Fighting Your Customers for Fun and Profit

June 08, 2008

Posted in Small Business.

The customer is not always right. In fact, the customer is more often than not very wrong and has no clue what he’s doing.

This isn’t ego, it’s simple truth: you probably know your product better than your customer does. After all, you’re the expert, right?

A customer walks into a shop to buy a chainsaw. He is met by a salesperson, who may ask a series of questions and offer advice on the right product to fit the customer’s needs. How often do you cut wood? How big are the trees you intend to cut? And so on.

But sometimes, the salesperson won’t care what the customer needs and will simply try to sell the biggest, most expensive chainsaw available. Then he also tries to sell him attachments he doesn’t need, a service plan he doesn’t want, and a DVD set of “Ax Men,” which he doesn’t want to watch. He’s not a logger, he’s just a guy with a couple of trees to chop up each year.

The customer know this game. He wants to spend as little as possible to get the job done. He’s on defense, trying to keep from being ripped off or unnecessarily upsold. Sometimes, he will buy the cheapest product possible, even if it doesn’t meet his needs.

The good salesperson understands this dilemma and works his tail off to help the customer understand the decision and come to the right conclusion – even if it means not making as much money on this sale.

This is where the fight starts.

What it means to be an expert

In the web industry, like so many others, everyone has some experience with the product. The result is that everyone has an opinion about what makes a good website. And that’s when your job gets tough.

I know a lot of arrogant designers and cocky developers (it takes one to know one, to be sure). Often, there’s an underlying frustration that comes from years of working with clients who pick apart a design or scrap a project and start over. The defense mechanism is to position oneself as a superior mind, contradiction a sin against the expert.

This is damaging. It teaches customers not to bring honest feedback and criticisms. This attitude builds a cycle of stalling and uncertainty. It builds a wall so the customer doesn’t understand what is happening, which creates fear. And worst of all for the expert, it damages your brand.

For fun and profit

The ideal scenario is one where you bring the customer around to see your side, ultimately agreeing with you and doing what’s best. If you’ve ever watched a Democrat and a Republican go at it, you’ll know this is no easy task.

The fix is to create mutual trust. The customer should know his business and goals better than you do. But he’s also paying you, the expert, for your help. You can’t do this without him, and he needs your expertise to make it work. Be transparent, bring him into the process the entire way, and explain things as you go. Pick your battles and fight the ones that truly matter. And if the project continues to deteriorate, offer to let the customer out of the agreement.

Remember, sour projects are rarely the fault of one party. The customer might make poor decisions, but you’re the one letting him do that. You have to be strong enough to bring the customer to the right solution, because the right chainsaw can make all the difference.