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The Problem with Client

The Problem With Being A Client

This month our Managing Director, Luke, reflects on the use of labels within professions…

In companies like ours, largely operating on a B2B basis, ‘The Client’ is a label that gets used a lot, but recently a debate has begun to spring up about whether the word client is actually a barrier to getting the most out of a professional relationship.

Tracing the word back through its etymological roots, it’s not long before you find yourself back among the Doric arches of Ancient Rome where the term described a commoner who lived under the guardianship and protection of a wealthy benefactor.

That would hardly seem to be the basis of a relationship built on mutual respect and equality.

Fast forward back to the present day and while more than 2000 years of history has changed the literal meaning of the word, time hasn’t necessarily done very much to alter businesses’ attitudes to the people they serve. However, it has been a while since anyone procuring our services lurked behind a Doric pillar awaiting a purse of sestertii from a senator.

The consultancy environment, where Treework operates, has long been comfortable using the word client. It’s a common language shared with colleagues in the design sector and has a veneer of professionalism and gravitas about it.

Its use is intended to convey the sense that the work consultancies are commissioned to do is taken seriously. It sets the parameters of a certain type of relationship and we’re comfortable reverting to it because we all know what it means.

Yet, do we? Or, perhaps more accurately, are we fully aware of the potential it has to alter how we view and consider the people we work for? When we use it, is it in the context of something positive or something negative?

If we look at the way some professional disciplines are taught, the relationship is set out clearly from the start. The client is identified, and their role is clear as is the ‘professional service provider’s’ role in relation to the ‘client’.

This is ok, as far as it goes; the parameters are clearly set out and a clear transactional relationship is established. It’s a process that’s well defined, repeatable and ready to be encoded into contract. It also invites each party to perceive themselves as the protagonist and to see the other as … well, the ‘other’.

My work brings me into contact with a lot of businesspeople every day, many of whom are simply friends, acquaintances or contacts who have no professional working relationship with me or Treework.

Others procure the services of my company, some provide services to us and in some cases the exchange is in both directions. I and the people with whom I discuss business, define scopes and even share a beer find ourselves often defined by the labels that set rules for our commercial interaction with one another.

I often hear people refer to ‘the client’, and it sounds somewhat dislocated and remote, particularly when it’s a phrase often used in a way that’s less than complimentary:

… ”The client just changed their mind – again” … ”The client called, asking for more changes” … ”The client has an unrealistic expectation.”

Is there still a whiff of Ancient Rome about the way in which client is sometimes employed in modern business? A faint notion that we’re dealing with anonymous entities that really ought to be a bit more grateful for the work we’re doing on their behalf? Does the way the label ‘client’ is used reinforce this separation?

Well maybe, but I and my colleagues often work with large teams of professionals from various disciplines to deliver a built project through the stages of concept, design, planning and construction. An entity – ‘the client’ – has procured our time and expertise to help them to realise their vision and we all must work together to achieve this successfully.

And it is my experience that the best project results are achieved when all involved build a relationship with the aim of drawing on all of our authorities and expertise to deliver a common goal.

Yes, these relationships benefit from the structure provided by each participant knowing their role and respecting the roles of all involved, but they also need human connection so that we can understand the client’s drivers and concerns and visualise the goal through their eyes.

So, it seems to me that while the word client can usefully inform the structure of the relationship, it comes, like all labels, with the risk that it removes the humanity from a professional relationship. After all, labels can quickly become stereotypes and stereotypes feed poison to prejudice.

This isn’t necessarily new thinking, either. Six years ago, John Boiler, the founder of an advertising agency based in the United States, wrote at length about how attitudes to the word client were actually working against businesses.

You can read his thoughts in full here, but what he concludes is that when we begin to see our clients as the people they actually are, with the priorities, concerns and needs that all humans have, we provide a better service.

And professional bodies such as RIBA have done some very interesting work to bridge that divide between architects and their clients with publications such as Client & Architect Developing the Essential Relationship and Client Conversations.

I am pleased that at Treework, we may also describe the people who commission our services as clients; but it is in our DNA to recognise that, even when we are dealing with trees, we are in fact working with people and the work we do is about helping people to resolve issues and achieve goals. To do this successfully we must “stand in their shoes” and “look through their eyes”.

I expect that whether you are an architect or a business coach, you do pretty much the same … maybe with less reference to trees.

What I hope and believe we show in what we do is that humanising and personalising our work doesn’t have to happen at the expense of being professional and respectful.

And so, on reflection, there isn’t really a problem with the word “client”, just like there isn’t a problem with the word “wall” as long as we recognise where it provides clarity and where it becomes a barrier to healthy professional relationships.


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