For Designers, the Customer is Never Right (Even When They Are)

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The adage “The Customer Is Always Right” has been so deeply ingrained in us that going against the principle can feel near impossible. Even as children, long before the issue gained any real-world application, we were learning this little mantra. No matter what, you have to make the customer happy. What better way than to validate their every whim from the moment they walk in the door?

Customer Is NEVER Right

Every designer has to break this chain of thought eventually. The longer you work in the field, especially as a freelancer or small business owner, the more you come to see that the customer is never right. In fact, even when they are technically right, they are still wrong. Because whatever good point they manage to bring into the plans for a project, and whatever details they pass along, they still hired you. Something they presumably did because they lack the talent, knowledge or expertise to take on the work themselves.

This creates an interesting paradox in the design field: the more input a customer provides, the less helpful they are going to be. Here are the four primary reasons you should banish the “Customer Is Always Right” rule, backed by the depressingly accurate posts of Clients From Hell.

They Don’t Know What They Want

They Don't Know What They Want

The first time a client tells you to just do what you think is best is like hearing a choir of angels singing your soul to sleep. After the last several dozen overbearing customers with exact specifications that rarely makes sense, finally you have the chance to show off your skills and work freely!

Go ahead and just feel that sense of crushing disappointment right now, save yourself the time later on. There is next to zero chance that they are actually going to allow this to happen. More likely, you will come up with a mockup, and they will immediately start giving you a list of “little changes.” You see, they had an idea after all, they had just opted not to share it with you. And you didn’t read their mind, so you had no idea.

Alternatively, maybe they did share an idea about what they want. They might have had a very specific idea of what they want. It was probably terrible, or flat-out impossible. In which case, they might as well have no idea, but unfortunately think that they do. That makes the task of convincing them otherwise a headache that will last from the first day on the project to the very last.

They Don’t Know How To Explain What They Want

They Don't Know How To Explain What They Want

Bringing up again those clients who have an “Idea(TM),” they very well might have something good knocking around that noggin. Maybe the image in their head is incredible. Perhaps their website/logo/pamphlet could have been the Sistine Chapel of the design world. And you could have been the artist behind it, the creator of a magnificent piece of art that would dominate even the most jaded XX Best Design compilation lists.

It doesn’t matter; you will probably never find out exactly what the idea was. Because no client is ever capable of properly explaining the visual behind the concept. This isn’t really their fault. Even we as designers sometimes struggle to verbally break down the components of a project. Which is why we create mock-ups in the first place.

Unfortunately, trying to be charitable becomes much more difficult the fortieth time a change request is made featuring the words, “I just feel like it isn’t quite red-red, enough … you know?”

They Don’t Pay Attention To The Details

They Don't Pay Attention To The Details

Quite often, customers think they can delegate the entire task of the design to you. Which is more or less the case. But one area where we have to have their input is when it comes time to approve certain steps.

More than once, I have had a client approve an element of a design, even sing its praises. Only to have them come back when I give them the final results with complaints about those same elements. It is one of the most frustrating occurrences in the world.

So far, one of the best ways I have found to make sure it doesn’t happen is just to assume that every customer has completely ignored the details. Then I can give subtle nudges to make sure they are 100 percent happy with each step. Asking about specific things they like and dislike can be helpful, but not bulletproof. You would be amazed by how well they can occasionally fake it.

They Don’t Appreciate The Effort and Time a Project Takes

They Don't Appreciate The Effort and Time a Project Takes

“It shouldn’t take more than an hour.”

Did the hairs on the back of your neck just stand on end? Every designer has heard it, and every designer has learned to loathe it. The task never takes an hour, and it is never super simple. Yet, customers expect you to be able to complete them in the blink of an eye, with no effort on your part.

The problem is that they have no concept of what goes in to every single piece of the final product. You might as well sneeze their website into existence, as far as they are concerned. Which is why you have to keep them informed every step of the way of how long certain revisions are going to take…and make sure they are clear on the fact that you won’t be doing it for free. After all, if they are so positive that it is super easy and will only take seconds, they can do it themselves, right?

Giving Customers The Brush Off … Politely

There is no magic combination of words that will cancel out the four above issues. In the end you just have to be polite, but firm. Tell them your policies (and have those policies decided beforehand, so there is no confusion), and don’t accept anything else.

Knowing when to fire a client is important. There are certain red flags you can’t ignore. Hopefully, you will just have to give them a talking to once to work out any kinks, and that unpleasant process won’t be necessary.

If they bring up the “Customer Is Always Right” rule? Just calmly tell them that it is one rule that never applies to designers.

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5 Comments
  1. Mustapha Othman Sep 11, 11:53 am

    Yes i agree with you, You totally covered everything i faced with my customers

  2. Holly Sep 11, 2:43 pm

    Totally agree!

  3. chris Sep 11, 2:59 pm

    Designers are rarely right. Successes are the exception not the rule.

  4. Jon Sep 20, 12:15 am

    You really have that low an opinion of your users? Wow. Remember, they’re coming to you because they want your help, not your snark. Dealing with ignorant users is part of the job, whether you’re working on your own or for somebody else. Learn how to do it right, and you’ll save yourself a lot of stress. Some of my rules for dealing with users:

    * Users are not the enemy.

    * If you have a user, you have a development team: you and them.

    * If you don’t know what the user wants, ask. If the user doesn’t know what they want, help them figure it out. It will probably take less time than you think, and they’ll probably be happier with the final product.

  5. Speider Schneider Sep 29, 4:27 am

    I have to echo Jon’s sentiments. As the professional, to whom the client looks for a solution under your specialty (design, writing, photography, etc.), it is dependent upon you to draw the right information from the client to create a solution for their project. In design, it’s called a “creative brief” and it outlines everything needed to create a design that fulfills not only the solution, but also to fit with the clients brand.

    It’s true that there are clients that will either say “just do what you do best” (and then cringe at the finished product as they pictured something different in their head), or they sputter, “I’ll know what I like when I see it!” (which means you have to inform them you’re not psychic and multiple changes to find the mystery of the universe in the client’s head will cost him/her much more than they budgeted for).

    A plumber, for instance, would listen to where a client wanted their tub, toilet and sink located and then inform the client why it should be in other places in the room—if the client’s wishes are unrealistic. Funny how a client wouldn’t look at a finished bathroom and ask for complete changes, thinking it would be free—but with creative projects—not so much!

    This is not to say Mr. Feltus is wrong in his article—there are maniac clients out there and, judging by clientsfromhell.net, as well as the plethora of articles, tweets, and blogs about horrid clients, they are in the majority. Freelancers who wish to win over the better clients should not only learn how to spot a client who doesn’t know how to work on a creative project, but how to educate them to become a great client who “gets it” and respects the role of the freelancer. It’s easier to create a better client than trying to find one of the few.

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