Scroll Top
Client-first vs. client-centric:
How and why most service
firms get it wrong

By Mike Antonczyk and Matt Hirschland Ph.D.

There’s seldom a day when we don’t hear the mantra that “our clients come first”. Indeed, time and again we see the tremendous sacrifices and efforts made by those we serve providing great solutions, products, and services to their customers. This often means long days, late nights, long flights, and a drop-everything attitude to ensure the best possible outcomes for the clients and customers that are the life-blood of their businesses. That said, we see that many organizations miss the forest for the trees by prioritizing the wrong things — ideas, service models, add-on services — all while reciting the “clients come first’ mantra”. A fix is needed, and we provide some suggestions here.

For service firms seeking premium fees and pricing, clients must absolutely come first in terms of being responsive, effective, and right. This is table-stakes to survive. It is, however, a far cry from becoming a truly client and customer-centric businesses. The nuance here is important and yet difficult for most organizations to embrace and execute. Those that are unable will become less relevant and fall behind. The question is what this evolution looks like, and what stands in the way?

Changing Expectations

As has been noted elsewhere (linklink), we live in a world where tailored solutions and offerings are delivered and informed by customer-specific needs and expressed preferences.

The same expectation is growing and is no different among buyers of high-end professional services — the place where we spend much of our time. What buyers want are tailored and sustainable solutions that are uniquely fitted to the challenges they face. What they often get instead are ”insights”, “experiences”, and traditional brute-force engagement models. As one executive buyer of consulting services opined:

“I am tired of being sold the new ‘hot ground beef sandwich’ when you and I really know it is the same old hamburger you served me last time — and I actually want a salad.”

Viva la Difference

So, what does client centrism look like in practice? The real difference between “placing clients first” in terms of responsive service to them and shaping the entirety of the business around their needs — being “client centric” — is both subtle and fundamental. And the argument here is not binary, that it’s one or the other. Instead, blending the two make for far better outcomes for the business and clients alike. Here are some comparisons to understand the distinction:

Customer First
customer centric
Reactive to client needs as they arise Proactive in identifying client needs before they arise
“Do anything” for the customer Starting with articulated client needs as the beginning point for all firm activities
Expert-led Customer-Led
Bias for “implementations” Co-created, owned, implemented solutions
Categorizing, serving clients by service lines Understanding clients don’t care about how you organize your firm
Generalizable / applied solution sets Deep listening-informed solution sets
Immediate Longer-term, sustained
What Stands in the Way

The impediments to embracing a more client-centric approach are typically more than just a technology or data problem which is where the finger-pointing begins. This takes the form of “we don’t have the data” or “our systems aren’t built for that”.

In most cases the biggest challenges to change are mindset and firm structural in nature. Resistance to building more client-centric offerings and service models that deliver solutions informed and guided by customer needs, often boils down to perverse organizational incentives. These are constraints that we place on ourselves and our people to provide what we believe is the right answer and is colored by sunk costs in tools, talent, technology and accreted by cultural and compensatory incentives. These existing “facts on the ground” push us to bend customer demands to our will, not the other way around.

Leading Your Own Customer Centric (r)Evolution

In sum, what we propose is less a revolution and more of an evolution — a change in orientation recognizing broader and very real organizational constraints. It starts with calling out the inherent biases that inform how we prefer to serve customers and clients. It means understanding how and in what ways this diverges from what they are seeking from you specifically, and in the marketplace more broadly. Tapping into this creates more opportunities, not less.

There are many good, no-regrets practices that we see and build with our own clients that fuel this customer centric inquiry, delivery, and success. They include:

  1. Playing the long-game, always, adding value always, even when you are unable to serve
  2. Moving away from selling to helping customers and clients buy better
  3. Creating recurring client and non-client touch-points and dialogue even when you are not serving them
  4. Diminishing the power of thinking in service and product lines (clients don’t)
  5. Establishing client advisory boards/bodies (listening and implementing the learnings)
  6. Enhancing rudimentary analytic systems for extracting lessons from existing data
  7. Engaging in routine customer/client journeying exercises
  8. Embracing the notion that new and better solutions emerge via co-creating and collaboration with those we serve

The characteristic that all these practices share is that they place you in the shoes of clients, do so in a recurring way, making you a better listener and provider with a coveted place at the coal-face of client needs. All of this is enabled by making your default position one of asking and understanding in a more deliberate way when it comes to what customers want and need. Done well, such efforts not only ensure your customers come first, it means you are building an organization that is truly client-centric, placing them at the center of all that you create and deliver. Doing so ensures that the resulting outcomes are innovative by design, generating more and longer term value for you both.