A Customer, a Client, and a Consumer Walk into a Bar…

The consumer said to the customer, “I could really use a cognac.” The customer told the client, “I can only afford a beer.” The client asked the bartender, “What do you have that tastes like a cognac for the price of a beer?”

If, like the bartender you sell solutions (sorry), some off-the-shelf and some customized, you would be well served (again, my apologies) to recognize the difference between the needs of a client, a customer and a consumer. In the case of an actual bar, the three roles reside most often in a single thirsty person with money. When it comes to pitching organizational solutions, the roles are spread out and sometimes obscure.

Let me stop belaboring the metaphor and define my terms. I will use the example of selling learning solutions, but the same distinctions apply whether you design and deliver technology solutions, organizational change solutions or solutions in the form of expert advice.

Consumer (of a learning solution): The learner or participant in a learning process

Customer (of a learning solution): The person(s) who will fund the design and delivery of the learning solution sometimes called, “the sponsor.” By “fund” I mean they are literally paying for the solution or have decision-making authority to direct resources to the design and delivery of the solution.

Client (of a learning solution): The person authorized by the customer to identify solution providers and work with solution providers to get the solution designed and delivered.

When responding to requests for learning solutions, we often presume that the client and customer have equivalent or at least aligned needs and interests. We also presume that chief among their interests are meeting the learning needs of the consumer.

Often, and especially in larger organizations, neither the client nor the customer will receive the learning solution. Furthermore, the client is often more beholden to the customer than the consumer even though they are making design decisions on behalf of the consumer. If you want to increase the odds of having your solutions see the light of day, you’ll want to identify who is listening to your proposals as a client, who is listening as a customer and who is listening as a consumer.

Here are some questions you can pose to better understand the needs of each role:

Questions for the Customer

  • How will successful implementation of the solution support your priorities and commitments?
  • What do you most fear could go wrong if we miss something important when designing or delivering the solution?

Questions for the Client

  • How does getting this solution implemented relate to your organizational responsibilities?
  • Who in the organization is approving resources for (paying for) this solution? How will they decide if you have served them well?

Questions for the Consumer

  • How do you experience the problem we’ve been asked to solve?
  • Describe the type of solutions you find most helpful and easiest to adopt?

Ideally the needs of the customer, the client and the consumer of your solutions overlap. If not, you may need to dig deeper to find areas of shared interest. Otherwise, the consumer will be served something they don’t want, the customer will only focus on the budget and the client will give you mixed signals as you try to concoct a suitable solution.

How to Scope a Business Leader’s request without being Annoying

A leader walks into a bar. She says to the bartender, “I’ll have a beer.” The bartender replies, “What problem are you trying to solve?” The leader walks out.

A couple of weeks ago, I worked with an aerospace company whose Human Resources department was shifting to a new service delivery model. Like many HR departments, they want to alter the way line leaders see the role of HR and make use of HR services. For the last several years, HR departments in large organizations have restructured, retooled and retrained so that business leaders stop viewing HR professionals as order takers and start collaborating with them as strategic business partners.

HR professionals aren’t the only experts who feel constrained by requests from decision makers. IT professionals are often asked to build solutions without due consideration of systemic impacts or even a conversation about more efficient non-technical options. I had breakfast with a marketing professional the other day who was working on a new template for creative briefs submitted by internal clients requesting design support. Her team felt the template needed updating so that business leaders stop submitting lists of specifications and instead describe desired impressions and the intended audience.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Consultants have been taught to ask their clients, “What problem are you trying to solve?” as a way to shift the conversation away from order taking. Asking about the nature of the problem rather than discussing how to implement a request allows the expert to problem-solve with the leader rather than simply enact the leader’s solution. Programs, task teams and new processes that originate from uncritically implementing a business leader’s request, often result in wasteful activity and misaligned priorities. After all, even if you are experiencing familiar symptoms and you tell your doctor you need an antibiotic, you can bet that the doctor is going to ask a few questions and conduct a few tests before writing the prescription.

In theory, it makes perfect sense to slow leaders down to ensure the right problem gets solved. We want to make full use of our functional experts who may have interesting perspectives or an alternative the leader hadn’t considered. At the very least, a functional expert can gather data so that leaders make informed decisions before taking action.

In practice, many leaders feel as though they have given due consideration to their situation and feel confident about the efficacy of their request. As Peter Block pointed out decades ago in his pioneering work Flawless Consulting, the consultant might want to establish a collaborative relationship with the client, but the client might simply want an extra pair of hands to get work done. Some people who walk into a bar want a suggestion from the bartender. Some people know what they want. The best bartenders know the difference.

Try This

The next time you find yourself across the desk from a leader placing an order for a solution and all the while you’re thinking, “That won’t work,” buy yourself a little time to plan a scoping conversation by making the following proposal: I’d like to schedule 30 minutes with you to learn more, so that I don’t make the wrong assumptions about what needs to be done.

Design the scoping conversation around four questions. The questions make use of the Unstuck Minds Compass model and will help ensure that you walk away from the scoping conversation with an agreement on the strategic question that will guide the work.

As an example, let’s say the head of a manufacturing group made the following request, “I want to put all of my supervisors through diversity training.”

1. Contextual Inquiry: What’s changing?

You will need to understand the leader’s motivation for investing time, energy and resources to change the current situation. In particular, you’ll want to know whether the need has been building over time or if it’s in response to something new. Listen for and ask about factors outside of the leader’s functional area.

For our example, you might learn that the leader has been hearing about sensitivities of younger workers to things like implicit bias. Perhaps the leader has been paying attention to media coverage of topics like “White Privilege” and the “Me Too movement.” The leader may also be thinking about demographic shifts creating a wide range of generations all working together in a manufacturing facility.

2. Critical Inquiry: What’s holding things in place?

Next, you’ll need to learn about aspects of the current situation that have become the source of dissatisfaction. Given what you learned about what’s changing, what is it about the status quo that has become unsustainable? What existing habits or routines will create tensions between the way things are and the way things are going?

For our example, you might learn that many of the plants have inadequate locker room facilities for women. You might hear a story about an argument that broke out about which cable news channel was being broadcast in a break room. Maybe the leader received an anonymous complaint about a plant supervisor who starts his weekly safety meetings with a prayer.

3. Collaborative Inquiry: Whom will we organize around?

Now that you understand the context of the situation and its relationship to the status quo, it’s time to focus the assignment. Any solution that depends upon people altering their behavior must consider the specific population being asked to change and how the change connects to their needs.

In our example, we might determine that focusing on all people managers in the manufacturing group makes the most sense. Maybe we learn that there is a wide disparity of comfort with the topic of diversity and inclusion among the managers. Deeper inquiry might reveal undercurrents of resentment and feelings of injustice below the surface of discussions about how we include and exclude people based on the circumstances of their identity.

4. Creative Inquiry: What question will guide our work?

Having a guiding question rather than a set of static outcomes allows for new information to emerge that can be incorporated into our definition of the challenge. A question points us in a direction. An Unstuck Minds question eliminates the thinking traps that limit and misdirect.

Our example started with a question about implementing a request: How do we get the manufacturing supervisors through diversity training?

After using the Unstuck Minds Compass to scope the issue, we might choose to ask ourselves a different question: How might people managers in our manufacturing facilities help our employees feel welcome and respected?

Once we have a strategic question to guide our work, we can describe success and identify the elements of our response. One element may include training, but we now know what needs the training should address and what other changes can be included that will put the training into a broader, more sustainable context.

Uncovering Your Client’s Requirements: Four questions for connecting services and solutions to wants and needs

Changing the way we refer to things says a lot about our changing mindsets. For example, our organizations used to “train” people, now we “develop talent” through “blended learning experiences.” Companies that once employed “salespeople” responsible for closing deals, now have “business development teams” that form relationships with customers and clients.

Our changing descriptions of organizational roles and functions signify more than a gentrification of the way we talk about business. In the case of the interactions formerly known as “sales” and “training,” the change in language represents a shift from thinking in terms of transactions to thinking in terms of connections.

Once, we asked for coffee, received it and paid for it. Now we interact with a skilled and knowledgeable barista who assesses how much conversation will be required to meet our coffee needs, including the needs we didn’t realize we had: We can make your cappuccino frothier. Next time order it “dry.”

We no longer transact business. We connect services and solutions to wants and needs.

Our internal and external clients and customers no longer want our prefabricated widgets, our generic training programs, or our one-size-fits-all professional service methodologies. Even health care systems have started personalizing treatment plans to meet individual patient needs.

Sometimes, I have a very specific coffee order and I’m not interested in exploring my options. Similarly, sometimes, a client or customer simply wants to transact business with you. They know what they want and they’re looking for the best value. Before your scoping conversation, ask yourself (or even better, ask the client) about the importance of what Unstuck Minds calls, “The Four Imperatives.”

Find out the extent to which your client needs to…

  • Reduce the risk of missing something important

  • Avoid solving the wrong problem

  • Make it easier for people to take concerted action

  • Increase the novelty of their options

If the imperatives matter, you’ll want to walk into the scoping conversation with better questions. There are four primary questions that will change any scoping conversation from a business transaction into a conversation that connects services and solutions to needs:

What is changing? Start your scoping conversation with a question that demonstrates the importance of context. By the time you have been invited into a scoping conversation, your client has already decided that something needs to change or improve. To avoid being trapped by a discussion of the features and functions of your solutions, find out what has changed in the internal and external environment that triggered the scoping conversation. By asking. “What is changing?” you reduce the risk of missing something important.

What does it mean? After hearing about what is changing, find out how your client has interpreted the changes. Consider other explanations for the identified changes. Why has the client’s current interpretation of the changes become a priority? By finding out what the change means to your client you avoid solving the wrong problem.

How do others see it? You have heard one perspective on the context and rationale for the client’s stated need, now it’s time to find out about the thoughts and feelings of others in the organization. Be suspicious of a client who describes strong alignment on a consistent set of needs. The scoping conversation should include a discussion of what people may end up losing when the client’s needs are met, not just what people stand to gain. Finding out how others think and feel helps make it easier for people to take concerted action to meet the client’s requirements.

How else might we define the challenge? The client engaged you in a scoping conversation by framing a request. If you’ve had a productive dialogue prompted by the first three questions, it’s likely that new information and perhaps some new insights have emerged. In asking the fourth question, you are adding value to the conversation by broadening the solution set. You may even uncover needs that set the stage for future scoping conversations.