Customers, consumers or clients?

Imagine a professor tells you you are her customer. How would you feel? If you understand the meaning of customer, you should be – a bit – annoyed. Let me explain you why, going through different marketing related terms:

  • Customer: The person who pays for a product or service.
  • Consumer: The person who actually uses a product or service.
  • Business buyer: The person or company that makes a purchase in order to help with its sales to its own customers.
  • Client: Term which is generally associated with the provision of professional services. To distinguish better between a customer and a client, allow me to say that customers are considered to be able to define their needs – without any help from marketers – while clients are often advised by them.

So now, do you get why you should be annoyed? Let’s apply those terms to education:

  • If you are a professor’s ‘customer’, you are someone who is just paying his/her services – knowledge – while not using them.
  • Far better would be to be told ‘consumer’ as it implies some use of the learning.
  • Can you imagine what it means to be called “business buyer”? In this case, you’ll be teaching others with the knowledge you acquired from your professor.
  • A client would lead to you not knowing the classes you need to take, or how many.

But, does it sound right to speak about customers or clients in education? 

CustomerIn the fields of health, social work and education has been always a debate about the role of the service provider and the people that they are trying to serve. There are negative connotations of being a client or a customer. Usually, ‘client’ represents a relationship whereby it’s assumed power goes to the professional, leading to clients feeling disempowered. On the other hand, there is also a perception that the term ‘customer’ works with a significant information asymmetry between provider and receiver. To sum up, according to C. McDonald on his paper “Challenging social work: the contet of practice” (2006 p.115):

“The words we use to describe those who use our services are, at one level, metaphors that indicate how we conceive them.”

To finish with, in my opinion health is about patients (Deber et al. 2005, p.350), social work is about contributors and lastly, I agree with Harvard Business School: students are the product, not the customer.

Antonio González
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