of the cost structure.

    Short accounting periods also cause problems – it’s very hard to have a 5 or 10 year vision when the accounting drivers and budget are yearly.

    Far too often I have seen the “them and us” culture. Both the terminology and the separation for accounting purposes (wrongly) promote this.

    In fact even the physical separation of an “IT department” can often be a bad thing. The best places I’ve worked there were teams made up of a variety of business and IT staff (i.e. the right people for the job) so the client and the IT were effectively one and the same.

    We’re all “the business”, it’s just that different people use different tools to develop it …

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