learn one lesson: who is the client?

Whether you work as an employee, a consultant, a small business owner or an entrepreneur you probably find yourself in a client relationship from time to time. In my case, I’m always serving a client. Over time I’ve realized that a good question to ask yourself, as someone in client service, is “who is the client?” I’ll approach this question as a consultant, but I think it applies to almost anyone who works with clients or even works in a company where they have to treat other employees as clients.


Asking this question might seem stupid, but I think that it’s easy to confuse yourself. As an example, I usually have two (or more) people who might be THE client. The first is a day-to-day manager, who lets me know what he or she needs and expects. The manager might not be just one person, but for the sake of argument we’re just talking about a single person (I’ll call him or her or them The Manager). The second person who might be THE client is the person who signs the invoices and – basically – pays me. Usually the second person is the manager’s manager (or even a couple of times removed). I may have some minimal relationship with that person (I’ll call him or her The Executive) and probably don’t get much daily direction from them.

So when conflict arises between The Manager and The Executive, who do I need to worry about? I know that my first instinct is to guarantee that The Manager is happy, since he’s the guy I have to deal with on a daily basis. He has a better chance to judge whether the product of my work meets requirements or not, and if I don’t meet his requirements I’m going to be in trouble.

On the other hand, The Executive pays the bills. If she’s not happy with something I’m doing, or something The Manager is passing on to her that I’m doing, I may not have that client on my list much longer. The Executive is the one hobnobbing with other executives and influential people in my industry, and a bad word here and there could really hurt me (and a good word could help me). The Executive may not understand what I’m working on and may not be in a position to judge my work fairly, so a lot of my interaction with The Executive is probably brief presentations at high level meetings where a smile and a confident speaking tone make a bigger difference than the details of the work.

The easiest answer is to say “take care of both of them.” The truth is that in many consulting relationships (and this goes for employees, entrepreneurs, etc.) the consultant is usually swimming in turbulent waters. The desire of The Manager to look “more useful” to The Executive than the consultant is often eddying just under the surface. The Executive is often more concerned about how the consultants present in a meeting – can they sell the project? make it look snazzy? – than whether the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed.

So given that you can’t please everyone all the time, what’s a poor consultant to do?

Early on in my career, I worked with a senior accountant on a difficult project – in the example above, he was The Manager. I didn’t see eye to eye with her most of the time. However, I was lucky to form a friendly professional bond with the overall project manager, who became a mentor to me and was The Executive. I had some tough times with The Manager, and The Executive heard about it. The Executive, however, knew me well enough to push me forward to other higher-profile projects and laud me to other executives.

In retrospect I was probably unfair to The Manager but I learned my lesson – please The Executive. Or did I learn my lesson? At various times in my career on other projects I got carried away with the day-to-day tasks and forgot about The Executive. When the project ended, The Manager looked like a star and The Executive barely knew who I was. Again and again, I realized that the consultant who won the next project was not the detail guy, or the smartest guy, but the guy who forged the best relationship with The Executive.

That’s not to say that you can get by schmoozing without doing good work, but good work won’t do much for you without schmoozing. The relationship with The Executive is always critical to landing the next client. The Manager may be able to help you as well, but chances are good that they won’t talk you up TOO much, fearing a reduction of their own image.

Identifying your client won’t always be easy, but it’s a part of the job that can’t ever be overlooked. If you can please everyone, congratulations – you’ve found an easy client. If you can’t, make sure you know who The Executive is, and make sure they know who you are. I think you’ll find that it makes all the difference – not just now, but in the future, too.

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One Reply to “learn one lesson: who is the client?”

  1. If I had to pick one, I would go with the one that had the most influence in the organization

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