The Importance of the “Intelligent Customer”

The customer is always right. Right? Wrong. A supplier-side perspective on ‘the intelligent customer’.

In May 2017, Audit Scotland set out a number of principles to follow for customers in pursuit of a successful digital future. One of the principles was simply to:

“Be an intelligent client.”

The target audience for the recommendations was the public sector in Scotland. But the recommendations apply much more broadly than that – in the private sector, and way beyond Scotland’s shores.

In 2012, Audit Scotland had set out the main attributes for being an “intelligent client”. These were:

  • Organisational capacity in technical, commercial and programme management skills
  • Appropriate governance controls in place
  • Skills in scenario planning and options appraisal
  • An understanding of how proposed solutions can meet the demands of the business
  • Arrangements to share learning and experiences across and outside the organisation.

But these attributes all feel very dry, functional and transactional. They speak nothing of the customer-supplier relationship, of the emotive connection – a meeting of minds, mutual trust and professional respect.

So it’s encouraging that, in their latest report, Audit Scotland have started getting much closer to the heart of the matter. Mutual trust and constructive values have now been introduced to the definition of what it is to be an ‘intelligent client’:

“It is important to develop a relationship with the supplier that is trusting but promotes constructive challenge.”

Edwardian attitudes

It all sounds very straightforward, doesn’t it? And pretty obvious.

But let me take you back to a time when ladies wore corsets and gentlemen doffed hats. In 1909, Harry Selfridge (pictured) had just founded Selfridge’s department store in London. And it was there that he first introduced the concept that “the customer is always right”.

You’d be surprised by how often a customer’s default position today still stems from this Edwardian mentality. It feels so last century. More than a hundred years on, that attitude, redolent of bygone social constructs of subservience and servitude, just feels so old-fashioned.

In the interests of balance – and for the record – the supplier isn’t always right either. There is a balance or equilibrium to be struck; call it a ‘tension’, if you prefer. This, I think, is what the “constructive challenge” statement is speaking to – to avoid unscrupulous suppliers from taking advantage.


At CompanyNet, we think of customer satisfaction as one point on an equilateral triangle. The other dimensions are:

  • the needs of our staff, and
  • the needs of CompanyNet as a commercial and legal entity.

Our job is to keep the angles of the triangle in balance. Whenever we can achieve this, the conventional ‘win-win’ extends to a ‘win-win-win’. But, at any given point in time, in any customer scenario, at least one of these dimensions can be under significant tension. That means the equilateral balance is distorted or sometimes completely bent out of shape.

Collective Intelligence

Four years ago, CompanyNet started using a new phrase to describe our ethos: “Collective intelligence”. Put simply, when we pool our collective expertise, skills and experience with that of our customers and partners, the whole can be far better than the sum of its parts.

Unlike Mr Selfridge’s attitude, this approach does require mutual respect, and it benefits from Audit Scotland’s “constructive challenge” – with the emphasis firmly on the ‘constructive’. Without being constructive, it would become a negative, destructive force which undermines respect and trust.

Some customers will never get it. The Edwardian values are just too deeply-ingrained in their personal ethos or their organisational culture. Or perhaps they’ve simply been too badly burned in the past by suppliers in whom they’ve placed too much trust. That can drive an attitude of suspicion and mistrust towards current suppliers.

Other customers need to continually work on it, or be encouraged back to a more balanced position when they start to fall back on old habits.

But most of our customers get it at an instinctive level. It just feels right. And that provides a positive environment in which we can keep the triangle in balance and where everyone benefits in equal measure.

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