As my regular readers know, I love words and linguistics, and understanding the subtle complexities of language. And our topic today plays into this strength. I want to talk today about how we approach our principal investigators. Customer service is a big part of our job. But are PIs our customers? Or are they clients? And, more importantly, does it matter?

Investigators are Clients, Not Customers

If we’re to answer this question, we must start at the beginning—we the strict definitions of customer and client.

cus·tom·er (ˈkəstəmər) noun: a person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business. Synonyms: buyer, purchaser, subscriber; shopper.

cli·ent (ˈklīənt) noun: a person or organization using the services of a lawyer or other professional person or company. Synonyms: consumer, patron, end user.

A customer is someone who buys a good or service from a business. A client, can also be a customer, but it has a separate definition as someone who receives professional services from a business. In most situations, the two words are synonymous or, if a different must be applied, it’s based on the type of relationship between the buyer and the seller. Customers are generally coming to buy products that are supplied, whereas clients buy a specific and highly personalized service, advice, or solution to their need.

If you look at these distinctions, it becomes clear that PIs are clients more than they are customers. Investigators come to us needing advice on their latest proposal, a solution for a problem they have with regulations or policy, and more often than not, a service, such as submitting their proposal.

Why does the distinction matter?

Customers could be one-time or repeat patrons, but no matter how regular their visits, they often do not feel any strong loyalty or individual ties to the business or even know the owner/operator of the business, such as grocery stores, retail stores, and restaurants. The client relationship is a closer and personal professional relationship that is often developed over time, such as law offices, family doctor’s offices, and accounting firms. A customer may not always be the consumer of the purchased product (for example, if they purchased a gift for someone else), whereas the client is almost always the direct consumer. This distinction becomes important when we talk about attracting and advertising to our consumer.

If the Investigator was our customer, we focus on the price and value, quality and efficiency. We focus on in-and-out, revolving door, turnover service. Ensure they are processed quickly, have a good experience, and leave quickly. Do not get me wrong, these are very important things. Imagine however, if the Investigator is our client, instead of just our customer. We focus on our reputation and experience in handling research support. We focus on years of experience and confidence in getting results for our Investigators. We promote ourselves as people who truly want to establish a closer relationship with patrons, securing greater loyalty.  The balance of authority, confidence, and responsibility shifts when our Investigators become our clients, and not just our customers.

Customer Service vs. Client Relations

The principles of good customer service are applicable in every professional interaction. Customer service includes patience, attentiveness, and clear communication skills. As our customers, Investigators expect a calming presence, a goal-oriented focus, and the ability to handle surprises confidently. Client service goes a little farther and asks: Do they feel important? Do they feel like they can trust you? Do they ask for, trust, and follow your advice?

With Investigators as our clients, the shift in our own methodology and the way that we approach our work—both physically and mentally—can change. Each touchpoint and interaction is no longer about providing anything and everything that the Investigator wants or needs as quickly as possible, but providing a core and strategic skill when needed. Think of it as going from a boss-to-employee relationship to a colleague-to-colleague relationship.

A Colleague-to-Colleague Relationship

Customer service is not just a one-to-one relationship, it’s a core value and strategic imperative that should be felt across every professional interaction across the entire organization. Disney, as always, says it best in their approach to customer service “while no one “owns the Guest,” someone, in every case, “owns the moment.” In every interaction with your Investigators, approach them as a respected colleague and own the moment that you are in with them—give them not just success, but confidence in your abilities and in your team.

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