If you’ve ever worked in sales, you’ve probably heard the old adage, “The client is always right.” In my experience, the phrase is typically used to encourage employees to prioritize customer satisfaction above all else. The general idea is: you should treat customers as if they are always right, even if you know or suspect they are not. After all, it’s better to trust customers and treat them with respect than to be mean or disrespectful.
I’ve always hated this phrase – but not because I disagree with the principle of treating customers with trust and respect. I think that expressing disagreement with clients is treating them with trust and respect.
To Disagree or Not to Disagree
This comes up a lot at Word of Web when we’re working with clients to make creative decisions. In nearly every project, there is a moment when our team disagrees with a client’s opinion. For example, a client wants to go with Logo Option 1, but we think Option 2 will speak to their audience more. Or maybe a client wants their customers to book meetings through a calendar widget on their website, but we think a contact form would be better for conversions.
The first time this happened in the early days of Word of Web, I remember thinking, “Ok, the client is always right. Just go with it.” I bit my tongue and deferred to the client’s judgment, thinking that this is what I was supposed to do as a good web designer. But website data and customer feedback quickly showed that this was the wrong move.
Is A Disagreement Always a Negative?
Now, I see that disagreeing with clients is actually kinder than saying nothing at all. If you have an opinion – assuming that opinion is grounded in experience and/or data – you have a responsibility to share that opinion with your client. After all, you want them to succeed!
To be clear, I’m not advocating for arguing. The point isn’t to win, but rather to facilitate a productive dialogue where you understand where the client is coming from, they understand where you are coming from, and you reach a decision based on your discussion.
But enough with the conceptual side of things – how do you practice these ideas in real life? Whenever our team at Word of Web disagrees with a client, here is how we like to approach the conversation:
1. Understand The Client’s Reasoning
It’s important to understand how your client reached a particular conclusion. There might be a valid reason you didn’t consider (and that might even influence future creative decisions in the project). Alternatively, you could discover that they are operating on faulty assumptions. Try asking clients questions like:
– Can you walk me through your reasoning here?
– I want to make sure I’m looking at this the same way you are. Would you mind explaining your perspective?
– Can you tell me where you got that information?
2. Identify The Problem Or Desired Result, Not The Solution
One of the biggest traps we’ve seen people fall into is the trap of ‘solutioning’ – that is, identifying a solution before you’ve identified the problem or desired outcome. At Word of Web, we try to avoid this trap by following a form follows function approach. Meaning, we try not to make any creative decisions before understanding the intended outcome. Here are some questions that can help you get to the root of what the decision is about:
– What is the result you’re hoping to achieve with this solution?
– If this works how you expect it to, what do you think will be the outcome?
– From your perspective, what does success look like with this?
3. Determine The Importance Of The Problem Or Result
Sometimes, a decision point might not even be worth a disagreement. Say, for instance, you have a great idea for how to automate a client’s meeting scheduling workflow on their website, but the client prefers a more manual approach – it’s possible that the client just isn’t that bothered about the added workload. To determine the relative importance of a decision point, try asking:
– How important is that result to you?
– How much does this problem impact you day to day?
4. Assess The Client’s Willingness To Explore Options
If you determine that a particular result is really important to a client, and you think their way of achieving that result won’t be effective, ask them if they are willing to explore other methods with you. Most clients respond ‘yes,’ allowing you to bring other options to the table without seeming dismissive or pushy. Here are a few ways to ask this question:
– If there were another approach that might also achieve that result – or maybe even do so better – would you be open to hearing it?
– Would you mind if our team took some time to think this over and came back with a few other options? We want to make sure we’re on the best path!
5. Explore And Analyze Options
Now that you and the client have a better understanding of all the different variables involved in the decision, you can have a productive dialogue and assess your options more intelligently. We like to start by creating a ‘rubric’ of sorts that we use to grade each possible solution. For example, you and the client can agree that whatever solution you land on needs to do X, Y, and Z. This is a great way to make informed decisions without letting bias or gut instinct over-influence your judgment.
I know it feels uncomfortable to debate a client’s opinion, but they’ve hired you for your expertise, so that’s what they should get. The extra meeting or email thread is well worth the creative breakthroughs you’ll achieve. Best of luck with your productive disagreement!
Founder and Creative Director, Word of Web
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