Why IT Should Replace “Customer” with “Client” in Customer Service

Several members of my team returned from an ITIL foundation course (IT service management) recently, and one of the things they noted was ITIL’s emphasis on the “customer” view of IT services. This led to a discussion about who is the customer, and the answer is not as clear as you might think. Some IT leaders can easily point to end-users who pay for their products and/or services as customers, including internet service providers, software companies and hosting companies. Others of us, however, have more difficulty.

The New Oxford American Dictionary (the dictionary that comes on my Kindle) defines customer as “a person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business.”  This makes it clear who the customer is when one is providing IT services to the general public or to other businesses, but how about for those who provide IT services internally within an organization? An employee who uses corporate IT resources doesn’t pay for them. Perhaps the business unit manager does, or more likely, IT services are paid through corporate budget allocation. Does this make the customer the CEO or business manager? How about in projectized organizations? Does the project manager become the customer because she is “buying” the IT services?  If so, how should that effect the quality of service provided to the end-user?

In legal ethics lawyers are required to serve the person receiving the legal services regardless of who is paying the bill. So, if I decide to pay the bill for a friend or relative who is having legal issues, the lawyer can accept money from me, but she is required to provide service and confidentiality to my friend or relative who she is representing, not to me, the person paying. This means that if I ask her about a private conversation with my friend, she is not allowed to divulge anything my friend has communicated to her. This attorney-client privilege is completely separate from the customer/provider relationship I might have with the attorney.

The definition of client is “a person or organization using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company…” The concept of “client service” is far more applicable to the services provided by IT professionals than the more traditional customer service. While the needs of the person who pays for services (the customer) must be given a great deal of deference, successful IT service delivery depends on the end-users (the clients) effectively utilizing those services. The customer will not receive value for IT services if the clients have a bad experience.  Clients are the also the ones with whom the IT team will deal with on a day-to-day basis. When clients are unhappy with services, morale of the IT team suffers which exacerbates the perception that the IT team is disengaged from the rest of the business.

Much has been written about good customer/client service (I highly recommend Joel Spolsky’s post on this), but often it is written from the view of the immediate provider not the manager. In the future, I will discuss my thoughts on leading a client-focused organization.


4 Responses to Why IT Should Replace “Customer” with “Client” in Customer Service

  1. Heather Diehl says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that the definition of customer used in ITIL has the limitation that it is the person paying for the services, and not the ultimate user. While this definitely breaks down in the sense that you mentioned, it breaks down in brokered services, as well. I, too, appreciate the context that the term Client brings with it, and will likely use it myself. ‘Client’ also lacks the strange redundancy (and disrespect) that comes with the term end-user.

    • Jim Wiedman says:

      Thanks Heather. I also don’t like the term end-user and try to avoid it.

      I had not considered the concept in relationship to brokered services but I agree that it fits there nicely.


  2. Steve Patterson says:

    While I agree that “client” is semantically a more accurate term than “customer” from the IT perspective, the problem is that most people don’t get the difference. “Customer Service” is a common, easily recognizable term that everyone from helpdesk tech to non-technical c-level management can understand. The best lesson I’ve learned in my time in IT is that it’s much more important for my communication to be understood than for it to be technically accurate.

    BTW, I’m sorry, but I’m soooo sick of ITIL. Like most conceptual methodologies, it’s nice theory. But it breaks down in the real world. I find it’s much more effective to take a practical cost vs. benefit approach with a solid “customer service” attitude. 🙂

    • Jim Wiedman says:


      Thanks for the comments. The problem I have with the term “customer service” for in-house IT shops is that customer is associated with the person or organization that pays for the service. The employees who are trying to get their jobs done using in-house IT services are often not seen as the customers and their needs can be ignored in an attempt to meet the “customer’s” SLAs. In law school we focused on serving the client, and lawyers owe a duty to their client whether or not that client is actually paying. IT managers should ensure that the end-user gets excellent customer service whether or not that end-user is paying for it. For this reason, I think the term “client service” is more appropriate. I’m intentionally changing the term from one that people are used to in order to make a point.

      As to ITIL, the more I study it the more impressed I am with the management framework. ITIL is much more than a “conceptual methodology”, it is a very practical way to ensure that IT services meet business needs. This is something that our industry could use a lot more of.


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