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Do You Have Customers, or Clients? Are You a Vendor, or a Consultant?

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Read Time: 8 min

In the world of contract work, whether you are a freelancer or you work with an agency, the approach you take to relationship management with project owners is incredibly important to each and every project you embark on. Today, we're going to juxtapose two paradigms of relationship management: vendor to customer and consultant to client. We will talk about a few conceptual differences between these, then talk about how understanding and learning from them can help you to love your work even more, and how effective your work is for a given project's end goal.

Let's get started!

The Differences


The Customer is Always Right

You've heard this said and it certainly is true in many aspects. If you have customers, your job is to offer them a product that they are satisfied with, at a price they are willing to pay.

Let's take a grocery store, for instance; if I walk into your grocery store, I wouldn't expect you to try to explain to me what food I should buy and what my budget should be. I walk in, and I have every right to walk out, never owing you anything. By engaging anyone in your customer service department, I am offering a chance to your grocery store to gain market share by helping me.

The Difference: The Client's Opinion is Always Heard

With a client relationship, things are always different. If you are a client, I have a responsibility to make your opinion heard, but I also have the responsibility to make a judgement call about whether or not that opinion should somehow modify the work being done. You are not always right, but similar to a customer relationship, you are always important and always heard.


Customers Choose their Vendor

If you are a customer, you have choices. One grocery store or another, both have green beans. Really, at that point, it's generally about a price versus quality ratio, with some factor of convenience and clout thrown in to the mix. Vendors have a goal of increasing their customer base, ultimately driven by profit margins.

The Difference: Consultants Accept Clients

If you are a potential client, you have a choice, but so does the consultant you are attempting to work with. This means that consultants are not obligated (nor are they desperate) for your business. Instead, consultants work with people they want to work with. Consultants have a goal of increasing the quality of their client base, not simply the quantity. Consultants are not driven by profit margin, but rather they are driven by results.


Vendors Aren't Impacted By Customers Beyond the Purchase

Of course this is a generalized statement, but vendors are not reliant on their customer-base as part of their marketing or strategic vision. Customers of a vendor are consumers of the vendor's vision and market positioning. Vendors are impacted by customers only up to the point of sale.

The Difference: Consultants Are Primarily Driven by Client's Vision

Consultants sign onto projects they can invest energy with full conviction. They are obligated to act on behalf of the client, because they believe in the client.


Vendors work for Customer Satisfaction

In a vendor-customer relationship, the vendor's goal is to make the customer happy with the product or service that has been provided. This is the job of the vendor - to meet the exact specifications or wishes of the customer. The input of the vendor is valued, given that it somehow explains the quantitative details of implementation or unexpected difficulties.

The Difference: Consultants work for Client Success

For a client to be successful, a consultant's job is to do what they do best. When entering a client-consultant relationship, a handshake of trust and vulnerability is made. The consultant is hired not simply because there isn't capacity to fulfill the demands of the client, but rather because the consultant is needed for their knowledge and expertise. (They are, after all, hired so that they can be consulted.) The consultant agrees to be invested in making the client successful in fulfilling a purpose, while the client agrees to give the consultant what they need to make decisions. This entails offering a certain level of decision-making power, autonomy, and trust. The rule of thumb: if the client could go to a vendor to get the same product or service quality you're asking for from a consultant, then they should. However, if the consultant brings expertise or another strategic advantage to the table that the client needs, the client-consultant relationship is more likely to be valid.

How You Can Use These Differences to Your Advantage

There's no particular advantage to either scenario, necessarily. However, if you are a vendor and are treating your customers like clients, you're probably doing something wrong. If you are a consultant and you are treating your customers like clients, you're probably doing something wrong. Let's talk about how to avoid these pitfalls.


Decide What You Are

Are you or your agency better suited for a client-consultant or customer-vendor relationship? Most web agencies are better suited to client-consultant relationships. This is usually the case because most clients don't have in-house creative teams, and are relying on the web agency to satisfy that role. This is something that is by nature consultant work, and should be treated as such.

However, this isn't the case for everyone. Do you provide a package software with documentation to a mass audience? Are you farming out Wordpress theme installation and simple customization? If this comes close to describing the work you do, it may be the case that you actually are working in the role of a vendor. This can be very lucrative, but be very careful that you draw the line, and treat your customers as customers. What this means in practice is to limit the work you do for your customers to be trimmed to an optimal marginal profit range (rather than to satisfy the business needs of each individual customer).

It certainly is possible to function in both roles, depending on the client. For instance - if you sell themes in a store like ThemeForest, the people who download that theme are customers. However, if you sell services of personalized theme customization and design, that could be considered consultant work.


Establish the Terms of the Relationship; Sign on or Get Out, Early

This is one of the most important parts of any proper client or customer relationship management. Learn early what kind of relationship both sides are pursuing, and put them in a contract. Make sure the important parts of the decision-making as it relates to the project are nailed down in writing. As a web designer, this includes what kinds of designs, definition and types of revisions, level of freedom in design and creative direction, acceptable communication and response times, and recourse for contract deviation on both sides.

These are just a few examples of project attributes that directly depend on the type of relationship. If you see things going in the wrong direction (for instance, if you are a consultant and the client-proposal includes more creative restrictions or rigid expectations than you are comfortable with), get out, earlier rather than later.

Getting out is important for two major reasons. First, you avoid getting into a situation of continual division, caused by the strain of relationship expectation differences (a client-vendor or customer-consultant mix). Second, you open yourself up to invest the time you would have spent in a bad client/customer relationship in something that is valuable and matches your relationship paradigm.


Balance Practicality with Realism

If you're a consultant, you are the expert. There's no doubt about that.

However, when someone is incredibly invested in an idea, they don't give up control easily. It is much more comfortable in these scenarios to be a part of every decision that is made instead of offloading those decisions onto "others", even if those "others" are actually much more expertly qualified.

Therefore, it should be understood that relationships are not scientific; they are grown over time. If you do decide to go down the road of being a consultant, it pays abundantly to have patience with your clients. Take time to bring them into decision-making meetings. Realize that even though you may be the most qualified and most likely to succeed at a given task, your clients own the product; ultimately, their decision-making power will drive the destiny of the product. It's important to allow the product owner to have their investment in their product, and the decisions surrounding the development of that product.

Instead of investing time in trying to convince the product owner to let go of the reigns, choose to invest in your people skills; read about how to win friends and influence people, or even more specifically you can study relationship management psychology. Don't leave out the element of the human, because after all, that's what relationships are all about. And, after all, as a designer, one of your most important jobs is to understand humans.



Above all, learn what it means to be respected and to give respect.

Respect other peoples' desires, passions, and motivations. Respect their commitments and priorities. Doing so will help you understand why they are acting a certain way. Respect doesn't always mean saying "okay" - sometimes it means turning down a client, and sometimes it means working overtime to meet a deadline.

Respect yourself enough to be accountable for your words and actions. Respect yourself enough to avoid bad or incompatible professional relationships, and work how you want to work, not how someone else wants you to work.

If you are someone working at the top of an agency, respect the members of your team by choosing to work with the right people, whether they are clients or customers. Work with people who understand these principles and are willing to open up conversation about expectations and your respective roles.


What have you learned in practice about consulting? What experiences have you had that you've learned from when a client thought they were a customer, or vice-versa? Share in the comments!

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