As a coach, I’m frequently called upon to help clients navigate challenging situations with a boss. Sometimes the problems have lingered for years and have festered into deep frustration and anger. Other times, I’ll hear from people who already have good boss relationships but want to make them great relationships.

In most cases, the key is reframing the boss/subordinate relationship into a more productive mindset, and one that’s in step with today’s economy. Specifically, stop thinking of your boss as a boss, and start thinking of him or her as your customer.

The boss as the customer

At the most fundamental level, your boss has hired you to provide a service that he or she needs in order to succeed. Whether you’re a receptionist answering phones and greeting visitors, a global department head ensuring that productivity and costs goals are met, or a CEO reporting to investors or board members on company earnings, you’re always being paid to provide your “customer” (i.e., your boss) with something that he or she needs to be successful—and the job you do is actually the “product” you provide to your customer.

And in today’s fast-paced, turbulent, flexible workforce-oriented economy, it’s easier than ever for your “customer” to find another “supplier,” and you have plenty of “competitors” who are eager to demonstrate that they deliver a better product than you do.

How well do you know your customer?

As any successful entrepreneur will tell you, the most important thing is to understand your customer. Yet many professionals never invest the time to understand their boss from the “customer” perspective. Here are some questions to ask yourself, and the key is to answer from your boss’s perspective, not just your own.

  1. What does your boss want to achieve?
  2. What would he or she define as success?
  3. What does your boss need out of you in order to achieve that success?
  4. What are the biggest challenges your boss faces?
  5. Looking one level higher, what does your boss’s boss see as success, what challenges is he or she facing, and how does that impact what your boss needs from you?
  6. If you were in your boss’s place, how satisfied would you be with the service he or she is getting from you? Would you start looking elsewhere?

If you find yourself struggling with any of these questions (as many people do), that means you don’t yet know your customer well enough. But now you know where to start.

Market yourself, target your product, and serve your customer

Once you know your customer, you’re set to start marketing yourself, targeting your product, serving your customer, and building a great boss relationship.

  • When talking to your boss, always be mindful of his or her needs.
  • Always explain your work from the perspective of how it meets his or her needs.
  • Be aware of what other service providers your boss could choose to use, and understand why your boss believes you’re the best option.
  • If you’re not the best option, how do you need to change your product so that you become the best?
  • When there is conflict, ask yourself what your boss needs that he or she isn’t getting from you? How can you solve that problem for him or her?

More important today than ever before

The traditional view of a boss is rooted in an outdated understanding of the workplace that largely no longer applies in today’s economy. A generation ago, many people worked for a single company for their entire career, and there was an understood commitment between a company and the employee. Today that commitment no longer exists, and we live in a world of rapid change, outsourcing, easily replaced contract staff, and persistently high unemployment in most sectors.

This means that most bosses now have many suppliers to choose from—whether they’re looking for a receptionist, a department head, or a CEO— and there are many other suppliers who would love to demonstrate why their product is better for your boss than yours. However, you have a tremendous advantage because you’re able to understand your customer better than anyone else can—but that’s only if you’re focused on using that advantage.

A final noteUnwinnable situations and making sure to do your part

On a final note, not all boss relationship problems are resolvable, and this can happen for a large number of reasons. There are many poor bosses, just as there are many bad and unreasonable customers. However, before giving up on any relationship, and rather than suffering through crippling frustration, always take the step to make sure you’ve looking at your boss from the right perspective, that you’re truly understanding your boss’s needs, and that you’re serving your most important customer—your boss—to the best of your ability.