Are you working with the real client, or with a stand-in?

client knowledgeDrawing on my own experience and that of others of my acquaintance, I would go so far as to say that – in the professional services field – not knowing who the real client is could jeopardize your professional reputation and even your business, and probably through no real fault of your own.

And the obverse is also true, that knowing who your real client is and being able to work effectively with that client is a key ingredient for the success of your professional practice.

Years ago, when I was hiring consultants and before I became one, a consultant hired by a government agency of which I was the key representative in the particular matter remarked to me that he had found that it is critically important in consulting work to know who the real client is.

At the time that made sense to me intellectually, but I hadn’t yet experienced it.

And hadn’t experienced how uncomfortable it can be for a consultant – even maddeningly so at times – when that clarity is not present.

In fact one of the main challenges I’ve had to deal with as a consultant has been trying to establish who the real client is.

Sometimes that has been a challenge even after I secured the contract and thought I knew.

A related challenge is when there are advisers or others of influence in the background who are “writing the script” for the conversations you are having with the client.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that more often than I like to think, there has been someone in a higher position, or – more challengingly – someone in the shadows, so to speak, who has been pulling the strings.

Moment of truth

A couple of experiences in particular of this kind some years ago led me to so seriously question the work I was doing as a consultant that I made quite a radical shift in the focus of my business, away from consulting (at least of the kind that required long written reports!) and towards coaching.

I had always tried as a consultant to provide frank and fearless advice, and when I think back I realize there was more than one occasion in the wrap up of a consultancy when I had been given to understand that unnamed others would prefer something more flattering, or more innocuous.

To give one example, with some colleagues I had laboured to produce a report for an admittedly politically sensitive government project and the closer it came to being finalized, the more it became obvious that the people with whom we were dealing directly were either being directed from elsewhere as to what we should or shouldn’t say, or were second-guessing unnamed others, whether more senior bureaucrats or political masters, or a combination of both.

We tried to be as pragmatic as we could without abandoning our individual and collective moral and professional frameworks, but it was a serious stretch trying to get to a text and recommendations for our final report that would be mutually acceptable to the client and to us as the consultants.

Under pressure we had acquiesced with various adjustments, on the basis that we were trying to give the client something that could be acted upon.

Something we could live with, even if we could not, in the circumstances, be particularly proud of.

But the fact is, none of us was happy with the final result of that report, as we felt so much that was worthwhile in our early advice and recommendations had been “trimmed” out. 

These days I want to know who is the shot-caller

More than one experience of the kind just recounted has contributed to my practice these days, which is to stay away from doing government work (not that government has a lock on ambiguous dealing!) and to my preference to work directly with business owners, CEOs, presidents or others who are the actual clients.

The persons really in charge.

The shot-callers.

If I am not working directly with those people, I want to know how they feel about what is being done and know that they are fully supportive.

Getting clarity before anything is signed

Similarly, in pitching for business or responding to approaches I am very determined to know who the real client is to be.

In other words, I’m applying the wisdom implicit in the old saying that the one who pays the piper calls the tune.

I’m not complaining about those past experiences of having my work stymied or limited by my not having clarity about who was pulling the strings.

It’s been part of my business education really, and indeed I’ve learned some practical business wisdom from such experiences.

In particular, I’ve learned that ambiguity or mystery about who is really in charge is not always evident at the outset. But my instincts are thankfully better now in detecting a lack of clarity, so I am better at asking exploratory questions early on, to get the clarity I need if I am to proceed confidently.

But I ain’t perfect!

All that said, I have to acknowledge that, feeling the warm inner glow that comes with believing a new contract or a new client is about to manifest, I do still sometimes neglect to do enough quizzing to be assured that I will be dealing with this person, not signing up for a new game of shadows.

Which is one reason I endeavour to remind myself not to say yes straight away, but to give myself time to reflect, leaving open the option to ask more questions.

Something to share on this?

Have you ever experienced the frustration of finding that the person you thought was your client was more of an intermediary, with little or no authority to act decisively without getting instructions from some other, especially some mysterious, unnamed other? Do you have clues to share about how to recognize such situations or how to deal with them?

(who's the real client? / shutterstock)