A Tale of Honey and Vinegar

February 08, 2012

Posted in Marketing.

Honey harvest by http://www.flickr.com/photos/lowlevelrebel/2913556446/

Until very recently, I spent my entire career working with designers, developers, programmers, writers, and project managers in a client-service organization. The kind that had customers who hired us to do work for them. These people have usually been very talented, sometimes top-of-the-industry creative professionals. And nothing pisses them off like an uneducated client who callously disagrees with them.

I’ve seen these people throw things. A laptop. A coffee mug. At the wall. At me.

I’ve been on both sides of the table on this issue. I’m going to rant for a moment, but bear with me. It’ll go somewhere, I promise.

The esteemed Tom Ahern wrote a blog post that describes his Verbatim Rule where clients must send a direct mail piece exactly as it’s written, no changes allowed. I’ve worked with people who ruled with an iron fist. It’s not usually pleasant.

As a client-service pro, I often had the pleasure of explaining why my wonderfully talented team, made up of professionals who have staked our careers, mortgages, and sometimes marriages on our continued success in this industry, knew what the hell we were talking about. On the other side, there were clients who had no clue what the hell they were talking about and yet felt qualified to tear our work apart.

I’ve tried being a jerk and refusing the make changes because “I’m the expert.” I’ve also tried completely caving and letting the client run the show, if only to demonstrate what a failure they would make in my shoes.

Here’s what I’ve learned: both of these suck.

As the client, you have the most at stake by the success of the project. You are invested in your organization and if you don’t raise the money, sell the widgets, or recruit the participants, you lose. You also know the most about your organization and an outsider may not understand the many dimensions of what you do. Your job is to arm them with this information so they can be effective (and so they’re not just guessing).

Build a strong enough relationship, and you won’t have to rule the project with an iron fist.

As the vendor, what you have at stake is your reputation, your career/mortgage/marriage, and of course, your happiness. You also have at stake future business which means offending a client may cost you work down the road. But as Tom Ahern certainly knows, results are what matter. If you’re incredible, you might be able to set rules like his Verbatim Rule and still get business aplenty.

But somewhere in between is the sweet spot where a talented and sympathetic vendor has educated the horribly over-worked and underpaid and ignorant client so that they understand why these things work. Through that process, the vendor has developed trust with the client. And when he says, “please just trust me on this one” the client does.

It turns out I’m not as great at this as I thought I was. But I’ve seen people who are great at the art of the client relationship, and these people cannot fail. When you make a mistake, the client lets it slide. Build a strong enough relationship, and you won’t have to rule the project with an iron fist.

1 Comment

  1. Ricky — February 16, 2012

    Good stuff. Thanks Chas.

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