My grandfather worked at a long-gone department store in Minnesota and told me endless stories of opening early for little old ladies who needed a new girdle and staying late to find the perfect pair of shoes for a businessman. He made sure I grew up knowing that in order to be successful and maintain a good reputation, you had better do whatever they wanted. The word ‘no’ was simply not in the vocabulary of a good service person. And early in my career, I liked this idea. I thought it was part of the fabric and ethos of a supportive culture and community. And I thought the waning of this attitude was a marker of societal decline.
So no matter how bonkers-ridiculous the request, always say yes.
So for the first couple of years of my business, I did just this. I said yes to everything. I bent over backwards for every request. I did anything and everything to make the client feel like they were the most important thing in the world to me. Because they were. And they still are. But what I didn’t realize was that the more I devalued my own needs and expertise as part of that exchange, the less value I could actually provide. My energy for the work dropped. I started to feel taken advantage of. I started to dread the work and started to resent the very people who were paying my bills.
This is what’s wrong with the concept of the customer always being right – it devalues the business owner or service provider. It’s an inverse incentive for customers and clients because it rewards unproductive, negative behavior.
For many of us in the service world of coaching, teaching, design, etc…the exchange between us and our clients is specifically designed to challenge the traditional relationship between service provider and client.
When you hire us, you hire us for our expertise – you hire us because you WANT to be challenged. You want to be pushed out of your comfort zone. You respect that we have wisdom and skills that you don’t. If we operate as if you are always right, we are not doing the job we were hired to do.
The evolution of service has brought a new generation of clients and consumers who take responsibility for their buying choices in a much deeper way. They look at transactions more like a collaborative exchange than a one-way street.
This is how I work:
I am not the employee of my client.
I am not there to nod my head and agree over and over.
I am not there to validate their choices or placate their ideas.
Most clients LOVE this. They come to us FOR this. They know we might piss them off and challenge their sensibilities and appreciate our commitment to their success. They look at our exchange as just that. An exchange. They offer money and passion and input and experience and dreams, and we offer knowledge and skills and results. We BOTH work hard to get them where they need to go. There is give and take. Balance. Like a dance.
But then, there’s Fear and Old Habits – cutting in on the dance floor and doing the Cabbage Patch and the Rodger Rabbit all over your perfectly choreographed Waltz.
Fear: When clients invest in something you offer, they trust you to give them something they don’t have, or don’t understand. They give you their hard-earned money and the stakes can feel very, very high. So when fear creeps in – usually in the form of them doubting that you can deliver on your promises, the push-back begins. The trust breaks down. But at the core, it’s not usually YOU they doubt, it’s themselves. They made the choice to hire you, and for some, it is far easier to poke holes in what you do than take responsibility for their own progress. It’s basically an elaborate manifestation of buyer’s remorse. And it makes them crazy.
Old Habits: For many, this new service paradigm feels natural and easy. But for others, it can feel like a challenging departure from the status quo. A meandering path that takes them away from comfortable service patterns. When you assert your opinion, they feel challenged and revert back to a traditional, “I’m the customer. And I’m always right.” mindset.
In both cases, the client is unhappy, and you cry giant alligator tears into your ever-growing glass of bourbon every time you read an email from them.
Now you have the nightmare client. Who will most likely become the unhappy former client at some point.
In a sea of glowing testimonials, there is very little said about the people who have left our sphere angry and disappointed. We don’t talk about it. We like to pretend that it was a one-off. A lone loon adrift in their own crazy-pants expectations.
But the truth is, we ALL have unhappy clients.
Yes. Even me.
Not many. But a few.
In nearly thirteen years in business, I think there are four or five past clients who probably mutter obscenities at the mention of my name.
And without exception, all of them fall into one or more of the following scenarios:
1. The Referral Trap:
I did my job exactly as I was contracted to do. But expectations and delivery did not align when the client did not fully understand and/or value what they signed up for. They all came to me as referrals from happy clients and they didn’t fully understand or desire how I work or what they would have to do to get results. So their expectations were out of alignment with what was delivered.
Referrals can be a double-edged sword in this way. When someone finds you organically via your brand voice (blog, social media, interview, etc…), they are coming to you for what YOU put out to the world with deliberate intention. They know and understand what you do, why you do it, and how you will deliver on your promises because they come to you for your specific you-ness. But when you get a referral, that’s not always the case. They may never even visit your website before contacting you, so the sales cycle is very different.
When this is the case, a huge portion of your sales approach is devoted to explaining what you can do for them and how you do it. And since they are going off of the trusted word of someone else, they may say yes without fully investing emotionally in what you are actually selling them. In other words, they are buying the results you helped their friend get, without actually being attracted to YOU. What can get missed is that their friend WAS your perfect person, but they might not be.
So as the service provider, you wind up in the difficult position of saying yes to a wrong person to preserve a client relationship with a right one.
2. “I didn’t read/understand my contract”:
Each client wanted more time, iterations, and interactions than was agreed-upon and did not understand that this was not a reasonable request.
Usually this happened when I missed the extra step of walking through contract terms verbally. It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new client relationship that it can feel cumbersome to check for understanding. And even though my contracts are in simple and explicit language, most clients barely read them. So agreements that I think are clear actually aren’t, since the client never actually internalized what they were agreeing to. And there is nothing more toxic to a project than having to point out contract terms as a means of reminding a client that you are not going to do a ton more work than you agreed to and/or are being paid for.
3. “I want the result. And I don’t want to have to work for it.” Or, “That’s What I’m Paying You For Syndrome”:
Each client hired me for my expertise and then fought every single thing I told them or found fault in every item I presented to them.
Understanding why a client hires you is as important as the fact that they hired you at all. If the sales conversation is entirely focused on results and not on what it will take to get there, chances are good that you will fall face-first into a client who just doesn’t want to hold up their end. And when this happens, no amount of extra work or explaining will restore balance. Their failure will become your fault.
4. “I am my own worst enemy.”:
None of them have found the success they wanted since we parted ways.
In each case, as hard as the actual experience was, it became clear that – though I could have done things better/differently – the client wasn’t actually ready for the level of success they wanted. Whether it manifested as perfectionism (“I don’t know what I want, but I know this isn’t it yet.”), overly demanding behavior (“I’m paying you XXXX, I can’t believe you won’t just do this one more thing for me – for the eleventh time.”), indecisiveness (“I know we spent hours on Plan A, more hours on Plan B, and yet more hours on Plan C…but now I want to re-think things and try Plan X.”), or just plain contrary-ness (“No. I don’t want to do that. What else can I do that will get the same result?”), the actual cause is always the same – they don’t actually KNOW what they’re selling and have the misguided idea that they can throw money at their lack of conviction and that that will fix it. Because throwing money at it means they can blame someone other than themselves when they don’t reach their goals.
Essentially, I sold the right thing to the wrong people in each and every instance. Sometimes this was my fault, sometimes it was theirs, Sometimes we shared the blame.
I was definitely not always right.
But fundamentally, each of these came down to the one simple truth:
The customer is not always right either.
As a service provider who is hired for my expertise, aesthetic, and voice, it is my job to weigh the needs of the client vs. their taste/desires/requests vs. their desired outcome. But when a client invests in something they don’t fully understand, looking for it to be a magic bullet and not a means to an end, shit just falls all the way apart. There’s no way around it.
When this happens, We have two choices:
- Risk our reputation by bowing to the client’s requests [over our own expertise], even when we know they will not be effective.
- Risk our reputation by leaving a client unhappy when we say no.
It’s a terrible choice and one I’m sure many of you have had to make. My choice has always been to stand behind my work. It’s all I have. This choice has cost me money and clients and has probably marred my reputation in certain circles. And that’s OK.
Because I have worked too hard to build a body of work based on hard-earned education, experience, and philosophical approaches that I know to be effective. I’m ok with someone loathing me because I would not do something that I knew wouldn’t work. Or because they wanted more than they were willing to pay for. I really am. This is what integrity means to me. I can’t stand behind my work if I know it’s not actually the best choices for the client.
Fundamentally, the service paradigm is shifting from a customer-driven model to collaborative, goal-driven one.
Instead of clients expecting a service provider to simply do what they’re told, they look for ideas and solutions together. And they know that the very best work happens when the client chooses a service provider that they both like and whose professional opinion they deeply understand and respect.
But I won’t lie. This approach takes guts. You have to plant your flag firmly and with purpose, and be ready to defend it. Because some clients will understand it and some won’t. To do it effectively, you have to build this approach into both how you discuss your work, and how you sell it. If it comes as a surprise halfway through a project, you are far more to blame for a client relationship going down like the titanic than the client is.
It’s all part of a cohesive brand. What you stand for. How you work. Who you work with. And why. It’s why incredible copy is so important. It’s why it require hours of strategy before we write a word or design a thing. Because your brand is everything. And developing a great brand that gets only the right people in the door takes a profound amount of work.
The customer may not always be right.
But with the right customer, you can make all the right things a reality.