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Customer vs consumer: definitions, similarities and differences

Customer vs. Consumer
What is a customer?
What is a consumer?
What is a client?
Customer vs. consumer vs. client: key differences
Providing quality customer support
Final thoughts

“Customer,” “consumer” and “client” are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t quite the same thing.

If you’re running a business, especially a sales business, it’s important to know what sets them apart. Each plays a specific role and requires a unique approach.

In this article, we’ll explore the differences between customers, consumers and clients. We’ll go over their roles, why they’re important and how they affect your business.

What is a customer?

A customer is an individual or company that buys a product or service.

You can segment them based on their existing relationship with your business. Either potential customers (prospects), current customers or former customers.

Can a person be a customer and a consumer at the same time?

Yes. If someone buys a product and consumes it themselves, they are technically both a customer and a consumer.

For example, someone in the market for a pair of shoes could be classed as a consumer, whereas someone who buys shoes from you is a customer.

Can you use customer, consumer and client interchangeably?

These words have subtly different meanings based on context. There’s a distinction between customer and consumer, as noted above.

The term “client” is common in the B2B world and is used by service-based businesses with client-facing teams.

However, B2C businesses also have clients. For example, a personal trainer can have fitness enthusiasts as clients.

You can also classify types of customers based on how they purchase a product and whether they are the end users of that product or service.

Below, you’ll find some common customer types. They’re not all mutually exclusive, so one of your customers may fit into more than one customer category.

Trade/wholesale customers

These are usually businesses that purchase products with the end goal of reselling them to other businesses. Trade customers make their money by purchasing products and services and selling them to end users at a higher price.

A construction supply company is a common example of a trade customer because it sells inventory to stores like Home Depot.

Discount customers

These people buy from retailers that offer discounts or pricing below market rate, often comparing multiple companies to find the best deal. This customer type is considered temporary or seasonal because they usually only shop when they can get a good deal on a product or service.

Discount shoppers can become regulars if deals happen often enough, but appealing to them too often can lead to a race to the bottom. With effective marketing, exclusive discounts can be a good way to start a long-term relationship with customers who are on the fence about your offer and need a lower commitment to try it.

Need-based customers

This type of customer buys goods based on need rather than want and usually limits their purchases to items like food, clothing and other necessities. They often keep their spending on non-essentials and luxury goods to a minimum.

Impulse customers

People who buy on impulse rather than based on need. This customer group can be hard to convince because they are emotional rather than logical with their purchases. They’ll usually buy what feels good to them at the time rather than conducting research and shopping with a goal in mind.

Wandering customers

Wandering customers are people who come into a brick-and-mortar store without a particular goal and wander around to see if something catches their interest. More often than not, these customers don’t end up making a purchase.

End users

End users buy products with the intent to use them, not resell them. They rarely return the items they bought.

End users are among the largest customer categories since so many people need to buy products or services every day. Someone buying lumber from a hardware store for a backyard deck can be considered an end user.

The challenge businesses face is turning these people into repeat or loyal customers who will return to stores again and again rather than having a “one and done” attitude.

Loyal customers

Many businesses consider loyal customers to be their most important assets. Buying from the same brand, coming back to the same store and sticking with a brand as it evolves and improves are all signs of a repeat customer.

The role of a customer

Customers drive revenue for businesses and are the reason they can continue to operate. They also guide the development of products through feedback on what they do and don’t like.

Consumer needs and expectations also lead to changes in company values. For example, in 2018, McDonald's announced they’d replace plastic straws with paper ones in their UK restaurants to be more in line with environmental concerns.

It was a way of signaling to customers that McDonald’s shared their beliefs. In this case, public sentiment changed company behavior.

What is a consumer?

These people can be individuals or groups but are always the end users of the product.

Consumers buy goods and services for personal use or use goods provided by others. A child who drinks the milk purchased by their parents is still a consumer of that product.

So a brand’s consumer base is usually much larger than its customer base.

As with customers, there are several types of consumers that sometimes overlap.

Extrovert consumers

Extrovert customers are publicly loyal to their favorite companies or products. Also known as advocates, extrovert consumers want the cachet of using a specific product because they associate the brand with their identity.

It becomes a status symbol or signifier. Tech brands like Apple or designer streetwear brands like Supreme have extroverted consumer bases who often post pictures wearing or using those products.

Discrete consumers

Discrete consumers prefer to keep their purchases private and buy things based on personal needs rather than brand loyalty. They usually research their options extensively and choose the product that fits set criteria, even if it costs more than other choices.

Someone who buys a high-end air purifier for their home after determining it has the best filtration system would be a discrete consumer.

Necessary goods consumers

Like need-based customers, necessary goods consumers usually only buy things they need. This consumer group generally waits for discounts and price reductions to purchase an item.

They don’t usually spend large amounts of money on luxury products and are sensitive to pricing when it comes to non-essential goods.

Commercial consumers

This consumer group buys things in bulk. They want to save money by purchasing many items at once from businesses like Costco, which sells goods in large quantities at a relative discount.

These people are similar to trade customers but don’t always buy a product to resell it at a higher price – for example, a business owner buying coffee, tea and other amenities in bulk for their employees.

The role of a consumer

Since consumers are always the end users of a product or service, they can offer insight into whether that product is useful to its intended audience.

Consumer behavior offers a wealth of information on the messages people respond to, which makes it an invaluable dataset for marketers. Businesses often use consumer behavior to forecast product trends or figure out what isn’t selling.

You can also segment consumer groups to better target them for marketing efforts. Separating them by demographics like age or psychographics like buying behavior ensures each group gets the message that’s right for them.

What is a client?

A client utilizes a professional service., meaning they could be the client of a law firm, a copywriting service or a consultant, but not a grocery store.

Client-based businesses usually offer personalization. Clients also have more consistent, ongoing relationships than customers or consumers.

Personal trainers, public relations experts and photographers can all tailor their products to exactly what the client wants. Which lends itself to long-term relationships, especially if it’s a service the client uses regularly.

The role of a client

As customers are the lifeblood of product-based businesses, so clients are to service-based ones. They provide these businesses with revenue in exchange for a service they don’t have the skills or time to perform.

Clients can also serve as a referral network, recommending a certain professional to their friends and family to expand their client base.

In the next section, we’ll dive into the key differences that set customers, consumers and clients apart. Here are the main attributes of each group.



Buy a product or service

Use a product or service

Use a tailored, professional or personalized service


Drive revenue and guide product development

Help companies refine messaging

Serve as a referral network

Buying habits

Use a product or resell it at a higher price

Use a product whether or not they bought it

Buy professional services and form lasting relationships

Buyer’s journey

Single purchase

Single purchase

Long-term retainer

Customer vs. consumer vs. client: key differences

Businesses (especially product-based ones) often have a mix of these types. People can go back and forth depending on the context in which they purchase something.

Buying habits

The reason for buying a product or service is a key differentiating factor.

Customers often buy a product with the end goal of reselling it at a higher price. Businesses can purchase from other businesses, as with a hardware store buying timber. They may also buy goods to use in something larger, like a construction company purchasing that same timber to build a house.

Customers also buy products solely to use themselves. That includes needs like food and clothing, bought at full price or at a discount.

Consumers are the end users of a product even if they didn’t buy it themselves, as with the milk example earlier.

Clients buy professional services from people like accountants, lawyers or commissioned artists. They usually form a lasting relationship with a professional or company and keep going back for the same service.


Customers usually pay full price for a product, though that price can go down if the customer is a business buying products wholesale or the seller offers a discount.

Consumers may get a discount on products and services if the business they’re purchasing from is running a promotion or offering a deal. While the price customers pay is based directly on the product they’re buying, the consumer price involves other factors.

A restaurant has to pay for ingredients in bulk as a customer, while the restaurant’s consumers pay for their meals based on those costs and additional factors like service.

Clients pay a set price based on factors like the cost of supplies and equipment, but also intangibles like the skills and experience the professional brings to the job.

Marketing strategy

Customers purchase goods directly, so businesses may target them with specific advertising on social media or via email. A construction business might get an email from a lumber wholesaler they used in the past advertising a discount or special rate on certain types of wood.

Content marketing on social media is another popular way to reach customers and consumers. This post from the Pipedrive Instagram account targets business owners who need more robust cybersecurity measures.

Pipedrive Cybersecurity Instagram Post

Offering useful tips (and a link to an article on privacy and security if the reader wants to know more) lets potential customers know Pipedrive is an authority on cybersecurity.

Consumers aren’t necessarily the buyers; they can also be the ones who use the product someone else pays for. Marketers often design campaigns with that in mind, as with toy companies airing ads during children’s TV shows.

Clients purchase services and should be marketed from that angle. Strategies like inbound marketing can be especially useful for bringing in new clients. Professionals can use their knowledge to create content targeted to specific pain points, like the need for an accountant to help with complex taxes.

Group size

Both customers and consumers can be individuals or groups. On the customer side, it can be a person, a business or a group of companies. Consumers can be individual people, families or a group of people that are end users of a product.

Clients are similar. They’re often individuals but can be businesses and teams within companies. An advertising company that hires a videographer to shoot a commercial for their product is a client of that videographer.

Marketing influence

Customers affect the way a business makes decisions based on what they’re willing to buy or what they buy more often. If a hardware store continuously ran out of cinder blocks, they’d know there was a high demand for them and choose to buy more.

Consumer behavior impacts marketing since you’re targeting both buyers and end users. Our example of toy ads targeted at kids works here since the commercials attract the children who want the toys and raise the awareness of the parents who’ll buy them.

Clients influence the decisions service-based businesses make. If there’s enough demand for a skill or result, you can add it to your list of offers. Photographers can learn videography to fulfill the needs of their clients and adjust their business model and offering accordingly.

Knowing these differences helps businesses understand who is buying and using their products and why. Companies need that data to inform marketing strategies, product development and customer service efforts so they know if they’re targeting the right people and can make needed adjustments.

Buyer’s journey

Customers and consumers go through the typical buyer’s journey and may make repeat purchases. Businesses that rely on customers and consumers for their income understand that and plan accordingly.

Clients generally have a longer-term relationship with the businesses they buy from. It’s more common for clients to pay professionals a retainer to stick around, especially if those services are essentials like accounting or legal aid.

Providing quality customer support

Understanding the people who shop with you is essential. If your business is mostly customers who buy directly from you to resell elsewhere, you’re going to have different issues than if you’re selling ready-made products and services to consumers.

Put another way: a textile company needs customer support for the businesses that buy its fabric, not people who bought a sweater and want to ask about sizing.

A software as a service (SaaS) company that has both customers and consumers will need to support both sides. A client-based business needs to deal with issues on a more individualized basis, depending on the service provided and the issue the client has.

If you’re using a good customer relationship management (CRM) system, it’ll have customer support features and integrations you can use to support your customers, consumers or clients.

For example, Pipedrive’s Zendesk integration lets sales and support reps pull information like customer ticket data while still in Pipedrive so they can get what they need faster.

Final thoughts

Knowing and understanding your customers helps you attract them effectively. It also informs new products or services you might not have thought about offering before.

If you discover an entire segment of people uses your product for a completely unintended purpose, that tells you a new market exists.

A good CRM system helps you gather data so you can discover those kinds of patterns. It keeps information organized and ready so you can reach out when the time is right. A customer or consumer CRM also supports exemplary service so people keep coming back.

Driving business growth