Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why Ditching the ‘C-Word’ Can Improve Business Relationships and Company Culture

Say the word “client” (the other C-word) or use it in a sentence and what comes to mind? Forgetting its application to public relations, odds are that your mental list includes embellished dialogue from countless courtroom scenes either in film or novels. Jack Nicholson’s famous “you can’t handle the truth” monologue from A Few Good Men comes to mind as does Susan Sarandon’s impassioned defense and motherly protection of young Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his family in The Client.

In both instances, “the client” or “clients” are first seen as nothing more than machine-like elements of the impersonal legal apparatus: Sway is a child who witnessed a murder and the state requires the body’s location while Private First Class Louden Downey and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson are accused of murder.

Central to both plots, however, is the re-humanizing of these characters: Downey and Dawson were following orders; Sway’s reluctance to cooperate with the law protects his family. As the end credits roll the main characters are seen as people, not clients.

It’s fitting then that public relations – a profession that is fighting hard to prove its worth, thus my earlier blogs on the subject – has, over time, also adopted this clunky word.

As with the legal profession, PR client references have all the trappings of dispassion – or displeasure. The client is something to be serviced, like a faulty carburetor or misfiring engine piston. Signed, sealed, delivered and off to the next troublesome client meddling in the affairs of proper creative talent – i.e., us! Amid insane copy deadlines, we ask ourselves: what can the “carburetor” or “piston” tell us that is useful? 

Actually, clients can tell us a lot. You know, something extremely vital like where they see their company in the next five years and how their own internal team envisions a campaign. Oh, and what they expect of us.

A brilliant article by 72andSunny CEO John Boiler in AdAge recently called us all out on this troubling trend and suggested a much-needed change, one that ThinkInk is about to enact. Dropping the word “client” and its often-negative connotation can greatly improve the working environment, Boiler rightly argues. It’s common knowledge as old as the sales pitch itself but bears repeating. Identify with a person and the sale goes smoothly. Identify with the product or service offering, using words like client or customer and the phrase “used car salesperson” comes to mind. See the difference?

PR professionals don’t want to be perceived as used car salesmen and saleswomen (I doubt actual used car salespeople like the phrase either) and clients don’t want to be considered cogs in communicative wheels. So for the next two months ThinkInk is going to ban all uses of the word client – especially when its intent is to de-humanize and attack the organization we’re trying faithfully to represent.   

Studies show that creating a positive work environment for both your client….errr…the corporate team you represent and for your employees results in greater productivity and increased profits. A recent Gallup study found that unhappy employees (feeding, for instance, off the negative vibes created by client-bashing) cost businesses up to $300 billion a year in the US.

Don’t misunderstand. This isn’t about money. But it is about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Treating people with greater respect starts with the little things. And cutting the word “client” from in-office conversations and copy will go a long way in improving our mutual relationships.

Now that’s a truth I think we all can handle.

We’ll let you know how our “c-word” experiment progresses and see if we communication pros can better calibrate our message and improve our relationships with you know who!

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