I was reading an interesting review of organisational design for HR organisations yesterday, but stumbled when I saw that deadliest of phrases:

who “owns” the client?

It is a phrase I have heard everywhere from Business Development and Sales teams (external clients) to HR and Talent (internal clients), and being bandied around by Not for Profit management teams (supporters and service users). I have even heard myself say it (woops!). It gets written into agreements and legal contracts, and plays a big role in covenants in restraint of trade (non-compete clauses); but it is an idea you want to avoid at all costs. If you can’t see the problem, go to one of your clients and tell them:

as a Client, I own you.

If you are very lucky, the response might be “not anymore, you don’t.” It could be a whole lot worse.

No client has yet been born who wants to be owned by you or any other supplier or service provider. They want you to solve their problems, and if you can make them feel good about it at the same time, so much the better. If you can’t solve their problems, or if they realise someone else can do it better, cheaper or faster, they will move to that other provider, sooner or later. And if they realise that you are arrogant enough to think that you own them, they will go faster.

The client always has a choice. The moment you think it has to be you, you lose.

I understand - really - that the intention you have in using this language is just to assign responsibility for serving the client and servicing their needs. Only… words have power. “I won that client. I own that client. How dare you contact my client? Are you trying to steal my client? Why did we lose that client?” Before you know it, you are speaking the language of possession. Are you a dairy farmer, speaking of his herd? If you contact the client, does that mean it is milking time?

(And trust me: that really isn’t the worst analogy I can think of.)

Even where money isn’t directly involved, e.g. internal clients of an HR organisation, “I own this client” very readily translates into  the language of power and influence; so please don’t kid yourself that this language is benign. Yes, this is ultimately a matter of the heart, not just the mouth. But what you say shapes your thinking.

So say “the clients I am responsible for serving”; “we’ve won the opportunity to serve this client and solve problems for them”; “with respect to this client I am the one accountable for how that relationship is working”.

That means, when you introduce yourself to the client - internal or external - you will be able to say to them, “I have been asked to look after your business relationship with us, and to make sure we are solving the right problems for you, and serving you brilliantly well - so please hold me accountable over that.”

And you might actually mean it.

Originally posted on LinkedIn - Published May 18, 2016