Mark Neilson 27 February 2023 / 2 minutes read

Why you should seek to be a GREAT client-customer

  • #CFO
  • Best Customer
  • Financial Executives
  • When I was “CFOing” (1986–2011: 25 years), I initially thought when I was dealing with “my” service providers (bank, CPA firm, insurance brokers, etc.) that I was the customer, and I had always heard that “the customer is always right.”   It never occurred to me that if I wasn’t a great customer, it didn’t matter.  I was still “RIGHT.”  


    Like many of my early-career thoughts, this turned out to be a very bad assumption. My mentor (Mr. Murphy, or “Murph”) was the co-founder and head of sales for the public company for which I was serving as corporate controller and would eventually serve as CFO.   


    Murph gave me some of the best advice, which I have never forgotten and have shared with many other financial executives over the years.  As a career sales executive, he shared that there was NO WAY he could do a great job servicing a customer UNLESS THEY WERE A GREAT CUSTOMER.  If they did allow him to do his best for them for their own good, there would always be some reasons we fell short of meeting the customer’s expectations.  So, Murph told me to try this out from my vantage point as CFO when working with our bankers, etc.  


    So, I tried it.  My banker almost fainted when I informed him that I wanted our company (and me as CFO) to be THEIR BEST CUSTOMER. I asked what it took to become his best customer. My banker proceeded to tell me 4-5 things that I wrote down and later typed up, signing the paper with the heading:


    “I will never be the reason your bank underperforms – as long as you hold me to these commitments below, which you have asked me to make to become your best customer”


    If I did anything other than be less than a great customer, he was pre-authorized to call me out on it.  And he did.  If I was not communicating as planned or breaking some other commitment, he pointed it out.  Like most CFOs, the last thing I wanted was to SWITCH BANKS. (Can I get an Amen?) So, I put my ego aside and remembered what Murph told me –

    they could not be a great banker to us UNLESS I WAS A GREAT CLIENT FOR THEM!  We never had to switch banks. (Thank goodness) and we always worked things out.


    This advice was not easy to take to heart.  I still wanted to default to my old thinking that “I’m the CUSTOMER, so I am always RIGHT.”   Turns out that many companies end up leaving great service providers because they themselves were not great clients and therefore the relationship did not operate as a win-win relationship should.  Sure, I knew what the market was for bank services and interest rates, and I didn’t simply let our bank over-charge us to help them and me.  However, we DID listen, take advice, and communicate openly (good news or bad) and THAT is what they asked of us. NOT that we allow them to sell us services we didn’t need at rates/prices above the market.


    I went on to use this “HOW CAN I BE YOUR BEST CUSTOMER” approach with every supplier-advisor I was responsible for and encouraged my colleagues to do the same.  It made my work life much easier.  All I had to do was understand that if I am a crummy customer, we won’t get top-drawer service and it would lead to having to switch advisors/suppliers, which meant more WORK FOR US —- all because we blamed the advisor for stuff when we should have looked in the mirror.


    HUMILTY is another important element of being a great financial executive.  But you can’t do it all alone.  You need great teammates and great advisors around you.  If you are truly a great customer, you WILL get the best from those around you.

    Mark Neilson Partner & Forum Leader REF