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Are You Selling to Customers or Clients? Know the Difference to Succeed as a Consultative Seller
By Kendra Lee, President, KLA Group

The terms may seem interchangeable, but for those who recognize the subtle distinctions, you may be leaving a wrong impression.

How do you refer to the people you represent?  Are they "clients" or "customers"?  Or, perhaps you struggle with what you call them, and bounce back and forth from one term to the other, depending on what comes to mind first.

The terms may seem interchangeable, but for those who recognize the subtle distinctions, you may be leaving a wrong impression.  This is important to know if you want to be perceived as a consultative seller to others.  By not using the correct term in meetings, presentations or even casual conversation, you may be hurting your ability to get ahead with important clients.

I often find myself switching between these two terms, knowing I want all our prospects and clients to perceive me as a consultative partner to them rather than a vendor sales rep, yet uncertain I have "earned the right" to call them clients. But even before we've earned the right, don't we need to act as if we have?

Remember that old adage, "dress for the position you aspire to"? I think this is a similar circumstance. We must not only treat our prospects and clients the way we always expect to treat them, but also speak of them as if they have already achieved that level.

From my perspective a client is a person whose business you have a vested interest in, and for whom you perform as a partner within their business. Not everything you provide is billable. And not every opportunity you are awarded was shopped with the competition for the best price.

You are a respected part of your client's business. Every time you meet with your client, you bring a new idea. They value your expertise and recommendations, even seeking them out. While you want to be successful yourself, your primary objective is to make their business successful because you know your success stems from their success.

In contrast, customers are people who you help meet a need. They have a problem. You address the problem. You may invest long hours in determining the right solution. They may invest a great deal in purchasing the solution, but they don't recognize the value of your recommendations. You don't take time to present new ideas, perform quarterly review meetings, or call them spontaneously.

While you like customers as people, neither of you are investing in a long-term relationship. Customers may deal with a specific seller so long that a friendly relationship is established, but there is rarely a vested interest to the extent that a business partnership is established.

So, which would you rather have: clients or customers? Personally, I'd like every customer to be a client, because it means they respect the full value of what I can bring to them as a consultative seller, and what our organization can provide to their business. I have fun working with clients, and they enjoy working with me. We make each other successful.

The big question is: how do we turn customers into clients?
  • First, we change how we refer to them. They are clients.
  • Next, we examine why we aren't doing those things for our customers that we do for our clients, like bringing a new idea to every meeting, helping them identify unique ways to address their strategic business objectives, or holding a project review meeting with their staff.
  • Finally, we change. We treat our customers like clients. If they don't see the value after all our efforts, they may select different vendors. But then, they really weren't our clients in the first place, were they?
The people we're doing business with can easily sense if they're being treated like a client or a customer.  If we treat clients -- the people who should have our respect, attention and receive valuable input from us -- as if they're only "placing orders" through us, we'll fail as consultative sellers. And ultimately it's the clients that make us all more successful.


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