The Dumb Customer

Published: 27 Mar 2017 By Harvey Dearden

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive points to the need for duty holders to act as “intelligent customers” when engaging others to undertake work which may have implications for health and safety. The philosophy can, however, be usefully extended to other areas.

We may approach the characteristics of the intelligent customer by examining those of the ‘dumb customer’, who will abdicate responsibility; assume the contractor knows what is needed; assume the contractor knows what he’s doing; assume the contractor has done/will do it; and retain no record of what has been done

One of the primary motivations of the dumb customer is a misplaced, (and ultimately futile), desire to transfer responsibility/liability to another party. A key point is that if failures or deficiencies do arise, the blame cannot always be (or not in the eyes of the law anyway) laid at the door of the contractor. A failure does not necessarily mean that the contractor has been incompetent, unscrupulous or exploitative. A contractor may, by his own lights, be acting in good faith, in accordance with the requirements as he understands them.

From these considerations we may go on to identify the characteristics of the intelligent customer, who understands and specifies what is needed; exercises due diligence; satisfies himself of contractor competence; maintains proper overview (supervises and reviews); and co-ordinates activities (ensuring nothing falls between the cracks).

One common manoeuvre is to issue a list of standards that the contractor/vendor must comply with, that is as long as your arm. Such lists are often used without real discrimination and sometimes with mutually-exclusive provisions! The thinking appears to be that this will form some sort of insurance policy; a stick to beat the (wily rogue) contractor with. Perhaps it will, but it does seem a mean-spirited basis on which to enter into a contract. If you are persuaded you need this stick, perhaps you are issuing your enquiries to the wrong contractors?

The requirement for an intelligent contractor (I believe I coin the phrase) is not explicitly made, but such an animal will provide matching support in recognition of the intelligent customer’s responsibilities. What might this support look like? I suggest: intelligent consultation over the customer’s needs (rather than uncritical acceptance of a procurement specification); identification of key interfaces (what interactions will be necessary for successful delivery?); identification of required competencies (what skill sets are needed?) and maintenance of a competence register; and identification of requirements of deliverables in support of the intelligent customer’s responsibilities (what will the customer need post contract close out?) with full version control and traceability.

There is nothing so very profound in any of this, but without a specific focus on these concerns there is a possibility (likelihood) that inadvertent gaps will develop.

We might identify two further key attributes of the intelligent customer: a willingness to pay a premium for an intelligent (rather than dumb) contractor, and a recognition that the contract should be collaborative rather than competitive. If the contract is approached as a zero sum game (like chess; what one player gains, the other loses) this will militate against a constructive partnership. A win-win is entirely possible and much to be preferred. Unfortunately there are those players in the game for whom the only way to be confident of a win is to make sure the other guy (contractor) loses, and who make it their mission. With this mindset however, the much more likely outcome is lose-lose. A very unintelligent approach.

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