Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > Is the customer king? Or is it the client? Why is the difference important?

Is the customer king? Or is it the client? Why is the difference important?

Recently I’ve been doing some work with clients on the joys of customer service, in one case the delivery of product direct to those that have ordered it and in the other the delivery of service to various sites where the contract, and therefore the service level, has been placed with a central client.

In the former case things are straightforward; the product is requested and the customer advised as to when it will come. As long as the promise is kept the customer is happy and will come again, or at least in theory, because there are times when the customer doesn’t take account of the fact that what has been ordered has to be put somewhere when it arrives, and they don’t always realise quite how large a delivery might be. Back in my logistics days I had software developed to flag exceptional order quantities; “Do you really want 1000 boxes or did you mean 10 boxes of 100?” Far better to check than to send a lorry load out knowing it might all come back. It is all good customer service.

Where you are dealing with a centrally placed contract though things can get more difficult. Let’s call the contract placer the client and the recipient of the service the customer here. Now the client will specify a service level and this will probably be fairly well stripped down on price grounds, but what do they tell the customers to expect? It should be the client/customer organisation that ensures that they are able to play their part in the contract and sometimes the communication is good, other times it is nonexistent, but in most cases there is no effort whatsoever to make a connection between the two parts of the business and it is left to the contractor to be the interface.

One of the great benefits that I have enjoyed in my managerial career is to have worked in sales, operations and purchasing and so have seen how these three disciplines interlink (or not) and maybe I have a greater sense of perspective as a result, but I still recall a career low point when I took over an FM contract that had been centrally placed with no thought to what was going on at the sharp end.

Off I went to the first Quality of Service quarterly meeting of my tenure. We sat either side of the table with the client as they ran through the KPIs. Most were within the required standard, but a couple were not and we got the required dressing down. That dealt with what was actually contractual and relevant to what we were paid, but then we got on to “end user feedback” (complaints). Now there we got pretty well hammered by the people we were serving on a day to day basis in every area except for the ones where we were failing the KPIs, but it didn’t matter to the client because it wasn’t in the contract. They still went through the motions of giving us a hard time, but it was pretty half hearted.

We turned that contract round in spite of the intransigent client team by talking to the people at the top of the organisation about what they really needed from us, not to deliver just for them, but to enable them to deliver what their customers wanted. You have to think down the line.

Contracts should be about what a business needs to succeed, and should be flexible enough to adapt to changing needs. You should never paint yourself into a corner, should you?

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