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The difference between consumer terms is slight at best, and it is easy to get confused when you are deciding which is appropriate. Even native English speakers would have a hard time telling you the definitive rules with which to choose between, say, client and customer. However, choosing the correct term is important, and can be picked depending on the type of business you operate, the relationship you have with the people you serve, and the goal that you want to achieve.

Do you have a customer or a client?

As I wrote in my previous post, the difference between these terms is huge. You can read up on that topic at the above link; but as a quick reminder, a client buys professional services from a business or individual (e.g., translators have clients), while a customer buys goods or services from a business (online shops have customers).

What about a consumer?

Consumers are usually thought of as the end user – the person who actually uses the goods or services purchased. For example, a mother who buys the diapers may be the customer, but it is the baby who uses them that is the consumer. Consumer can be used in place of both customer and client.

Keep in mind that it is a more impersonal term, and is often used in relation to technological products and services. You might want to use this at a board meeting, but not in direct communications.

Okay, I get that. Can you explain patron?

Patron is not used as often as the previous examples. The Oxford Dictionary describes a patron as a person who gives financial or other support to a person, organization, or cause, such as person who takes an honorary position at a charity. In addition, the word ‘patron’ can be used for customers, especially regular ones. For example, you can be a patron of a restaurant, theater, shop, or even the library.

Businesses will use the term patron to enhance the ongoing financial relationship between their operation, such as the opera or the ballet, and their public. However, this is a dated term, and increasingly less likely to be used.

Brilliant. Now, let’s talk member.

Member describes a person who belongs or subscribes to a particular group. This can mean subscribing to the ideas of a group, like a political party, or paying a membership fee in order to reap the benefits of membership, like a Rotary Club or Costco. Patron and member can often be used interchangeably, and the choice purely depends on the specific organization.

Keep in mind that a member can also be a customer, client, or consumer. For instance, the membership cards used by retail stores or other organizations. Their clients and customers may have special privileges, discounts, or reward programs only accessible through signing up for the membership. A great example of this is beauty chain Sephora. Signing up for their membership program is simple, and the more you spend, the more benefits you receive – encouraging members to become repeat customers!

That was a lot! Should we talk about users?

User is one of the easier terms we will discuss. It refers to a person who owns or operates something, especially a computer or other machine. As of late, it is mainly used to describe consumers of computer apps, programs, and other technological devices.

I would not encourage using this term unless you are strictly a technology-based company, or discussing the user experience for your online store. This is a much more detached term, similar to consumer, in that you would not use this in communication with your preferred audience.

When in doubt, ask someone.

The term you choose for people who buy goods or services can significantly change a written text. However, the good news is that it is relatively simple to figure out which is most beneficial for your business. Armed with the above information, you can easily enhance the relationship you have with your public!

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