Why Your Clients Are Often Wrong


"The customer is always right." A tagline that helped Marshall Field and Harry Gordon Selfridge push past their retail competitors by ushering in the novel concept that customers shouldn't be swindled, preyed upon by pushy sales clerks, or refused when attempting to return merchandise. All of these concepts, now modern day must haves, have nothing to do with our contemporary understanding of the phrase.

It's pretty simple, really. Your clients are wrong a majority of the time. They have problems and don't have answers. They're coming to you for expertise and experience they don't possess. That's why they hired you. You provide a certain service, product, knowledge, vision, or a general sensibility that they need. It's a fair trade: they'll pay you, and in return you'll deliver what they, or their organization, are lacking.

This dynamic is integral to your joint success — it's what the entire relationship is predicated upon — and yet, so often it is forgotten in the heat of professionalism. When a deadline has evolved from milestone to precipice, when conversations turn from "us" to "you," when brainstorming debases into imperatives, well then, you've lost sight of the core paradigm of your union. Your client did not hire you to do what they say. They didn't spend all that time researching consultants, cold-calling them, evaluating them, and then finally choosing one (ahem, YOU), just so they could tell you the solution to their problem. Your client doesn't have a solution. That's what they're beseeching of you. That's where they desperately need your advice. That's where they need your talent.

Now, I'm not saying your client is stupid. My clients have comprised some of the smartest people I've met. Furthermore, your client isn't a bad person. If the ambiance between you has become tense, it's because you've both lost your way. If you're doing work that tugs at your sense of quality, or worse, professional integrity, you need to stop what you're doing immediately and take a step back. Remember how and why the relationship formed, and then remind your client. If you are earnest, and if you are working towards a loftier goal — and *if* you can articulate that vision to your client — how could they not understand and endorse your brilliance? That's exactly what they envisioned when they started working with you.

Your clients want you to tell them they're wrong. The smart ones do, at least. There is no ego here. There must be tact, and there should be respect, but there is no bullshit ring kissing here. If your client is savvy, they’ll want you to tell them like it is. They want you to challenge their assumptions and predispositions. They want you to ask questions, confound the status quo, and ultimately, help them achieve something better. They want more than what they, or their staff, or their organization can achieve; that's why they’ve entrusted you. Sure, it means you have to be brilliant. So what? You said you were, now prove it.

What they say they need is not what they actually need. It's what they want. There is context to be discovered. What they ask for just might end up being the ultimate goal, but it certainly shouldn't be treated as gospel. Client requests are like icebergs, there is far more lurking below the surface than initially presents itself. If a client tells you they need something, don't give it to them, at least not right away; acquiescence as a reflex makes for an inoperably dull creative mind. Ask why. Exercise due diligence. Get their rationale. If they can provide it, you'll have the right fodder to offer an appropriate solution. If they don't, then you have an even bigger opportunity — and responsibility — to work with them in exhuming the true nature of their needs.

At the end of the day, you may have to bend to some of the parameters of your client. You may have to alter your grand design for something that better fits within their mental, social, creative, or even physical infrastructure. But that's okay. That's not compromising, that's collaborating. If you can't get on board with that then you're the fool, not them.

Great work comes from passion, forethought, exhaustive creativity, meticulous rationality, and above all, an intrinsic connection with the world around you. If you can't work with your client, guide them, inspire them, empathize with them, and ultimately love them, then whatever you produce with be nothing but rubbish, in both your eyes and theirs.

Jonathan Kerrs is a product development consultant based in New York City. Aside from his penchant for internal process improvement and habitual optimism, he’s actually a pretty normal guy. Tell him how great he is.