Treat Your Clients Like Gods… Or Don’t (The Ideal State of Client-Advisor Relationships)

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Author’s note: I received a response from the author of The Customer As A God: The Future of Shopping, Doc Searls. You can find that response in the comments, but what you need to know is that the content of his article in the Journal is not completely in line with the title of the piece. Sure, the title is ridiculous, but Doc didn’t choose it and doesn’t deserve to have his writing dismissed based upon a title he didn’t choose. Actually, Doc’s article inspired me to write about my own thoughts on the optimal Client-Advisor relationship, but I chose snark over sensitivity in the lead-in and that was unfair to Doc and his original article, which I encourage you to read for yourself. As it turns out, Doc and I actually agree on the ideal relationship between vendor and customer, advisor and client, so, please, read on! (But ignore the intro).

The WSJ’s Prediction

The Wall Street Journal hit a viral vein this week with a piece called The Customer as a God: The Future of Shopping. This is the type of underwhelming “read-me please!” title/post combination I usually balk at, but, as customers and clients are definitely of the same ilk, I quickly theorized what kind of world an advisor might be in should he/she treat his/her clients as a God. That world would be hell.

What a ridiculous notion, the customer as a God! But, as the future (allegedly) has it, a world where customers are worshipped is indeed a likely one, or so claims the WSJ. Despite my better judgement I read the thing in bitter disapproval, not of the WSJ’s predictions, but of the inkling that treating customers as Gods might be anywhere close to a good idea. Please allow me to offer a more reasonable, less sensationalist summation of the optimal state of customer relationships.

My Assessment

When the Journal likens the customer to a God, what they’re trying to say is that vendors are overcompensating for years of customer abuse. At this point it’s old news that the power dynamic in business has shifted, largely due to social media. Where we once had companies and services creating products and solutions as they saw fit, now we have consumers and clients telling companies and providers what they want. But this is where it gets confusing, because not all companies are listening and complying with their customers requests, at least not all of the time, and I’m not sure that anyone can be sure if the novelty factor of social media has worn off yet–when will people stop tweeting about their lousy experience at the Applebee’s in the mall parking lot? But I digress, vendors as tyrants, clients as dictators… neither are ideal.

The optimal state of affairs for customer/vendor, client/advisor relationships is no different from any other relationship: they ought be healthy, balanced, open, and above all be characterized by mutual respect.

Here’s a secret, people are dumb. It’s true! And it’s not dumbness as in a lack of knowledge, it’s dumbness as in ignorance. People (read: clients, customers, neighbors, employees, etc.) think they know things, or pretend they do or convince themselves they do, when they really don’t. If one tried to listen and cater to every client request ever, we’re back in the client-as-a-God-is-Hell-scenario. If one ignores completely everything that their clients are saying and pretends they know what is best for them, then we are in ye olden days of mass appeal corporate dictatorship–again, not ideal. Obviously clients and vendors need each other, and common sense would have it that they would understand and appreciate this, which would result in mutual respect, but clearly this is not the case…

My Advice: Compromise

Advisors, listen to your clients. Really listen. Acknowledge their feedback, thoughts, and requests, and wait. Wait until you start seeing a pattern of similar thoughts/feedback/requests, and then combine these similar sentiments with your own and implement something. Give ample time for the afraid-of-change/work-out-the-kinks period to subside, and then test to see if you’ve had a positive impact. If the change seems to be mutually beneficial, it stays, if it’s crushing you or causing your clients more pain, ditch it.

No matter how it plays out in the end, if your clients feel that they’re being heard (that’s the bare minimum), they will at least hear you in return. That way when you sigh and say, “sorry, can’t do it,” you won’t have an enraged ex-client talking on Twitter about how much of a jerk you are. #WorstAdvisorEver

DJ is a freelance writer, hopeful photographer, and social media has-been. He writes to financial advisors about lifehacks, science, technology, business and marketing for Blueleaf, a software that helps create dramatically simpler, more scalable financial advisory businesses. You can find DJ across the web ( or you can just follow him on Twitter (@djswitz)!
  • dsearls July 26, 2012, 3:39 am

    Several things worth pointing out here.

    First, the WSJ didn’t write the piece. I did. Obviously the Journal liked what I’ve been writing, and what I’ve been doing, enough to invite me to write this weekend essay, but that’s all it is: an essay by somebody not from the Journal, writing in the Journal. I have never talked to anybody on the WSJ editorial staff or board about aligning my thoughts or opinions with theirs. So it would be good if you evaluate what I write on its own terms and not project the Journal on it, or vice versa.

    Second, the only things I had no control over with this essay were the art and the headline. I saw neither until the piece was published. The headline was not one I would have chosen. In fact, the headline I had used until the piece was published was “What’s
    Next for Free Markets? Free Customers.” 

    Your statement about the optimal state of affairs for relationships (“all be characterized by mutual respect”) is no different than the case I make in the essay, or the work I’ve been doing for many years. I think if you ignore the headline and re-read the essay — and if you look into the work I’ve been doing and where it is actually going — you’ll find we’re not that far apart.


    Doc Searls

    • DJ Switz July 26, 2012, 6:47 pm


      Thanks for your response. First, I apologize for swapping yourself, clearly an individual, for a media organization. That’s just a bit of laziness. Second, I apologize for misappropriating your article based upon its title.

      I read the piece in its entirety before writing my own, and I, a blogger hungry for ideas for his weekly post, was inspired to expel my own ideas on what I imagine to be the optimal relationship for financial advisors and their clients. But instead of writing something like that in the intro, I took a little time to poke fun at the title, which is silly, and maybe that’s why I unconsciously didn’t mention you, the author.

      I’m going to leave the piece as is, but add a note at the top regarding your response, which will also remain. But I’m glad you took the time to respond! I re-read your post because of it, and learned a bit about you in the meantime. I saw the post regarding the response to the piece in question, but I also got to see some of your other ideas fleshed out through your writing.

      Sorry for the wordy response; keep up the good work.