The other day, I was having a conversation with George and Mike LaForest, the principals of Apartment Services Company, Inc., a landscape maintenance and snow removal company located in Livonia, Michigan. As we spoke, I noticed that George and Mike kept referring to the people they serve as ‘clients.’ I smiled as I heard them use that word. The reason I smiled is that they understood the value of creating a long-term relationship with the individuals to whom they provide their landscape maintenance and snow removal services.

This company, which has been in business for more than 50 years, has built its reputation on exceeding the expectations of their many loyal clients. Being in business that many years and having so many clients is not an accident. It was their way—or mindset, if you will—of doing business.

In my public workshops, I always ask the audience this question: What is the difference between customers and clients? One response I usually get defines a ‘customer’ as a faceless entity; another describes a customer as a ‘one-and-done’ relationship. Still a third response describes a customer as someone who is ‘here today and gone tomorrow’.

Curiously, the New Webster’s Concise Dictionary of the English Language defines the word customer as ‘a person to be dealt with.’ This is not very flattering, to say the least.

On the other hand, when I ask the question in my programs for a definition of the word ‘client,’ here are some of the responses I usually hear. “Someone you want to take care of over a long period of time,” or “Someone with whom you have an ongoing business relationship.” Another response is “Someone you value as a human being.”

How about in your company? What is the mindset toward the people you serve?

How do you and your employees refer to them? Customers or clients?

Different industries might refer to the people they serve in different ways. For example, a credit union would refer to the people they serve as ‘members’. A country club might use the term ‘guests.’ Whichever term they use, their objective is to make the people they serve feel special.

On the contrary, an airline company may refer to the people they serve as ‘passengers.’ A taxi cab company could refer to the people they serve as ‘fares,’ or a pizzeria might use the term ‘order.’ These terms create the mindset of treating the people being served as merely someone to be tolerated in order to get paid.

Here are a few strategies you and your team can use to create and maintain the mindset of serving your ‘clients’ and making them feel special.

First, recognize that the people you serve have the choice with whom, and where they want to spend their hard-earned dollars for the services and or products you provide. I think most of us would agree that the ‘Golden Rule,’ defined as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is an excellent rule to use with the people you serve. However, living and working in the 21st century changes this to Dr. Tony Alessandra’s Platinum Rule. His rule states that we should, “Do unto others as they want done unto them.” In other words, treat them the way they want to be treated.

What is relevant to this concept is that not everyone wants to be treated the way you want to be treated.

When you stop to think about the differences that exist with the people you serve, it’s easy to see that there are many such differences that would influence the way they ultimately want to be serviced.

For example, we have basic preferences and differences between:

• men and women

• Boomers and Millennials

• various ethnic groups

• people of affluence and those who are living paycheck to paycheck

• business owners and homeowners

• managers and employees

• people who live in northern climate vs. a southern climate

When it comes to creating a differential advantage over your competitors, and providing the kind of service your clients want and need, consider the following points.

One of the first things you can do is to ask your clients how they prefer to be serviced. For example, do you know how your clients want you and your team to communicate with them? Do they prefer face to face or by telephone? If it is telephone, is it the home phone or their cell phone? Is it email or by text?

How about the way they want to pay for your services or products? Do they want to pay by check, credit card or cash? Do they want to be billed, or do they prefer automatic withdrawal? Do they prefer to pay in advance, or in monthly increments?

Taking this concept a step further, let me ask you this question. How well do you know your clients? Do you know more than their name and basic contact information?

What I recommend to all of my clients is that they create a form that lists the “Top 20 Questions” they can use, to learn more about each one of their clients. For example, do you know things like:

• Where were they born?

• Where they grew up?

• Where they went to high school?

• The name of their spouse?

• How many children they have and what their names are?

• Names of their pets?

(Contact me for a copy of my “Top 20 Questions” list I recommend to my clients.)

You get the idea. By slowly gathering this information, you are positioning your company as a team that cares about their clients more than a competitor. Remember, people like to do business with people who have taken the time to get to know and care about them as human beings, not just as ‘customers’.

So, when it comes to the people you serve, how do you and the members of your team refer to them? How much do you know about them? What is the mindset of you and your team members? How do you demonstrate you really care about the people you serve? What can you do to improve it?

When it comes to leading your green industry company, how can you exceed the level of service your competitors are providing? And finally, what is the term you and your team use when you refer to the people you serve? Which word are you going to use: customers or clients?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Borg works with small and mid-size green industry companies to improve customer acquisition and retention. For more information or to ask him a question, contact him at 734-404-5909 or email him at: or visit his website at