Clients vs. Customers: How Changing Our Language Can Benefit the MSP Industry

As an industry, we’re moving in the right direction. But we have a long way to go if we want to be viewed the same as other professions like doctors, lawyers, and CPAs. Maybe a simple change can stretch us the extra mile.

2_Clients vs. Customers How Changing Our Language Can Benefit the MSP IndustryIf you’ve been around long enough like we have, you can remember back in the day when providing IT services was the Wild West. Anyone could hang up a shingle and say they were an IT service provider. Unfortunately, not too much has changed since then. Don’t get me wrong. As an industry, we’re moving in the right direction. But we have a long way to go if we want to be viewed the same as other professions like doctors, lawyers, and CPAs.

So, what’s different about those professions and us? I’d argue it’s primarily how the world sees us. Unfortunately, we haven’t had hundreds of years to create and refine this perception. It’s frustrating to think that, as much as we try, the industry as a whole is still falling behind in this area. You can see this in a number of ways, with none more pronounced than some of the words we choose to use in our business.

Selling to vs. Relationship with

As David Maister (the king of writing on the service industry) so kindly puts it — “the opposite of a professional is not ‘unprofessional,’ but rather a tech.” Words have meaning. And choosing the right words to communicate who we are and what we do makes all the difference in the world. It may be tough, but I believe we should throw out the word “tech.” If we want to change the perception that all IT service providers are the same, then we have to change how we act.

And to me, there’s nothing more detrimental to achieving this goal than the misuse of the word “customer.”

What is the difference between a customer and a client? A customer is someone you sell something to while a client is someone you have a relationship with. The difference may seem subtle or trivial, but it is significant! Consider the difference between “sell to” and “relationship with.” Sell to is one direction and transactional-based while relationship with is bidirectional and clearly relationship-based. This is a serious inconsistency that’s only hurting our industry. I believe it’s one of the key factors that lowers expectations, which ultimately drives the commoditization of the industry.

This is one of my personal pet peeves and hearing it used within our industry is like nails on a chalkboard. Would you ever hear a CPA use this word? Would you ever hear an attorney call their client a customer? Never. So, why do we? Why haven’t we appropriated the word “client” from these other professions, use it everywhere, and banish the word “customer” yet? I’m here to propose that until our industry does away with the word “customer,” we will never be seen in the same light as other professions. If we don’t think we’re at this level, then how can we possibly expect our clients to (view us this way)?

Serving Clients vs. Selling to Customers

From day one, my company has never used the word “customer” and instead we only use the word “client.” It’s in all of our training materials. It’s become an integral part of our culture.

Why am I so passionate about this? Well, it all comes down to how I view myself and our firm as professionals—no different from CPAs or attorneys. I also believe it goes to a state of mind. If we think we’re a profession, then we’ll act like a professional (not a tech). And if we act this way, then this is how our clients will see us and work with us—as a true trusted advisor, not as a vendor. This has been a critical component of our success and, dare I say, could be for the success of our industry as a whole.

While the industry continues to develop and become more well-defined and standardized, you can’t argue that it still doesn’t have a long way to go. While the use of the word “customer” certainly isn’t the sole factor of commoditization, I would again pose that it’s all about our state of mind and the perception our clients have of us. This is something we could easily take control of.

That said, I don’t believe we’ll see a significant change in the perception of our industry as a profession until we all start changing our own language internally. The first thing I would recommend is ditching the word “customer.” Maybe this is giving away our secret sauce, but I believe in the long run our industry will be better off with this move—especially our clients.

Craig Pollack is the Founder and CEO of FPA Technology Services, Inc. and a member of CompTIA’s Managed Services Committee.



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