The Art of Customer Management

I was reading a post by Jeremy Lichtman about Website Development where he raised an interesting point – he mentions the concept stage of development, where the initial idea is evaluated, and says:

It isn’t easy to tell a potential customer that their ideas are terrible, or to try and make them modify their concepts in order to allow them to work better online.
Part of that is that developers and designers are by nature creative people, and we don’t like raining on somebody’s parade.
Part of it is also the risk of losing a possible customer.

This triggered a brief discussion in the comments about how to learn the skills required for dealing with [potential] clients. It’s not something covered as part of a standard degree in Computer Science or the like. It’s not part of a certification in web development for most colleges. As a result, many would-be web developers working for themselves fall into one of the following two categories:

Customer Management Chart

Customer Management Chart

  1. They treat the client’s opinions and ideas like gold, and implement them regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea. While this is good for getting work, it’s not good for developing a business, as you end up spending too much time dealing with the whims of ill-informed clients. This prevents you from developing your business of building quality websites that fill real needs. In the end, your clients are not happy because the site doesn’t live up to their expectations (regardless of whether those expectations were reasonable) and you end up losing the client.
  2. You build what you like building, or what you think is a good idea, and if the client likes it, that’s great, and if not, they can go bother someone else. I don’t think this method needs much explanation as to why it’s a bad idea.

What’s needed here is to find a good balance between the two extremes, a sprinkle of tact, and some of your business experience.

Evaluate what your [potential] client is proposing, and try to figure out what the client is trying to achieve. Then confirm your guess with the client. For example, the client talks about creating a blog where every web developer in the world will spend all their time (not going to happen). But what the client really wants is a way to market their new product for web developers.

Now, rather than putting down the idea completely, gather some facts about what the client is trying to do, and what they’re trying to achieve. For example, you might collect some articles about how many web developers have A.D.D. or the fact that there are thousands of sites out there for developers, and the largest such site only has 200K members. Get some examples of how similar products are marketed (e.g. show Eclipse vs. Rational Application Developer for a Java IDE) and what their numbers look like. Try to gather as many quantifiable facts as you are able.

Next, present an alternative to the client, from the perspective of someone who understands what they are trying to achieve. “In order to market your software using various social media platforms, how about we run through some options, and what some companies which are similar to yours are doing.”

There, you’ve said it – what you’re trying to do (market software), there will be choices (some options), and where they came from (other companies). Now, outline the ideas clearly, and demonstrate the breadth and depth of your knowledge by having answers ready for common questions to each option. Don’t show off, just be knowledgeable, and if you don’t know, ask: “Can I get back to you on that?”

Knowledge is Precious

Knowledge is Precious

Not every client is reasonable, but then again, not every client is yours. The key here is not to attack their ideas, but to understand where they are coming from. Why did they choose you for the project? It’s because you know more than they do about how to do it. Share your expertise, use your special knowledge. Make sure your opinions are clearly delineated from the facts.

At the end of the day, you may be able to reason with your [potential] client and land a project that is a good idea, that’s well structured, and balanced.

Some [potential] clients will still insist on a bad idea, despite your feedback. However, you’ve already told them it’s a bad idea, just not in those words. You’ve outlined what they’re trying to do, and you got that right. You’ve outlined some real options that would reach that goal, and they’ve been turned down. What now?

Now you need to look at your business, and the impact accepting this client, and their bad idea, will have on the rest of your business. Will it help improve cash flow because it’s a short project (i.e. high profit margin for minimal resources)? Will this client refer you future business, thus making this a strategic move? Is this a client who has other projects with you, thereby putting pressure of losing other contracts?

Or will this project keep you busy, stressed out, and prevent you from pursuing better clients who will help your business reach its goals?

The answer to these questions will help you determine if you should be accepting or rejecting the bad idea. (Note that while you may refuse the project, treat the client with respect, and you may end up with a valuable connection as a result.)