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#116: Who is the Real Client?

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Monday, August 24, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, August 25, 2009
I read articles that conflict on defining who our client really is. Is it the client's representative I work with or the CEO of the client organization the "true client"?

You touch on a long-standing discussion, unlikely to soon be resolved to the satisfaction of all. Both consultants and clients have taken hard lines on this topic, and there are more points of view than just the two you have raised. The issue is the definition of "customer" that itself is the topic of a lot of discussion among both practitioners and academics. To start, customers can be thought of in three basic ways. First, the traditional definition is the end user or “consumer” of the product or service being generated. Ask who is the final consumer in the value chain of the application of the product or service you develop? The second, but not primary, customer is the broker of those services (e.g., a trainer is the broker of the training program you develop). Many products that consultants develop are in the form of capabilities to be used repeatedly in the future by someone, even if it is the CEO (e.g., a strategic framework). Third, there are the adapters or fixers of the service, ones who are likely to be tweaking the service we develop as needs change over time (e.g., training program staff).

This is where the greatest confusion lies. Is the training program you are developing a service that is "consumed" by the training manager (who may be your point of contact for the client), the division manager, the CEO, the organization as a whole, the trainers and future training program developers, the trainees, the Board of Directors, the shareholders, or the company's own customers? A case can be made for each of these, depending on the service you are providing and the nature of the engagement. However, it is rarely the case that the true client is the person with whom you worked out the statement of work and to whom you submit progress reports. These are people serving as representatives of the organization as a whole, who are authorizing spending the organization's money to pay you, and through whom you are providing services.

Tip: This is something worth talking about with your client representative, especially since the ultimate value of your services is defined by the impact your services have on the organization as a whole, not just the effectiveness of the product you are developing for your contact. In almost all cases, your value to the organization as a whole (and, perhaps the definition of your fees) is greater that it would seem to a sub unit or individual manager of the organization.

© 2009 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client relations  consulting terminology  customer understanding  engagement management  roles and responsibilities 

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