Before we start, I want to point out that since I am not a lawyer, this is not a legal opinion. It is simply the perspective of a very dedicated marketing consultant and business owner with over twenty years of experience. But if you’ve lost any clients recently, and are feeling a little beaten up, this article may be exactly what you need.
So, on with the question: When hired by a corporation or organization of any kind, who is your client? Is it the corporation, or a contact within it, such as the person who selected you as a vendor, signed off on your contract, or those with whom you deal on a daily basis?
Technically and legally it’s usually the former, i.e. the corporation, because that’s where your invoice goes, and that’s who pays it. Because of that fact, I thought that way for many years and assumed the issue was black and white. More recently, with the downturn here in Alberta, and given many years in the business, I have come to question this view.
Why? Because in different situations, the client and the contact within it can be more or less aligned, making things somewhat hazy.
Here are three scenarios.
Scenario 1: Contact and Company are aligned
As long as your contact within the company is aligned with the corporation for which he or she works, company and contact are like one seamless client. In this ideal scenario, you’re making the company and contact look good, they’re accepting your recommendations, and your contact is successfully navigating you through any politics within the company. Success happens smoothly and naturally, and the relationship grows.
Scenario 2: Company is antagonistic, Contact is good
Suppose now that the company, for unknown reasons, begins treating your contact poorly. The company stops listening to recommendations you and the contact put forth, nothing seems to be getting approved, and all your best ideas are scuttled. If you have good relationships elsewhere in the company, you may survive your contact getting let go. But if not, you can safely assume that when they get the axe, you’ll be swept out the door with them. By the way, this always seems to happen sooner than you’d think, and when you least expect it. Be sure you have written notice/termination clauses in your contracts to protect yourself and ask your legal counsel for wording.
Scenario 3: Contact is antagonistic, Company is good
I’ve also been in scenarios where the initial contact seems to micro-manage and re-do all kinds of work we’ve supplied, but their company as a whole is a good client, and so is upper management. Sometimes it is possible to gradually build trust with the contact until the working relationship is, at least, not quite as antagonizing. At the same time, if the company is run well, building a relationship there is also wise, in case, once again, your contact gets the axe. In order to ameliorate this risk, it is good to let others in the client company know that you like and understand their values, so that if they should let your contact go, they’ll know this won’t sour the relationship with you. This does not mean you should throw your contact under the bus (i.e. say anything negative about them) but at least demonstrate that you support the upper management’s philosophy, and try to get to know them. If you really get into a tight spot, you can always call upper managers to tell them know you’re ready to walk away, and to contact you if they need to know more. You are also wise to keep very clear documentation on interactions with your contact(s) in case they have been blaming you for things they did not handle well. If they are let go, you can request to meet with upper management and fully explain your work.
Corporation vs. Contact: How to Choose
From a practical standpoint, I would argue that the true client is the connection that best aligns with your values, whether an individual or an organization. At Tenato, we have a little motto: “Helping the good guys win.” This means we will naturally gravitate to building relationships with people within the client company who best align with that, providing that their interests are in the best interests of their company’s interests as well. Perhaps some people in the company won’t be on our wavelength, but if we can find at least one person there who still inspires us, we can hang onto that and help them do what is best for the company. Or, perhaps the relationship needs to be set aside to wait for future circumstances wherein personnel issues improve.
Here are a few examples that can provide some insight.
Example 1: Good contact outlasting a bad boss
Imagine your company is hired to deal at two levels in an organization – the decision makers who selected you, and the front line person. The decision maker wants you to help the front line person become more productive, and at first this seems to make sense. Over time you realize that the decision maker is the real issue; he refuses to make decisions that are holding up the front line person’s productivity. Soon after, the front line person, and your firm are both fired. You might feel bad you lost the client…until the former front line person lands a much better position in a new company and calls you to come and assist him.
Example 2: Good contact outlasting a failing company
Imagine what happens when a company declares bankruptcy; and your firm has money owing. While you might think your client, the company, is dead and the situation is hopeless, consider this. If you have an excellent relationship with your contact within the company, he or she could have made sure your invoices got into processing before the bankruptcy was announced. Other vendors without such a relationship might not be so lucky.
Example 3: Split makes double
Imagine a company hires an executive that is not a good fit, but that you are managing to work well with the executive, as she is your contact there. After a little while, the owners realize there is a serious clash in personality between themselves and the executive. Both could be great to work with in their own ways, from your perspective. When they part directions, if you are careful, you can have a good shot at keeping positive relationships with both, effectively doubling business opportunities from what are now two great clients.
So, who is your client?
You probably learned in Business 101 that a corporation is ultimately just a legal document; a tool made and utilized by people. While it has owners, it is an entity separate from them, and as such there are no flesh or blood humans with whom to form a bond. For that reason, even if technically your client is that corporation, we would argue that its not the real client. The real client has to be the person or people you can actually relate to within the company – the ones with whom you’ve built that rapport. The good news is that if you lose a “client,” all is not lost. If you’ve kept a few good relationships, it will all come back around, sometimes sooner than you think.