Being a Good Client

Here is something I do not understand: in general, we as consumers know very, very little, and yet we subscribe wholesale to the mantra, “The Customer Is Always Right.”

Businesses train their employees in customer-centric policies, forcing sales associates to bend over backwards for the ill-educated slobs who demand their attention. Meanwhile, people who don’t know a thing about the subject of their desires often make unrealistic demands because they simply don’t know better.

It doesn’t matter whether the subject is a vehicle, a house, new shoes, a set of clothing, or a web site design, few of us are experts on the things for which we shop. Yet we treat the people whose jobs it is to help us as if we know better than they.

Of course, in some settings, those sales associates are just trying to earn a paycheck or rip you off, and consumers must educate themselves and be wary. But in many professional fields, the person working to help you knows far more than you and their job is to do right by you. If they treat you unjustly, you won’t go back to their store and you’ll tell others about the poor experience, so it is in their interests to make sure you get what’s best. The problem is that, regardless of setting, we continue hearing “The Customer Is Always Right,” and we believe it.

In my recent role as the client of a web designer, I felt for the first time what it was to be a relatively clueless customer. When it comes to shopping for cars, I know enough about them to have a decent idea of what I’m looking for. And my mom is a real estate agent, so when we were looking for a house, I knew the questions to ask and what to avoid. But when it comes to building a new web site, I barely know where to begin. I have no sense of colour or form, no artistic creativity, and so I can give the barest of guidance.

In this situation, I decided that my best bet was to make some brief suggestions and then get out of the way. Ryan is a professional with a great deal of experience in web design, so I felt that I could trust him to do right by me. In looking around this site, I’m sure you will agree that he did.

I feel that we should adopt this posture of humility and patience more often, and after working with Ryan, I think that I will do so. The results were very positive, and it makes me want to try this again.

Step 1: Figure out what you want

In conversations with Ryan about some of his other clients, it seems like a lot of people skip this step. Clients often don’t think enough about their desires, and so what they give the professional is too little information for the professional to do what is needed. The professional will do what they can with what they have been given, but there’s a high chance that they will return with unfavorable results if you don’t help them help you.

Be thoughtful and do some work before meeting with the professional. You’ll both be happier.

Step 2: Keep an open mind

There is an extremely good chance that the professional will come back with something different than you had expected. That’s because they’re better at what they do than you are. When Ryan first showed me what he had come up with for my web site, I was taken aback. It looked nothing like what I had expected (my initial thought was, “This isn’t what I wanted”), but that’s because (again) I don’t know much about this.

What Ryan came up with didn’t seem like me or what I wanted because it was so good. It was better than anything I could have dreamed up… but wasn’t that the idea?

And the more I looked at it, the more I liked it. Ryan took my suggestions and made something beautiful, and he was able to do that because he knows what he’s doing.

Step 3: Be nice

Throughout the process, you need to make sure to continue giving guidance to the professional. Chances are that some things will need to be changed, and you shouldn’t hesitate to point those things out, but these conversations need to be in the context of a professional rapport that recognizes their intelligence and dedication. In short, be honest, but don’t be a dick.

Whatever it is you’re working with a professional for, you’re the one who has to live and be happy with the end result, so don’t let the professional run away with an idea you don’t like. You may need to clarify points initially made in step one, or you may have had additional ideas that need to be worked in. Get those to the professional, but recognize as well that the proper time for that was step one. If they can’t make changes at this point, or if it costs more or takes more time, be forgiving. It is reasonable that additional work would take additional time/money, so don’t act like it shouldn’t.

When we were looking for a house, we gave a short list of criterion to our real estate agent for him to put together properties for us to visit. After a couple of weeks, some of our criterion had changed, so we let him know about what we wanted now.

I’ve known people to get upset with real estate agents who “wasted their time” by showing them properties in which they weren’t interested. In reality, the real estate agent was basing their recommendations on the client’s requests, and it wasn’t the agent’s fault that those recommendations weren’t quite accurate. We need to be patient and give people time to do the job we asked of them.

In my personal experience, I would say, “The customer is.” No one is always right, but if we as customers work together with the professionals, we can achieve something great. We must not forget our place in the cycle, because we certainly shouldn’t make ourselves non-existent, but we should also remember that it is a cycle. We’re in this together, and both the client’s and the professional’s success depends on the positive outcome of a given project.

For more examples of what a good professional looks like, I’d encourage you to take a look at Ryan Burrell’s web site.

It’s The Thought That Counts

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

I was recently having a conversation with a young photographer I know about his aspirations for having a fancy new website designed. He was looking at spending a decent amount of cash to have something really slick put together for his photo gallery, and though the company was going to charge him a reasonable rate for that level of design work and manageability (meaning that it would be easily updated by the photographer himself), I wasn’t sure spending that much money on a website was a good idea at this point in his career. Though a fancy website is nice and will help accent, present, and convey your material, it is secondary to the material itself.

This might seem a bit contradictory to my earlier post which detailed how a poor design will stymie communication, so allow me to elaborate.

I read an article several years ago that looked with great curiousity at a number of online businesses that seemed to be succeeding despite their best efforts. These businesses had ugly, poorly formatted websites with outdated modes of communication and little information about their business or product. Designed in a style I usually refer to as “Angelfire-esque” or “Geocities ghetto,” the independent owners had put together something on the web that looked similar to what a cat might produce after eating too fast. They had a product, but they had no idea how to market it on the web.

And yet, they were succeeding. They were doing business online and turning a decent profit, to the confusion of everyone else who felt that a great design was needed to make your voice heard.

When surveying their customers, the journalist discovered that the people ordering goods from these sites actually preferred the poor design. It communicated to the customer that the owner cared less about a fancy website and more about them, the customers; that they spent more time on their product than on marketing; and that the end-result was higher quality service and goods.

I would never go so far as to say that this is always the case. Rather, I tend to think that if you are a seller of repute and quality, all aspects of your business should be of similar quality, and that extends to your website. But I do think the story highlights something that a lot of people are beginning to forget: the Content is More Important than the Wrapper.

Yes, a good design will help sell your product better, and once you’ve got a good product, your next step should be a good marketing approach and/or website design.  If your product is no good, though, the fanciness of your website becomes irrelevant.

I have known numerous photographers, webcomic artists, and authors whose websites were little more than a page with a single picture and the most rudimentary of navigation, or maybe they just threw their work onto a Blogger account (note: I personally detest Blogger and highly recommend WordPress as an alternative), and yet they were remarkable successes. This is because their work was of high quality and appealed to people. The content was good, so the wrapper or site design didn’t matter as much.

And generally speaking, once you’ve got the audience and fans, things move of their own accord and you eventually get a nicer website. But no one starts at the top, and likewise it probably isn’t wise to invest like you’re already there when you’re not.

A beginning musician doesn’t buy a five-million dollar Stradivarius violin, just like a beginning photographer doesn’t learn how to shoot photos on a ten-thousand dollar camera and a beginning author usually has nothing but a pen and paper. We all have to start somewhere and learn what we’re doing. We move up to the higher quality tools as we learn how to use them most effectively. Eventually, we reach a point where our work demands a better toolset, and we adjust accordingly.

But just because you have a Stradivarius doesn’t mean you can play like a master, and just because you have spent a few thousand dollars on a site doesn’t mean you’ll instantly have a booming business. So start small and focus on the quality of your product. Your customers will be attracted by your work, and they’ll be more attracted if they know that your focus is on them, not on yourself or your site. Put your work and your fans first and the rest will fall into place.