I published this on LinkedIn Pulse today, but wanted it to have a home here as well.
Like many people, my first jobs were in the service industry: working in a bowling alley, a men’s retail shop, as a host at Red Lobster, and in my father’s Italian restaurant. In those early years of minimum wage, the idea that “the customer is always right” was instilled in me as a maxim without question. The logic, as most people know, is that if a customer is paying for something then they should get it the way they like it, regardless of how they treat you or how unrealistic their expectations are. In the world of digital agencies, there is a similar (outward) mantra that says “the client is always right,” although the chatter behind closed doors is often filled with complaints about clients who “don’t get it” or “don’t know what they want” or “are difficult.”
The truth is: clients are always right, but they just may not be able to articulate what they want clearly. Or, being on the agency side may sometimes make us tone deaf to our client’s needs.
The role of those of us who work at agencies is to see through the initial client request to the heart of what they actually need, to their business problem, or strategic challenge. Most of the clients I have dealt with are incredibly smart and are experts in their fields. Many of them, though, do not know how to work with an agency or how to utilize the outside expertise that an agency offers them to productively solve their business challenges. More often than not, the clients I work with have a very real need and are telling me what it is in language that makes absolute sense to them, but that may not hold up in the world outside of their business culture or industry. Our job, my job, is to practice a very deep form of listening that allows me to get to the root of what they are trying to achieve and to steer my agency team towards providing solutions that solve their problems. After all, clients hire agencies for their unique experience from other businesses and for a fresh perspective on the challenges they face, unencumbered by corporate politics.
Here are a few observations for both clients and agencies that will help ensure that the client gets what they want, and can therefore always be right.
Clients: Articulate your problem, not your solution. Often, clients come to me with a solution (“I want a new website”) instead of a problem (“No one is buying our widgets anymore”). If you are thinking of hiring an agency, or if you are feeling the pressure of your business to perform better, you should begin by asking what the root of the problem is and include potential agency partners in finding the solution. This can be challenging as an internal case may need to be made in order to secure funds for a major project. The smartest clients I’ve worked with take this challenge head on and engage a strategic partner to help them to assess and articulate their problem, and even to make the internal business case for budget. This doesn’t have to be overly costly and it can save money in the long term, as it ensures you go to your leadership to ask for the right amount of money for the right kind of solution. Sometimes, you don’t need external help to do this; with the right mix of skills internally you may be able to articulate your challenges in an way that can convince senior leadership to fund a project. But before moving into a tactical, solution-focused project, it is always wise to start with narrowing in on the actual problem. The best clients bring this problem to an agency and ask for help in solving it.
Agencies: Ask questions, don’t make judgements. I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in projects where there was clearly a dissonance between what the client was saying and what they seemed to want. Presentation after presentation of hard work resulted in frustrated comments from clients. Internally, the agency team felt defeated or annoyed that the client was difficult. “They asked for a blue and red website and we gave it to them. Why are they unhappy?” The answer: they don’t want a blue and red website, they want something patriotic. The key to avoiding the potential communication confusion is to ask questions frequently and to repeat back to your clients what you heard. This process of questioning and then playing back your interpretation shortens the cycles of feedback because you can test your interpretation right there on the spot.
Agencies and Clients: Assess the cultural fit. Not every client is right for every agency. When I meet a potential client for the first time I carefully watch body language, facial reactions during conversation, who sits near whom, who speaks first and last and loudest, and even how the people in the room are dressed. I notice what kind of coffee people are drinking (are they using real milk in their coffee or powdered?), what they eat, and how many people are smokers. I study every aspect of the interactions to try and create a picture of the client’s culture. These may seem like trivial or surface things, but they tell me a lot about with whom I might be working. Most importantly, I try to test the waters by using humor to see if I can create warmth amongst the group. I start with one or two soft, and often self-deprecating, comments, and then progress to the occasional teasing or playful comment. This testing of limits gives me a good sense of how likely this client is to be a fit with the agency where I work. Clients should do the same thing. If you are a buttoned-up, suit-wearing culture, are you okay with an agency where very few people own a tie? And do you believe you can bring your tie-free agency in front of your C-Suite? Cultural fit is important…you neglect it at your own risk.
Agencies and Clients: Own your mistakes. The projects I work on are often high-stress: a lot of work to do, a lot of money being spent, reputations at stake, and sometimes even the company’s long-term survival is on the line. This can create a panicky sense of needing to get everything right, which is impossible. Every client will make a mistake by giving bad direction or changing their mind after something has gone to production, or having an unexpected business circumstance arise which radically changes the work the agency is doing. And every agency will make a mistake by missing the mark in terms of a deliverable, or putting forward a team member who isn’t a good fit for the client (that person has sometimes been me!). No mistake is too big to overcome, but if you don’t own it by acknowledging it, apologizing for it, and correcting it, you’re sunk. The worst thing you can do, on either side of this relationship, is to hide the mistake, point fingers of blame where they don’t belong, or hold on to an unhelpful grudge that prevents positive collaboration.
I really believe that the client is always right, but that doesn’t mean that they always articulate what they need in the right way, that they are culturally a good match for your agency, or that they are the most transparent and easy to work with. If you can have an honest and open relationship with your clients, you’ll be able to tell them that yes, they are indeed always right, because you will make it so.