Early in my career as a lawyer I heard about the two rules adopted by a grocery chain in the North-eastern United States called Stew Leonard’s. It encapsulated their policy and they were so proud of it they had it chiseled into a granite rock outside the store. It was very simple:

“Our Policy – Rule 1: The customer is always right! Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1!”

I recently re-read this when thinking about this article. Steve King”s article on it, which I can thoroughly recommend, gives a fuller picture: https://stevekeating.me/2021/01/11/the-customer-is-always-right/.

The policy has lived with me all my professional life. Granted it can be more difficult to apply in the context of professional services but I believe it is still correct. More importantly I feel it sets you on the right course of enquiry of the client as to just what they want out of a particular transaction. It has lead me to focus on the long term and seeking to win the client, not focus on the simple transaction to hand and what I thought was needed. It has lead to several one to two decade long relationships that have been both satisfying and rewarding professionally, emotionally and financially for both of us.

If the client knows that you are there for them and trusts you to have their back you will develop a common language that will save both you and the client time and money. I often found myself over the years talking in meetings of “our” position, what “we” can do, such was my identificaton with the client, while making sure they observed the requisite law. I have been fortunate in my entire career that my clients always valued operating squarely within the requisite legal boundaries.

Your role as a professional, whatever the profession, is to understand fully what the client wants to achieve, why and how. It is then to deliver that. This is essentially a listening and questioning role. Adopt the journalists open-ended questions: what, when, how, where and, occasionaly, why. Over time the more you know the client and their field of operations the fewer questions you may need but always make sure to test any assumptions you are making and that they hold true. Your role is to question and understand – not second guess.

That is not to say that I have always agreed with my clients. We have often talked of risks and downsides to any course of action. At the end of the day, they had the right to proceed as they saw fit but I feel that bearing the policy in mind helped me to see my role as making sure they received the best legal advice that met their objectives.

The role of the advisor is to advise, not decide: that is the role of the client. The client should expect to be given the best advice, make sure you listen and question to understand fully their goals.