Sunday, February 21, 2010

Telling Clients They're Wrong or More Right Answers?

At the end of last year, Ruth Seeley asked that I read an article by Sam Barnes that appeared in Smashing Magazine titled: How To Explain To Clients That They Are Wrong. She asked that I "take on this topic in 2010." Fair enough. If the title of the article were framed as a question, my short answer would be: "You don't!"

That said, I encourage you to read the article. You'll find references to the importance of objectivity and humility (which I agree with), and suggestions such as how one should "Establish Yourself As The Expert" (which I do not agree with). If your expertise in the client's mind isn't already established, then it's not likely to emerge positively during a dispute.

I agree with much of Barnes' advice, I just think he's talking about having the wrong conversation. The moment you sense you're about to be drawn into a positional negotiation with your client should be the precise instant when you reset the conversation. It's not about you being right and your client being wrong; it's about working together to reach the best possible solution(s) for the organization. There's a big difference.

When it comes to serving the organization, you and your client should work from the same side of the table. The "I'm right, you're wrong" conversation is unnecessarily personal and essentially irrelevant. Not to mention, prevailing in such an argument may result in the quintessential definition of winning the battle but losing the war. Whatever you do, don't take the bait! Your client is an ally with whom you may disagree, not your opponent.

I believe, of course, that despite your sharing the same organizational goals, you will disagree with your client as to how to achieve them from time to time. I delivered a presentation at Seton Hall University's Learning Leaders Symposium in 2008 called Truth to Power. It was originally aimed at providing truthful counsel to your CEO, but the same holds true for counseling clients: Here are my ten tips for speaking Truth to Client:
  1. Trust yourself. You have a great deal of value to bring to your client. Listen carefully to all perspectives and have the confidence to share your own.
  2. You owe it to your client to be heard. You're hired to draw from your expertise and bring your outside viewpoint to the conversation. Consider it your responsibility to share your professional judgment.
  3. Know your audience. Consider the best manner in which to frame and deliver your thoughts/ideas/concerns to ensure they are received favorably by the specific recipient.
  4. Be prepared with supporting data and anticipate questions. Come to the conversation with more than your self-proclaimed expertise. Be armed with data and be prepared to address perceived drawbacks.
  5. Make your case succinctly. Use your communication skills to state your thoughts succinctly and powerfully. Don't ramble.
  6. Advocate your case in the broader interest, not self interest. It's critical to the credibility and motives of your position that you're not perceived to be advocating a personal or agency agenda.
  7. Persuade (don't take ceremonial positions). If you believe in something strongly enough to mention it, then be sure to advocate it. You don't want to be the type who offers a thought in passing as a means of "personal/political cover."
  8. Be patient (let the information sink in). Once you've made your case, stop talking. Allow your client to process what you've said.
  9. Don't be afraid to share bad news. Understand that bad news or pitfalls are better coming from you now, than from the outside later on.
  10. Trust your client. Once you've been heard, the resulting course of action may be different from what you've advocated. Keep in mind that the client understands the information from which you are basing your recommendation, but you may not always be aware of all they know - and they are not always at liberty to share. Trust that the decision reached is in the best interest of the organization and join your client in moving forward.
I believe if you are working side-by-side with your client, it's never about who's right or wrong. Instead, it's about what renowned photographer Dewitt Jones regards as a mutual search for "more right answers."


  1. Thank you for following up on my suggestion that you write about this, Leo. One of the reasons I wanted to get your perspective on the issue is because I think that if you have agency background, you often end up in situations where you aren't able to choose your clients. The billable hours tyranny can lead to some awkward situations - and not all account anchors are created equal. If it's your misfortune to work on a team that's anchored by an order-taker rather than a true consultant, you're going to end up in many awkward situations.

    In the last few months though I've had a bit of an epiphany on the client service insight front, and have realized that if you end up in a situation where you have to tell a client s/he is wrong, it's probably a sign you're not working with the right client to begin with. And you're absolutely right - if the client is challenging you on your expertise, you've done something wrong at the outset and you probably shouldn't be working with them because you're not going to be able to help them achieve their goals.

  2. Ruth, thank you! I really appreciate your asking me to tackle this topic. Keep the suggestions coming!

  3. Awesome tips here Leo. I've found that having to tell clients that they're "wrong" is one of the hardest aspects of the client / agency relationship. It's a skill that takes a lot of finesse to execute without offending the client, or pushing the project off course.

    That said, it's something that MUST be done. How often have we all gotten the client request like "please make my logo bigger", that not only will not advance business goals, but may be detrimental to other areas of the project? After all, there's a reason why we're hired by client in the first place - we have expertise that they may lack. If you're not pushing back on client requests from time to time, I think your chances of project failure increase dramatically.

  4. good post!

    PR at Sunrise blog -

  5. Andrew and Colin, thanks for the kind words. I believe clients and agencies should challenge one another in an effort to produce better work. That way, when it's all said and done and can celebrate together!

  6. Andrew and Colin, thanks for the kind words. I believe clients and agencies should challenge one another in an effort to produce better work. That way, when it's all said and done, they can celebrate together!

  7. vikrantu@gmail.comMarch 2, 2010 at 5:09 AM

    Great stuff,your blog is very helpful in performing the task of client integration/services better.

  8. I appreciate the kind words and your question about strengths and weaknesses in my subsequent post. Thanks!



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