by Tony Vidler
The mantra of “customer is king” is rubbish. And I keep hearing it from professionals as if it were a commandment which, if breached, will send you straight to hell.
A King or Queen supposedly has absolute control. While we know that may not be constitutionally correct in most countries today, the suggestion that a customer or client is the King is one which suggests that they have absolute power in the relationship, and that all commands must be obeyed.
Sometimes clients are idiots. Sometimes clients are unreasonable. Sometimes clients are ignorant.
All humans are all of the above sometimes, and so it is with our clients too.
They are the boss….but they are not the “king”.
We manage expectations and lay down some ground rules at the outset.
To establish the right professional relationship and ensure the client understands that they are the boss, but not in complete power, we must establish both sides expectations. It is natural, and it is part of every professionals process already, to understand what the clients objectives are from an engagement. That is not the same however as their expectations.
Here’s a simple (and extreme) example of the difference:
The clients objective may be to have sufficient money to retire comfortably without loss of current lifestyle. Professional advisers will generally say “I can create that plan”. The clients expectation however may be that this will be created for them by them only investing a little bit of money and the adviser managing to quadruple it every month. Most professional advisers would then say “I cannot manage that”.
The client’s objective is not the same as the clients expectation, and if this difference is not understood and managed then a dissatisfied client will eventually be created.
At the outset of any engagement – during the initial meeting and as part of the initial agenda – there should be 2 key elements:
The first question goes to the heart of establishing the rules of engagement (remuneration, timeframes, overall objectives and any limitations or existing belief sets on the part of the client) which must be taken into account. Once those are understood the professional has 2 choices:
a. advise the prospective client that you are not able to meet their expectations, or,
b. advise the prospective client that you can meet their expectations – and this is how it will work…..
THIS is the point where we de-power any attempts at creating a monarchy….but firmly establish that while the customer is boss, the customer has some responsibilities too if they are to achieve their objectives.
You have to lay out your expectations, and obtain agreement from the prospective client that they are acceptable. Failing to do so simply creates the illusion that they can demand what they want, whenever they want, and reserve the right to continually change the rules of engagement. That is a recipe for disaster in a professional relationship.
The professional’s expectations do not have to be onerous or complicated, and they should certainly not be unreasonable. My own (which I have used for years and never had a prospective client reject) are simple. Usually putting them on the table and getting agreement from a client-to-be goes like this:
“I think I can help you and put together a plan which will achieve what you want. It is important that you understand I cannot do it alone and that you will have to play a part in that, so what I need you to agree to are a few ground rules is that ok? Nobody has ever had a problem with them and I don’t think you will either, so I’ll just run through them:
These rules are not unreasonable of course and in themselves do not exceed a clients expectations. So the power is not in “the rules” as such. The power lies in having a conversation which establishes that the client has to do somethings to get the outcome they want, and that the relationship must be one where they respect the professional too.
It leaves them understanding that while they are the customer, and they are paying the bills and therefore in charge, they do not have absolute power.
The client knows they are not the King.