Client Service vs. Client Servility

Most client-serving organizations I know make a pretty big deal about client service. Consulting, law, HR, IT, accounting, and salespeople in complex businesses—client service is right at the top of their list of virtues. And rightly so.

But—sometimes, things can get a little twisted.

What do you make of:

o The administrative assistant who delivers the Officer’s laundered shirts to him at the airport at 9PM. Regularly.

o The project manager who hauls the whole team in on Sunday to re-work the slide deck. Regularly.

o The senior officer who drops in on the staff meeting to “show the flag” but leaves early because “when the client calls, you know…” Regularly.

o The salesperson who cuts price at the drop of the hat when the client demands.  Regularly.

o The VP who cancels the cleanup position on the third round interview because “I had no choice, the client changed the date.” Regularly.

o The manager who joins the training session late and slips out to take calls between blackberry-checking time, because “we’re in the middle of a really tough time for the client—they need me.”  Regularly.

o (The presidential candidate who, in mid-speech, stops to take a phone call from his wife on his cellphone from the podium. More than once.)

The key word is, of course, regularly.  Any one of those examples can be held up as a case of client heroism.  If, that is, it’s an isolated event. IF it’s endemic—then that’s not client service, that’s client servitude.

Client service is not client servitude. Great client service is doing things above and beyond the norm; being willing and able to behave in unusual ways when faced with unusual situations; and doing them selflessly, for the sake of the client.

Being servile is quite another thing. It means seeking out options to give faux service.  Terms related to servile include sycophant, brown-noser, suck-up, boot-licker, ass kisser, obsequious, and toady.

We suspect those who are servile of dishonesty—of speaking falsely in an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Their motives are suspect; which means their credibility is at risk as well.

Ironically, their servility costs them in terms of respect from the very people they are most trying to impress.  Above all, we don’t trust such people.

If we’re honest—no, I’ll just speak for me here—if I’m honest about it, there’s always a tiny touch of servility lurking around the edges of most client service I perform.  It’s hard to be unaware of the value of being perceived as client-serving.

The trick is to not be overcome by a need for recognition. To do the next right thing, yet to be detached from the outcome; particularly whatever benefit clearly might accrue to me from doing the right thing.

This is the heart of it, I think.  Client service is doing good for the client.  Period.  We are not surprised when we get credit for doing it.  But expecting good from doing it is Station 1 on the slippery slope; the End-Station is doing client service  in order to get credit for doing it.

That way lies client servility.

Most clients don’t want servants at their beck and call—they want equal partners at the table who can make a plan and stick to it; who have enough respect for themselves and their own firm that they will, on occasion, push back; who take the partnership seriously enough that they will keep their own team healthy enough to deliver in the long run, rather than burn it out in a never-ending series of  faux client crises. 

And if you really think you have one of those rare clients who wants servants—then put your money where your mouth is.  Give that client to a competitor.