What's the difference between customer, client, user and consumer?


My company sells fee-based online services in addition to a free basic online service and product.

How would one call an entity subscribed for a free service and distinguishably name another that has paid/purchased for a fee-based additional service? With respect to online services, what are the differences between the terms:

  • customer
  • client
  • user
  • consumer
Update: Besides the general public vs. registered user for free service vs. user who paid for a service, I'd like to distinguish an entity that uses online services (possibly non-human ones) from malicious bots.

Related question: What's the difference between client and customer?

Software Web Definitions Terms And Conditions TOS

asked Mar 5 '11 at 15:20
Top digital marketing agency for SEO, content marketing, and PR: Demand Roll
  • vgv8, I think you have too many questions here. Maybe break this down into 2 or 3 separate questions so it's a little more straight-forward to answer. – Justin C 13 years ago

2 Answers


Use customers and users to distinguish between the two categories. Those that pay for your service are customers. Those that use your service are users. Note that a customer can also be a user, but it doesn't always have to be the case. For example, if you are developing children's software, your customer is the parent, and your user is the child. On the other hand, if you are developing tax software, your customer is also your user.

I would say that the terms consumer and client are similar to the term user, in the sense that they do not necessarily identify the individual as a paying customer, but I think all three have slightly different connotations.

The term client is mostly used to identify those individuals obtaining services from a professional, and who have somewhat of an on-going relationship with that professional. For example individuals obtaining services from a lawyer, an accountant, a web designer. This can be paid or unpaid. For example, some lawyers do pro bono work, but still refer to the individual they are representing as a client.

A the term consumer is usually used to identify someone who consumes or uses something. This something is usually a product, but it can be a service as well. Consumer usually refers to a paying individual, but I don't think it necessarily has to be the case. The Legal Dictionary of Dictionary.com defines a consumer as, "one that utilizes economic goods; specifically: an individual who purchases goods for personal use as distinguished from commercial use ". The big discriminator here seems to be the distinction between personal and commercial use.

answered Mar 6 '11 at 03:11
Zuly Gonzalez
9,194 points
  • So, for example, a dog consuming Pedigree (food), is a user? A bot that uses an online service is also user? I was quite surprised that consumer is conditioned by purchasing! – Gennady Vanin Novosibirsk 13 years ago
  • I don't know if I would consider a bot a user. I think I would be more inclined to consider the human behind the bot to be my user, since the human is the one I am really interested in having take some action. But I think it depends on your specific situation, and we don't have enough information about your product/service to make that call. In all honesty, I don't think this is that important or worth worrying about. As long as you are consistent you should be fine. – Zuly Gonzalez 13 years ago
  • If you are worried about legal issues, it's still not an issue, IMHO. A well written legal document will define ambiguous words/terms within the document itself. So theoretically you could make up a word of your own, and as long as it is defined within the legal document, you should be fine. But I'm not a lawyer, so you consult a lawyer about this. A lawyer can also tell you which of these words is most appropriate for your situation. – Zuly Gonzalez 13 years ago
  • Perhaps a different approach: Role Based Access where access (public, private) role (visitor, customer, user, admin) could define the relationship. A bot visiting the site has no role and public access. A user accessing the site has a parent relationship to the customer and certain private access, where a Customer would have elevated private access rights. – Jim Galley 11 years ago


customer - purchases services ( can be an organization itself )

client - in a more meaningful or/and long-term relationship with the service provider

user - interacts with the service ( can be an employee of the customer/client - organization )

consumer - consumes/uses services

answered Nov 29 '12 at 07:00
238 points

Your Answer

  • Bold
  • Italic
  • • Bullets
  • 1. Numbers
  • Quote
Not the answer you're looking for? Ask your own question or browse other questions in these topics:

Software Web Definitions Terms And Conditions TOS