Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

The customer is always right…

The customer is always right…
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…is such a flawed statement. It’s the kind of phrase I can only suspect that some deceptive salesman concocted in the early days of American hubris. It reeks of that complete insincerity, which ultimately only says, “I’ll say anything, as long as you buy it.”

Our culture (inappropriately) feels so starved for a sensation of control, that we’ve come to love this phrase, regardless of the fact that deep down we know it is a complete and utter fallacy.

Anything for a sale

First of all, this comment might be more accurate if it was modified to read, “We’ll agree with whatever the customer says, even if they are wrong.” Otherwise, the phrase can in no way be true. Consider the notion of a patient visiting his doctor with a bad case of athlete’s foot. Upon examination, the physician makes an accurate diagnosis and subsequently prescribes a topical remedy. The patient hastily responds, “I’ve had that before and it doesn’t work. Just cut off my foot.” Applying the logic that the client is always right, the doctor would be forced to respond with a smile and simply comply. This would by highly irresponsible, leaving the patient in an unnecessarily compromised position.

You may feel that this analogy is highly exaggerated, and as such a little silly. I counter that in design, we face such challenges routinely. Often the damage done to an organization through bad design is equally significant. Pleasing clients, in lieu of what is in their own best interests, at very least costs immeasurable dollars. In worst case scenarios it can bankrupt a client. “You want to copy the look of a competitor’s website and replace their name with yours? Sure… we’ll do that! As we like to say around here, ‘the customer is always right!'”

I choose to work with suppliers and partners who argue with me when I’m wrong. I would certainly prefer to be proven incorrect, as opposed to being erroneously lauded for my oversights or lack of knowledge. Put simply, if we care at all about the welfare of our clients, it is our duty to tell them the truth, even if it means upsetting them, or losing their business. It is both responsible and ethical. When you start to say “no” to client requests which you believe to be misguided, it almost becomes hard to imagine doing it any other way.

Two types (one of them is nicer)

Javier and I chatted about this notion over coffee this morning. There seem to be two distinctly different types of clients. The first looks to you for your insights and professionalism. They clearly articulate their needs and ask you to direct the creative process, acknowledging that you are the professional in your field. These are responsible clients, and we have learned to count your blessings for these ones; likewise, we take their contributions seriously, as they are generally valuable and inform our work. These clients often seem to be quite successful. They find good talent, manage well, and get out of the way when their knowledge is not as strong as another’s, on a particular topic.

The second is the type of client who will make you question why you ever got in to the business. They will not respect your profession or knowledge. These are the kind of clients who say “I just want to sit next to you and tell you what to do. I know what’s good when I see it, but I just don’t know the programs.” After over 15 years of dedicating every moment I have to this practice, and selectively choosing to bring incredibly talented designers to our studio, I feel no compunction to press buttons mindlessly while a wayward client exorcises their need to do something “kind of neat.”

These clients are hard to say “no” to. When you do, they will remind you that they have paid you substantially, and as such, you are indebted to do as told. The implied message here is “We’re paying you big, so bend over.” When a client sees the people in our firm as software operators, I politely suggest they work with other designers. I’d encourage anyone to do the same. Believe me, you sleep way, way better at night as a result.

Good clients will respect you for your principles, and for fighting for what you believe is in their best interest. Our friend, and client, Mishtu (perhaps the smartest person I know) often laughs about our first meetings. He jokes about how brash we initially seemed when we told him that he couldn’t do certain things, without damaging what he was trying to accomplish. That being said, his company’s interests were always central in our suggestions. As such, he has come to see our positions less as bravado, or “being difficult”, and more as us acting in his best interest.

The right reasons

I can’t stress this point heavily enough. If you are going to battle for a particular direction, your focus has to remain entirely on the client’s needs and well-being. Throwing around this kind of influence can never be to support your ego, or personal desires for a project.

The responsibility you wield is enormous. Your insights and advice are going to have a significant impact on your client’s welfare. A designer we once worked with noted that he likely put a small consumer goods company out of business by designing an ineffective packaging system. He chose to employ a design which was highly stylized, but a risky choice, given the product’s end purchaser. When he spoke about this, I sensed that he felt some deal of guilt as a result of the inaccurate council he had given his client. I doubt he would ever again look at such a decision without understanding its gravity.

I repeat: The idea and end result for the client has to remain your singular focus.

Our decisions make the difference between whether a client may be able to make her next mortgage payment, send his children to college, or continue keeping their employees paid. When you first realize this, you really start to understand how important it is to keep your insights balanced, objective, and most of all, accurate.

It really sucks to say “no”. I love to make people happy. I suppose it all has to do with being awkward as a teenager. I’d rather agree with anyone than challenge them on a point. The only reason I do it is because I believe in the work, and feel it’s one of the things that really defines me as a designer. It’s simply good professional practice.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Andrew says:


    In my past dealings with my clients, I've had some of the same experiences. While I still run into the 'time wasting' clients every now and then, I count my blessings with regard to the relationships I've built with my better clients. You have to know what to avoid to know what's worth keeping.

    Well, I just wanted to say kudos for making this web-site. ;)

  2. Guilherme Menga says:

    Great article!
    I've always thought about the practice that same way you described and sometimes I have even used that same doctor's analogy!
    amazingly though, not everyone (designers) agree with this point of view... and of course, go with the flow when a client asks them to do something they know it's not the right thing to do...

    Some designers are selling satisfaction, not solutions... maybe that's the problem...

    Anyway. Great blog! I've just discovered it and i've been reading it from top to bottom this last 2 weeks...
    I'll recomend it to everyone here in Brasil!

  3. Ryan says:


    I have recently started running my own web business. Before I was just a developer/designer so I did not deal with clients on this level. I have been a "Yes" man for the past year and I feel as if it is both hurting the client and my portfolio. I am even afraid to show some of my work because I feel like the client ruins some of the look and functionality in such a way that its just overall a bad site.

    Thanks for the info!! Now I have the confirmation that saying "YES" does more harm then good. I have always wondered that. And yes, it gives you sleepless nights when you deal with clients who are uninformed.

  4. Iain says:

    Eric, I've just come across ideas on ideas, and am very much enjoying reading your articles - you write very well.

    I am a web design of growing experience, but no qualification. When a client is making a decision that I feel will damage their performance, I try to generate supported arguments against their chosen route and for an alternative.

    However, sometimes it just comes down to a feeling - "based on my experience, I feel you will achieve a higher conversion rate with this approach".

    I'd be interested in whether you find yourself resorting to this argument at times, and how you think one can evaluate whether they have sufficient experience to direct a client such?


  5. Hi Iain,

    Glad to hear that you like the articles. It's nice to hear when people find them helpful.

    In my mind, you have to "trust your gut" on some occasions; however, it's important to find a way to verbalize these sensations. This can be difficult, but with time you do get better at it.

    I believe this to be a more persuasive way to gain a client's buy-in on an issue, as it gives them something substantial to fall back on. A feeling may not be enough to persuade them, until you've built a relationship and strong track record with them.



  6. Pingback: The customer is always right… « Calimera Web

  7. Walt D says:

    I agree with the article in the sense of where is the logic if the customer can not deal with criticism for their own benefit and instead chooses to be one sided to the point of their downfall.

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