Last week at the PayStream Innovate Conference in New Orleans, I had the opportunity to sit in on a keynote address given by William M. Cooper, Associate Vice President and Chief Procurement Officer at University of California.   Mr. Cooper is a thriving Procurement leader that has made a career as a change agent going from major University to major University and overhauling their Procurement departments into world class organizations.

Mr. Cooper outlined a host of “Master Class” strategies and best practices for Spend Analytics, Strategic Sourcing, Supplier Information Management and more.  Core to his ability to implement best practices, drive change and raise performance was his ability to raise the esteem of his groups – a task that he points to as difficult because  (let’s be honest) everyone buys things on the weekend.  We all think we can do it.  We have all bargained a price down at a swap meet or searched for the best price for an item online.  We’ve even bought toilet paper in bulk to receive the best cost per unit price available in the shopping center.

Among the many “are you getting all of this?!” points Mr. Cooper made, (I couldn’t take notes fast enough) he started to discuss one key element in particular that was vital to taking his groups to the next level.  As a change agent, his first order of business is to get his people to see their “Customer Service” role as a “Client Service” role.  Maybe that seems subtle… To understand why this is important we need to think about the key words at the root of these is of these phrases: “Customer” and “Client.”

Think about it for a moment… “Customers” and “Clients” are often thought of as synonymous, but they are actually very different.  “Customers” are viewed as a single transaction.  A moment in time; a bell going off above the 7-11 doorway and then as quickly as it started with the purchase of a gigantic Slurpee and a Slim Jim the “Customer” is gone.  Similarly, the phrase “Customer Service” conjures equally unremarkable images such as call centers and scathing online reviews of well-intended but misguided people trying but failing to answer basic help desk questions.  Of course neither the term “Customer” nor  “Customer Service” are innately pejorative and any readers of this blog may correctly call my examples out as limited and even a bit unfair, but they are not untrue and everyone of us understands exactly what I am saying.  Subconsciously “Customer” and “Customer Service” agents will always live in this universe of thought.

Now let’s think about “Clients.”  I’ll revert to the question posed by Mr. Cooper, “Who are the business professionals that have ‘Clients’?”  In his example he called out: Lawyers, Doctors and Accountants.  Consider the esteem of these professionals.  Now I grant you that some of these groups can sometime get a bad rap, but Lawyer Jokes notwithstanding, you still have to acknowledge that when you need any of these professionals then you really need them.  You are a Client!  You are not simply popping in for a slushie and some peppered beef jerky.  You have a real relationship with these types of professionals:  they are connected to you and they know your specific needs on a personal level  because you have entrusted them to give you the best service.  These relationships are based on trust and rapport.

Mr. Cooper contended that procurement groups need to be seen as having the same level of importance as these other professional groups. Whether you agree with that assertion or not – you cannot argue with his results.  In his case study about his time in the UC system, he outlined a multi-year plan where he was responsible for driving several hundreds of millions of dollars in savings per year.  He outlined his methods for driving savings as well as his methods for documenting the savings in a “benefit bank” so he could validate the savings to a larger group.  Clearly he took great pride in his ability to drive value back to the University and there is little doubt that his entire organization feels the same pride.  So why wouldn’t they take great great care in how they refer to themselves and to what message they are sending to their business partners with the words they chose?

When you speak in terms of your own group…  how do you refer to them?  How do you feel about them?  How do you want others to feel about them?  How do you want your business partners to feel when they think about the relationship they have with you?  How do they feel when they hear the words you use to describe them?  These are all questions with very complicated answers, but as Mr. Cooper asserts, to get to the next level you need to act at the next level, you need to think of yourself as being on the next level, and you need your business partners to feel like they are on that level with you.