Clients are always right…

If you are a business, big or small, you have clients. You might call them customers (or other names when they aren’t around), but they are the basis of your business. For my capstone project, we have one client. They are a very small business (micro-business) and luckily have only 2 people directly involved with the project. They know how their system works (or doesn’t) for their needs, and for the most part they have an idea what they want the new system to do for them. But that’s it.

Now comes the fun part. You don’t know what your client wants. And even when you think you know, you don’t truly know. If you can internalise this and always start with that assumption, you are heading in the right direction. If you are lucky, they have given you a document that states deliverables and maybe even some sketches of what the UI or even the data structure might look like. But most times it doesn’t work that way. You will sit in a meeting, and the clients will describe what they do and how their current tool lets them down. There will be some hands waving in the air and they might try to draw some pictures. But in the end, you must interpret their deepest needs and desires and figure out how to translate that into something you and the development team can work with. Soon you will think you have got a handle on it, will make some explanatory document, and maybe a few pretty diagrams. You will even extend it and add some features you think they need but they forgot to ask for.

Then comes the time to circle back with the client. You whip out your nicely formatted document that you put a lot of heart and soul into, just to watch them uncomfortably shift in their chairs and maybe whisper to each other. At that moment, your heart begins to sink, realising you did not hit the nail on the head. The client is wondering if they made a mistake selecting you, and you are wondering where you got misaligned. But that’s OK. This is a very important loop you are in. It is the first time for you to get feedback based on what is usually a very loose set of customer requirements. What is key at this stage is your ability to get the customer talking again. Get them to show you where you went astray and also what IS correct. And you must figure out how to swallow your pride and ask some good clarifying questions.

You may also have to (gasp) do some customer education. This is a really important skill in client relationship management. It might be that you made some assumptions because of your knowledge on how the system is limited. So you have to translate all your deep tech jargon into real words and meaningful examples / anecdotes. But the key is you have to relate to the customer’s perspective. They might know something about the new system, or nothing at all. But you need to become one with your customer and figure that out. And you have to do it without alienating, or sounding condescending and pompous.

Personally I enjoy the education portion. Because the education is actually going both ways. I am learning about their business and their individual needs. And at the same time I am able to pass some insight along about what I know. This exchange helps cement a relationship where both parties can mutually share information and know it is a safe non-judgemental environment.

Not every client relationship is like this. But hopefully you will get to experience it soon. Even if your client is within your same company. Always remember they are the client and they are always right. Because without them, you do not exist.

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