Every colleague, team, company is part of an ecosystem. In a web of customer-supplier relationships. Receive something. Add value to it. Pass it along. It is an approach shared by both customer and supplier. What’s the American approach?

Consult vs. Serve

The English term service implies graciousness, helpfulness and to a degree selflessness. To serve is to be humble. Serve stems from the Latin word servitium, which meant the condition of a slave. Service, at its roots involves one person serving another or several. It is inherently personal. The term service in the context of American business involves the notion of servitium, to respond to the needs of your customer, to serve that customer personally and individually.

But service also anticipates compensation: payment, customer loyalty, growth of the business. Service is both personal and commercial. They go hand-in-hand. Impersonal service seldom leads to commercial success. Personal service without fair compensation is servitude. And, indeed, some business relationships are so one-sided that the one serving feels more like a slave than a free person.

To consult means to seek advice, to refer to, to take into account, to consider, as one would consult an attorney or a physician. To consult also means to exchange views, to confer. As with service the term consult has its roots in Latin: consultare, meaning to deliberate, counsel, consult or take counsel. To consult means to advise, to recommend, to suggest, to provide an opinion about what could or should be done in a certain situation or in response to a certain problem. 

The consultant, therefore, is the expert applying their knowledge and expertise to improve the situation of a customer. But, essential to consulting a client is understanding their needs, their situation. This is done by first consulting with, meaning listening to that customer.


Customer-Supplier Collaboration

Collaboration in the American business context is defined first und foremostly by the customer. The American customer not only defines what he wants, but also to a significant extent how he wants it. Collaboration means, therefore, a high level of client input in the how of a task, job or project. Customer requests are understood by both parties not so much as open topics to be discussed by equal parters, but as orders formulated and issued by the customer. 

This underlying assumption on the part of both customer and supplier of a product or service goes to the root of the American understanding of customer orientation. The supplier is constantly reacting to the needs of the customer, including modifying how he executes a request. The customer has indirect influence on the internal processes (the how) of the supplier of a product or service.

For this collaborative effort to function effectively a high level of communication between customer and supplier is necessary. Information flow is guaranteed via short-term feedback between the customer and the supplier during the entire business relationship. This allows the customer to modify his requests depending on changing situations. 

Because the customer exerts such a high level of control over the external expert (the how as well as the what), the expert is held accountable exclusively for the work performed as dictated (ordered) by the customer. How the results might affect related areas of the client company remains the responsibility of the customer.


Customer-Supplier Expectations

The American customer expects the supplier of a product or a service to complete a specific job. This task is defined by the customer. The customer, in other words, orders a product or service. The customer expects the supplier to orient himself fully towards her individual needs and to respond as quickly as possible. At the same time, the supplier is expected to adapt to any change in scope of the task. 

This also includes the modification of internal processes in order to serve the customer. The American customer instinctively expects more effort than was agreed upon originally. Along with customer orientation (flexibility and speed), the American customer wants a low price. Costs should be held to a minimum.

The external expert in the American context expects from the customer that requests are as well-defined as possible. The customer should think through clearly what they are buying. This is the basis for serving the client. The scope of the work, therefore, should be defined so as to avoid unnecessary additional work. In the end, the supplier of a product or service expects work scope predictability, as well as the security that his efforts will be compensated fully, on schedule and with little bureaucracy.