Thinking B2B: Do you have customers or clients?
by Warren Moss (@warrenmoss) When B2B brands speak about the companies which make use of their products or services, they either refer to them as “clients” or “customers”. These terms may simply seem interchangeable but the choice actually offers a tremendous insight into the way in which the brand views — and handles — that relationship.
When I was in New York last year on a tour of the city’s top businesses, we were privileged to spend some time at Goldman Sachs. Mark Harris, the head of Goldman Sachs private clients, spoke to our group about how it related to the entities that bank with it as clients, rather than customers — citing this as a major differentiator between Goldman Sachs and other corporate banks. “Goldman Sachs has clients, Home Depot has customers; we can’t have casual relationships with our clients,” he proclaimed.
The same applies in the B2C vs B2B space: B2C retail brands have customers, while B2B brands have clients. Calling someone a “client” conjures an image of a much-deeper, personal and customised relationship whereas, if you’re a “customer”, you’re probably just one of tens, if not hundreds of thousands. It’s a philosophy, not simply a way of doing business.
For the same reason, the top banks call their prestige members “private clients” and not “private customers”; the former has much more gravitas to it. If you bank with one of these, the odds are that you can pick up the phone and speak to a dedicated personal banker who can attend to your needs quickly and efficiently, because they’ve taken the time to understand you, your lifestyle and your requirements. If you call up your medical insurance provider, odds are you’ll call up its call centre, quote your customer number and, once your file has been accessed on its database, it’ll do its best to address your query based on what is seen on the screen in front of the call centre agent.
The depth of the relationship B2B brands should have with their clients should position them as solutions providers, as opposed to product suppliers. The only way to achieve that is if they can show their clients the depth and breadth of the solutions they can offer to grow their business. The increasing role that technology plays in modern business should help offer B2B businesses offer these solutions but the reality is that, while tech can provide all the information in the world, it’s the way that information is used to help grow a client’s business that still depends heavily on the personal relationship between them. Artificial intelligence (AI) can do great things but, as things stand, the application of technology can’t replace the deep chemistry built up between brand and client through meaningful, personal interactions. For the B2B brand, that feeling of making a client understand that it’s genuinely cared for also can’t (currently) be delivered by technology alone.
When a B2B brand looks at its market as clients, rather than customers, it sets up a platform for a different type of behaviour that drives towards a deeper relationship — that is ultimately more successful for both sides.
Warren Moss (@) is the CEO and founder of Demographica, a multi-award winning full service agency that specialises in the B2B category. He is the chair of both the Direct Marketing Association of South Africa (DMASA) and the Assegai Integrated Marketing Awards (Assegais), as well as the only African to judge the B2 Awards, which recognise the top performing B2B marketers in the world. Warren contributes the monthly “Thinking B2B” column, which looks at the latest trends in B2B communications and explains why it is fundamentally different from B2C comms.