Relationship Dynamics: Employers vs. Customers

Relationship Dynamics: Employers vs. Customers

“Take this job and shove it
I ain’t working here no more
My woman done left and took all the reasons
I was working for
You better not try to stand in my way
‘Cause I’m walkin’ out the door
Take this job and shove it
I ain’t working here no more”

– “Take This Job an’ Shove It” – Johnny Paycheck

A while back a client – a business owner – came in because they had lost one of their main customers to a merger. We sat down to do some tax planning, budgeting, and most importantly to discuss how to make up for the lost revenue. During the discussion, they mentioned eventually looking for jobs as a very last resort. I completely understood the sentiment.

We started talking about working for someone else and we’d both had fairly similar employment experiences: while we get along great with our clients, we did not seem to have particularly successful relationships with bosses.

But why the difference between employer/manager and client satisfaction? Aren’t they essentially the same thing? Both pay you money and your livelihood is (to some extent at least) dependent on them.

How is it I have hundreds of clients and we all get along quite swimmingly…but I was unable to have productive relationships with half a dozen old bosses/managers? (People seem to really like me compared to other accountants – although I suppose that is an admittedly low bar. It’s sort of a “you don’t sweat much for a fat guy” scale of likeability. Ha!)

So what is the difference?

On the surface the relationships do appear to be the same. But if we dig into some key factors the differences become more and more apparent:

  1. Choice
  2. Control
  3. Value
  4. Equality
  5. Difficulty in Termination of Relationship
  6. Respect

Note: this is not a manual for good business practices/employee relations. Employees are oftentimes a company’s greatest asset and should be treated as such. This article is more of an examination of the dynamics of the relationship and why, in many situations, it seems employees are not treated the way they should be.

Choice

Let’s start with choice. Theoretically, yes both the employer and employee have a choice in whether or not to work together – there isn’t any forced servitude involved. But we all know it is not that simple. The employee’s livelihood is tied to their job. It could very well be that they cannot find another job that pays as well, has a workable schedule, is in their geographic region, etc. So even if they are unhappy with their job, for practical purposes they can be trapped.

Contrast to a customer choosing to pay you for you services or product. They have the choice as to whether or not to work with you and you have that same choice. And even though every client is valuable, they are not so valuable that you are wholly dependent on them.

That distinction of true choice makes a significant difference and manifests itself in the others factors to be discussed.

Control

Employers are hiring full-time employees, you know – full-time. The vast majority of the employee’s productive hours have been “bought” by the employer. So understandably (and often, justifiably), the employer wants control and oversight over what the employee does and when/how they do it. But if not handled properly by both sides, this can become a tedious interaction.

On the other hand, customers expect much less control over vendors they work with. They want something accomplished. They want it done to a certain standard, by a certain deadline, and have other requirements along that same vein. But the need for oversight is significantly less – which is usually more enjoyable for both sides.

Value

As mentioned already, an employer is hiring you for the majority of your time and providing the lion’s share of your income. There are certain rights and expectations that come with that.

Customers provide finite value to you and expect finite value in return.

The difference in money provided (and more importantly than dollar figure the percentage of your time that is being purchased) drastically changes perception on both sides. An employer is buying 90% of your productive time throughout the year. The average client is buying far less than 1%. That makes a difference.

Equality

This one is pretty basic: an employee is on anything but equal ground with their employer. The employer holds most of the cards in the relationship. Employees are always free to leave, but unless it is a rare situation where the employer needs the employee more than the other way around, the power dynamic is slanted heavily in the employer’s favor.

Again, let’s contrast that to the average customer relationship. There is nothing more important to a business than customers. Nothing. But each individual customer, taken in isolation, provides fixed value. Both sides know this, and tend to treat each other much more like equals than superior and subordinate.

Another note/disclosure: you can take that idea much too far, become ungrateful to all of your customers, subsequently lose all of them, and be in the same place as if a boss tells you “you’re fired”. The necessity of customers cannot be overstated. But again – this is a discussion of the differences between these two sets of relationships. It is not meant to be a suggestion on how to maintain customer satisfaction. That is a totally separate topic for another article.

Difficulty in Termination of Relationship

Employers can feel trapped as well. Even if they are not completely enamored with an employee’s performance, the idea of replacing them can be daunting. They have to fire the employee (which is never pleasant and is sometimes brutal), post a job listing somewhere, interview, train a new person, cover the terminated employee’s responsibilities until someone else is found…and there is still no guarantee the new person will be any better.

It is much easier to tell a vendor you no longer need their services (or simply not hire them for the next job/order). You can hire a new cleaning company tomorrow after getting rid of your old one. Getting rid of your secretary is a much more laborious and unpleasant affair. An employee may not be the ideal person for the job, but may not be bad enough to warrant termination. This invariably leads to frustration for both sides.

Respect

Respect is listed as the 6th factor, but it could really be categorized as the culmination of the other five items discussed. Repeatedly, the dynamics of the employee/employer relationship result in a certain lack of (or at least reduction in) respect. Employers know that:

  1. Many employees have no choice but to continue working for them
  2. They control how and what their employees do and when they do it
  3. They provide most of their employees’ income
  4. They have the upper-hand in nearly every interaction
  5. It is difficult and time consuming to fire an employee, so they may need to tolerate an employee – which can lead to resentment

Employers come to believe that they “own” their employees to an extent. Conversely, they are only “renting” time from their vendors. And those vendors have much more power:

  1. While most businesses would love more customers, they do not need every single one. And many will happily turn down the “wrong” customers
  2. Vendors perform a task or provide a product to a customer but choose how they do it and have much more control over the process
  3. The amount of income provided is limited
  4. Both sides are on almost equal footing, assuming the business is financially sound and not desperate for income
  5. The relationship is potentially temporary and it is relatively painless to terminate one vendor and hire another

This results in a relationship that exhibits much more respect and is more pleasant for everyone involved. And is among the many reasons why most of us who are self-employed could never go back.

Any accounting, business, or tax advice contained in this communication, including attachments and enclosures, is not intended as a thorough, in-depth analysis of specific issues, nor a substitute for a formal opinion, nor is it sufficient to avoid tax-related penalties.

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