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Customers, clients and partners, oh my!

Many IT business relationships have a certain through-the-looking-glass feel to them. We've heard a lot of chatter about improving customer service or being better business partners in IT. Often lost in that clamor is the thought that you need to know what kind of relationship you have before you can hope to improve it. Apparently, even if you're Britney Spears, you don't want to confuse dating with marriage. You also don't want to confuse the kinds of business relationships your IT shop can have.

There are all kinds of IT relationships, but as a starting point you can think of a range of relationships from customers through clients to partners. There's no clear division from one point to the next. There is no best relationship in this range. This isn't a maturity model implying we're getting better and better, every day in every way. There's only identifying the relationship types that will work in your situations.


The defining feature of a customer relationship type is control. Even with a flood of focus groups and satisfaction surveys, few companies turn over the decisions about what to build and how to price it directly to a customer. There's a wall between the business decisions about costs, intellectual capital and profits on one side and customer decisions about what buy and how much to pay on the other. Businesses invest mightily in getting close to the customer, but that customer isn't an individual. It's a group of individuals around whom the business can build a repeatable, profitable set of processes to develop and deliver products and services. Good customer service may happen one customer at a time, but a viable business has to be able to repeat that service again and again.

It's perfectly reasonable for IT shops to decide they need to improve their customer service. Much about IT in the contemporary business environment has to do with reliably mass producing a positive experience with technology. However, that subtly distanced relationship type probably isn't the one you want to choose if you're trying something new inside your organization. It will inevitably have at least a whiff of “You'll take what we give you and like it!”

Clients, like customers, come in the aggregate for viable businesses. Unlike customers, however, they usually get a greater degree of customization. Think of the difference in your expectations buying gas and selling a house. Some of that has to do with the difference in cost (though less and less it seems). You expect a significant difference in the attention to your particular situation from a clerk as compared to a real estate agent. One of the vaguely disturbing glories of technology is the ability to mass customize an experience, but there remains a separation between the mass market and the personal touch required for professional services.

An IT shop that acts like a consulting firm within its organization, providing business critical development and support services to other departments or operating units, probably can't afford the distance of a customer relationship. The IT organization still needs enough standard approaches to be cost effective, but those approaches have to fit closely with the specific needs of the individual departments.


Partners don't come in the aggregate. Good partnerships are very specific relationships in which the parties are very well known and comfortable with each other. So why not make everyone a partner? It's a matter of investment. Good partnerships require significant commitments of time and attention, both finite resources. To get good results you have to pick your partners.

For IT shops, there are times when nothing else will work. If technology is a key part of some critical innovation for your organization, you'll have to develop partnerships with all the affected parties. The give and take of partnership will be required to find your way together through the maze of possibilities and surprises that are an unavoidable part of true innovation.

Customers, clients or partners for IT?

The choice will depend on what your IT organization is trying to accomplish, how it wants to apply its expertise. And certainly there are other types of relationships you might want to foster. For example, just because “team work” is a sorely abused phrase doesn't mean the relationship type isn't a good one. The idea is to identify what kind of relationship will be effective. So, customer, client or partner? Probably all three, just at different times and in different situations.

Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and program development consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via the e-mail at or via telephone at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Marius responded 9 years ago: #1

Brilliant!! No longer than yesterday I was reading Larry Galler's distinction between client and cutomer, but he's was based only on The Collins English Dictionary. When I read this article, well, I used to be a Customer Service Manager, but now I'm Client Service Manager...

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