Magazine Article | July 2, 2018

Client Vs. Customer

Source: Channel Executive Magazine

By Craig Pollack, founder and CEO, FPA Technology

Back in the day, IT service provision was the Wild West. Anyone could hang up a shingle and sell IT services. We were competing with the image of “two guys and a ponytail.” The reality is, not too much has changed (maybe except for the ponytails).

Don’t get me wrong. As an industry, we’re moving in the right direction. But we have a long way to go if we want to be considered a real profession, the likes of doctors, lawyers, and CPAs.

So, what’s different about these professions and us? Well, a number of things. I’d argue that primarily it’s how the rest of the world has come to see us. Unfortunately, we haven’t had hundreds of years to build up the perception that we’re professionals like the other professions. Yes, there are a number of us who act as and are professionals. But it’s frustrating to think that, as much as we try, the industry as a whole isn’t promoting this as best it can. You can see this in a number of ways, with none more important and more impactful than some of the words we choose to use.

As David Maister (the king of writing on the service industry) so kindly puts it — “the opposite of a professional is notunprofessional, but rather a tech.” Words have meaning. And choosing the right words to communicate who we are and what we do makes all the difference in the world. It may be tough, but we should throw out the word “tech.” If we want to change the perception that IT service providers are a commodity, then we have to change who we are, how we act, and the words we use. And this has to start within our industry.

That said, there’s none bigger and more impactful than the misuse of the word “customer.” Just thinking about it gives me the chills. This is one of my personal pet peeves and hearing it used within our industry is like nails on a chalkboard for me. Would you ever hear a CPA use this word? Would you ever hear an attorney call their client a customer? Never. So, why do we? Why haven’t we appropriated the word “client” from these other professions, used it everywhere, and banished the word “customer” yet? I’m here to propose that until our industry does away with the word “customer,” we will never be seen as a professional industry. If we don’t think we’re running at this level, then how could we possibly expect our clients to?

From day one, FPA has never used the word “customer” and instead uses the word “client.” It’s in all of our training materials. It has become an integral part of our culture.

Why am I so passionate about this? Well, it all comes down to how I view myself and our firm as professionals — no different from CPAs or attorneys. I also believe it goes to a state of mind. If we think we’re a profession, then we’ll act like a professional (not a tech). And if we act this way, then this is how our clients will see us and work with us — as a true partner, not a vendor. This has been a critical component of our success at FPA and, dare I say, could be for the success of our industry as a whole.

SELLING TO vs. RELATIONSHIP WITH

Simply look at the definition of the words. A customer is someone you sell something to while a client is someone you have a relationship with. While this may seem insignificant, there’s a huge difference! Consider the difference between “sell to” and “relationship with.” Sell to is one direction and transactional-based while relationship withis bidirectional and clearly relationship- based. How can the industry pundits preach that for us to be successful we need to be professional and act as a trusted advisor when they’re using the word “customer” with us? This is a serious inconsistency that’s only hurting our industry. I believe it’s one of the key factors lowering expectations, which ultimately drives the commoditization of the industry.

While the industry is continuing to develop and become more well-defined and standardized, you can’t argue that it still doesn’t have a long way to go. While the use of the word “customer” certainly isn’t the sole factor of commoditization, I would again pose that it’s all about our state of mind and the perception of our clients. This is something we should take control of.

That said, I don’t believe we’ll see a significant change in the perception of our industry as a profession until we all start changing our own language internally. The first thing I would recommend is ditching the word “customer.” Maybe this is giving away our secret sauce, but I believe in the long run our industry will be better off with this move — especially our clients.

CRAIG POLLACK, founder and CEO at FPA Technology Services, Inc., is a technology executive who assists business owners and key decision makers by helping them leverage technology to achieve their business objectives.