The Customer Is NOT King; The Customer Is Not Always Right

The mantra of “customer is king” is rubbish.  The customer is not always right, and the customer is definitely not the stakeholder who provides permission to practice.  Yet we keep hearing that the customer is king from marketers and interest groups as if it were a commandment.

A King or Queen supposedly has absolute control. Sure, the phrase doesn’t quite carry the power it once did when they could lop off a subjects head for misdemeanours, but even in modern constitutional monarchies they are theoretically the top of the heirarchy…theoretically.  While we know that’s a relatively politically pwerless role in most countries today phrase “customer or client is the King” is one which suggests that they have absolute power in the relationship, and that their demands must be met.


Sometimes clients are idiots.  Sometimes clients are unreasonable.  Sometimes clients are ignorant.

All humans are all of the above sometimes (including advisers!), and so it is with our clients too.  

They are definitely the boss in the engagement….but they are not the “king” despite what industry commentators constantly assert.

So how do we ensure clients are positioned as “Boss”, but not thinking they are “The King”?

We manage expectations and lay down some ground rules at the outset.

To establish the right professional relationship and ensure the client understands that they are the boss, but not in complete power, we must establish both sides expectations.  It is natural, and it is part of every professionals process already, to understand what the clients objectives are from an engagement. That is not the same however as their expectations.

Here’s a simple (and extreme) example of the difference:

The clients objective may be to have sufficient money to retire comfortably without loss of current lifestyle.  Professional advisers will generally say “I can create that plan”.  The clients expectation however may be that this will be created for them by them only investing a little bit of money and the adviser managing to quadruple it every month. Most professional advisers would then say “I cannot manage that”.

The client’s objective is not the same as the clients expectation, and if this difference is not understood and managed then a dissatisfied client will eventually be created.

At the outset of any engagement – during the initial meeting and as part of the initial agenda – there should be 2 key elements:

  1.  What are the clients expectations about how we shall work and what will be achieved?
  2. What are the professional’s expectations of the client?

The first question goes to the heart of establishing the rules of engagement (remuneration, timeframes, overall objectives and any limitations or existing belief sets on the part of the client) which must be taken into account. Once those are understood the professional has 2 choices:

a. advise the prospective client that you are not able to meet their expectations, or,

b. advise the prospective client that you can meet their expectations – and this is how it will work…..

THIS is the point where we de-power any attempts at creating a monarchy with themselves in charge of dispensing decisions….but firmly establish that while the customer is boss, the customer has some responsibilities too if they are to achieve their objectives.

You have to lay out your expectations, and obtain agreement from the prospective client that they are acceptable.  Failing to do so simply creates the illusion that they can demand what they want, whenever they want, and reserve the right to continually change the rules of engagement. That is a recipe for disaster in a professional relationship.

The professional’s expectations do not have to be onerous or complicated, and they should certainly not be unreasonable. My own (which I have used for years and never had a prospective client reject) are simple.  Usually putting them on the table and getting agreement from a client-to-be goes like this:

I think I can help you and put together a plan which will achieve what you want.  It is important that you understand I cannot do it alone and that you will have to play a part in that, so what I need you to agree to are a few ground rules is that ok?  Nobody has ever had a problem with them and I don’t think you will either, so I’ll just run through them:

  1.  I need you to always return my calls.  I won’t call you to discuss the weather, so if I call you it is because I am trying to move your plans forward.  So you must return my calls, ok?
  2. I need you to keep our appointments, or let me know as early as possible if you can’t. I know things happen and we have to change plans sometimes and that is ok, but if someone simply decides not to show up then we people get disappointed in each other, and that is not good – ok?
  3. You need to do whatever paperwork is necessary to put your plans in place. Sitting on forms and not completing them for weeks as people do on occasions becomes stressful for everyone, and sometimes means that genuine opportunities are missed. So all paperwork done promptly – is that ok?  
  4. Please pay any agreed invoices in a timely manner, or let me know if there is a problem by talking to me about it.  It’s ok if there is a problem with paying something on time as we can always work around that, but late payment without explanation is another one of those things in business which creates unnecessary stress for everyone.  Are you ok with that?

These rules are all reasonable of course and in themselves do not exceed any reasonable clients expectations.  So the power is not in “the rules” as such.  The power lies in having a conversation which establishes that the client has to do somethings to get the outcome they want, and that the relationship must be one where they respect the professional too.

It leaves them understanding that while they are the customer, and they are paying the bills and therefore in charge, they do not have absolute power and they have to work if they want the relationship to work and deliver on their objectives.

By laying out our own expectations on what makes for a successful engagement the client knows they are not the King. But they do know that they are the boss, and like any boss in any endeavour they have some rules to follo0w and some work to do themselves.

Related: Socialize With Key Clients and Get More Business