So who’s the client, really?

You know this situation: You have built a relationship with a prospective client slowly, sometimes over a year and a half. You have a good connection now, have some familiarity and trust. You get your first client contract, and you and your client start working together. Your ideas are appreciated, your work is valued – you have agreement about the way forward. Your client indicates that there is more work for you to come, over the next few months – or even years. You think everything is great.

And then it happens – sometimes only after a couple of years, sometimes after a few months. The unexpected. Your client’s (new) boss gets in the picture: “My (new) boss wants to meet you.” Oops – up until now you may not even have realized there was a boss you might have to deal with. Or you had a rather good connection to the ‘old’ boss, and wonder what that new person is going to be like.

Ideally, you’d like to follow your tried and trusted approach here: getting to know that person, and allowing that person to get to know you – taking time to build familiarity and trust, and then contracting on how to do some work together, before even starting to do the work.

Only, it’s not going to happen. What do you get? If you’re lucky, one ‘meet and greet’ with the boss – and if you’re lucky, the two of you ‘click’, and you get approval to continue your work with your client. If you’re less lucky and you don’t ‘click’, that boss may look at you with a bit of suspicion.

If you’re even less lucky, the boss ‘gets in the way’ – does not like your approach, knows better than you, or finds your rates too expensive. All of those are not good news. They may mean less or no work for you with that client in the future.

Which – each and every time of going through this experience, as many of us have – leads to the question: Who is the client, really? Is it that person with who you have established that nice working relationship? Or is it really that person’s boss, who can decide whether you’re the person they want to work with and whether they want to give you work at all?

Sometimes, you may keep the work, but whereas your initial client treated you as a partner, the (new) boss might be more inclined to just give you orders top-down.

As consultants, we don’t want to be agency people, we don’t want to be just service providers – as David Maister says, we want to be ‘trusted advisors’ (

So what can we do? Well, there can always be surprises – and new bosses coming in. We may always have to consider how to make the best of the situation, where to compromise – or whether to quit.

However, whenever possible in the initial relationship building and contracting phase, it helps to ask: ‘So who’s your boss? How is her/his involvement with this work? What are her/his priorities? How may what she/he needs from me differ from what you need from me? Would it make sense to have a three-way meeting early on?’

That way, hopefully, you can build that collaboration – rather than being ‘confronted’ with each other rather late in the process and potentially experiencing a sense of mutual exclusion rather than early inclusion.

What are your thoughts about this? What have you experienced – and what did you make of the situation?

Published by scheubel

Organisational Change Consultant, Coach and Trainer - focus on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability

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