What’s in a Name?
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Maybe, but if we renamed a rose “skunk,” how many of us would venture to that part of the garden for a sniff? Why? Because the word “skunk” carries preconceived meaning. As procurement professionals, we are constantly tending to the growth of our profession. It is critical that, as part of this effort, we use the right words to describe the people we work with. If we don’t, the words we choose may carry unintended meanings. Three simple words effectively define those with whom and for whom we work: “clients,” “customers” and “stakeholders.” These words define unique groups with different needs and expectations.
Our using departments are our clients. They should be able to rely on us for market expertise, transactional competence and an understanding of what they are trying to accomplish with any procurement. Often when we try to satisfy these needs, we are confronted with resistance and claims that we should be helping and not getting in the way. Procurement operations are re-engineered by misguided consultants who look at operating departments as our “customers” and focus on customer satisfaction as a measure of our success. This is a significant misconception of the relationship between the using departments and the procurement professional; it turns roses into skunks. Using Departments are not our customers, they are our clients.
As procurement professionals, we possess specialized knowledge and experience, as our certifications show. We are subject to a code of ethics under which we apply our knowledge for the benefit of those we serve. We are professionals. Professionals have clients, not customers. The individuals and groups we support, on whose behalf we develop specifications and negotiate contracts, are not our customers. They deserve the full measure of our professionalism, to be treated as and called our clients.
Our clients rely on our professional judgment to guide them, to help them get what they need, and to provide them a process that both protects them from accusations of wrongdoing and complies with the applicable enabling legislation. Our clients are the operating departments, the users. They are the individuals and groups that deliver services to the public. We provide our clients expert knowledge and advice to help them solve problems with innovative solutions that facilitate the delivery of service to the public.
Customers, unlike clients, are always right. And we do, indeed, have customers. They are our constituents, the people who have selected the creators of our enabling legislation: our legislature and our executives. They expect two fundamental things from procurement professionals; first, a transparent and fair process; and second, the efficient, effective delivery of goods and services. Our customers (through our elected officials) have enabled us to do our jobs, and when acting through the legitimate legislative process, our customers are always right. We have an obligation, both individually and as a profession, to meet or exceed our customers’ expectations, to ensure legislative decisions are fully informed, and to advocate for the principles we hold dear. In the end, while we may disagree with an enactment — be it a local preference, a set-aside program or simply a budgetary choice we dislike — we have no choice but to support the legislation and implement their desires.
Stakeholders are others who are invested in the process: our vendors, the markets and market participants we work with, the special interest groups we support and the press, among others. Stakeholders demand a transparent and accessible process as well as an transactional competence that will facilitate the delivery of goods and services. They depend on our skills as translators and writers. We must translate our clients’ needs into a process that provides an open market forum while giving stakeholders the tools to compete fairly so they can provide the best solutions for our clients.
My intent in this article is to plant a seed and challenge us all as professionals to choose our words carefully and consistently. We must understand that our choice of words shapes other people’s views of who we are and what we do. Professional associations and academics need to incorporate the proper language into their training materials and their everyday usage. Certification organizations need to ensure the correct language is part of the testing and verification processes. Individuals need to be ambassadors, using the terms consistently and frequently and taking the time to explain their choice of words when given the opportunity. Each of us can plant the seed of a common understanding of the procurement professional’s contribution to our organizations, a contribution critical to the continued growth and health of our communities, which reap the benefits of our efforts.
For each of us, the individual professional, the message is simple and direct: We must cultivate the roses in our own backyards. Let’s get out and talk to our clients about how we can enhance their ability to serve our customers. Let’s talk to our stakeholders about how they can participate in the process and support our clients in the delivery of service to our customers. Most importantly, let’s talk to our customers about the contributions we make to the communities we serve.
About the author
Michael Bevis, JD, CPPO, CPSM, C.P.M., PMP, is the Chief Procurement Officer for the City of Naperville, Ill., and is a member and Secretary of the Governing Board of the Universal Public Procurement Certification Council (UPPCC). He is also the 2011 recipient of both NIGP’s Distinguished Service Award and the International Federation of Purchasing and Supply Management’s Lewis Spangler Award for Purchasing Practitioner of the Year.