Why the Customer is Always Right (or 10 Ways to Keep Your Customers Happy)

This is an updated version of an article I wrote on Biznik, which inadvertently started a heated discussion. Designers really jumped on it, but the article is applicable to many types of businesses.

How do you make your customers feel after they tell you what they want? Your reaction has a huge impact on their perception of you, and on how they remember you and your brand.

Customer service is one of the most important aspects of your brand. That’s right, your brand. The way we treat people is a monumental core component of how people perceive us. As we all know, perception becomes reality. Our job as business owners and brand lovers is to guide perception in every genuine way possible.

Clients often have great ideas, but sometimes, their ideas are out of touch with their target market, or just plain wrong. The ability to smile in the face of a weak concept is paramount to successful client relationships. I always try to make my customers feel like they are right, even when they are wrong, sometimes horribly wrong. Here is my approach:

1. Do what the client asks. Even if it is detrimental to their business – even if it makes me pull my armpit hairs (I have no hair on my head) out by the roots – I always do what the client asks. If budget and time allow for it, I provide an excellent execution of what the client asked for, along with a stronger alternative. Upon seeing the results of their request, business-savvy clients will usually choose the best approach, even if it is ultimately not the concept or end-product they originally asked for. When a client sees that their concept is not really what they were after, and I present a stronger alternative, they are happy to pay for some additional work because they know that I did exactly what they requested, then I went the extra mile to deliver a great solution.

2. Do your best. Whether we are working on our own idea or a client’s idea, putting forth our best effort will always reap rewards in one way or another. Holding back does nothing for anyone. Showing the client our best work and hard efforts will usually pay dividends. Don’t try to save the best concept for the next project, or you may not ever get the chance to show it.

3. Give the client the credit. Do your clients ever try to take credit for your ideas? Mine do, all the time. Give clients the credit when they have a great idea. Make them feel like they came up with a great idea. After all, we would not have their business if they had not had a great idea in the first place. If a client tries to take credit for your great idea, sock them in the ear. Ha! Just seeing if you are paying attention. (Don’t ever punch clients.) When clients try to take the credit, gently remind them of your value or your idea, but ultimately, let them steal the five second spotlight if they insist. What would you rather have, the credit or the business? I’m not saying you should let your clients walk all over you, but it’s not hard to strike a balance that will keep you both happy.

4. Ask questions. Listen to your clients when they are talking. If a client says something that is just plain wrong, what do you do? Tell them they’re wrong? Hell no! Did you correct your grandma when she mispronounced a word? If you did, she probably hit you over the head with a rolled up TV Guide or National Enquirer. The customer is always right. (As is the grandma.) When a customer says something that without a doubt is wrong as wrong can be, I ask questions. We know our stuff, but hey! Our clients know their businesses better than anyone. Why risk pissing off a client by telling them that they are wrong? When we ask questions and give them their due attention, we learn important little clues about what makes them tick. That gives us fuel for promoting their company and for providing better value.

5. Involve the client in the process. The more involved a client is in the work, the more invested they will be. They will understand why we chose certain paths or made particular decisions. They will have less questions and more confidence in what we are doing. When they see the results of our work, our clients have a greater understanding of how and why our work is so effective. Involving the client in the process builds trust. Their is no greater gift to be granted than that. Well, a fat check is always nice too.

6. Pay attention! This is so important that it bears repeating. Listen to your clients when they are speaking. Have you ever had a client who had the attention span of a peanut? I have. These are the ones who can’t go five minutes without taking a call on their cell. You have to imagine that these folks were about to spontaneously combust before cell phones existed. Here again though, they can interrupt our meetings any time they want. If they choose to use meeting time on the cell, that’s their choice. Where am I going with this? Clients endowed with a short attention span tend to pack the really meaningful parts of their conversation into short snippets that can only be caught if you are paying close attention at all times. It doesn’t kill me to rivet my attention on a client for two hours. What kills my business is if I don’t pay attention during the critical moments where I need to learn about the client and their business.

7. Wrong can be right. Always look for the genius in your clients’ ideas. Sometimes I find myself kicking and screaming and cursing and moaning (silently of course) when a client forces me to pursue a concept that I know at the very core of my branding being is just wrong wrong wrong! But walk the path I must because my client is devoted to their idea and its birth into the light of day. I explore, I curse some more, and then something magical occurs as I relax and let my stubborn branding ego fall off the corner of the table. Their bad, wrong idea gives birth to a new concept, something strong and true and right that gives meaning to life and shines like a smile on the sun. In reality, client ideas are all born with the best of intentions. Sometimes a client’s concept might seem too simple or just plain boring, but there is a reason their mind went there. They want to say something, but their creative expression may not be getting at the underlying concept. That’s why they have us. When a client clings to a concept that appears to have no deep creative value, rather than rejecting it, look for the genius in it. Often times a client just needs to see a great execution of their bad idea to see that it was really not what they wanted at all. But even there, your great work will lead to the next round and can serve as a springboard for opening the client’s mind.

8. Buy yourself a shoulder to cry on.

9. Throw a private temper tantrum. Another tact to consider when a client presses you to explore a poor concept is to go ahead and stamp your feet, wave your arms, and yell obscenities. Do it all you want, but make sure you do it solo, in the privacy of your own sound-proof office. When you’re done, give the customer what they want.

10. Know when to say when. If every idea your client has makes you grit your teeth so hard they shatter, it’s probably time to refer your client to someone else. Teeth are hard to come by. Remember, though, that good clients are just as hard to come by. Sometimes letting go of a client is the best move for both of you.

Ultimately, every client comes equipped with their own set of rules. You need only decide if you want to play by those rules. I find that by always keeping this in mind, my average client relationships last over 10 years. Maybe it will help you too.

How do you keep customers happy? Have something to add to the list? Please post a comment!

Kelly Hobkirk - teaching marketers how to harness strategy, goals, reality, and purpose to connect and do better work.


Kelly Hobkirk has been helping companies succeed in creative ways for nearly 25 years. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, and books by Rockport and Rotovision. Get exclusive articles when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.

Thank you! This is going to feel good.

1 comment Write a comment

  1. Hey Kelly,
    This is close to one of the first only written a title so far:
    The “Custom” in Customer Service.

    Your article here has spurred more thought toward my own article. Thanks!

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