By Brandon Eley

Don’t Give Clients What They Want

By Brandon Eley

Most of us would like to think we give clients what they want, right? The client comes to you with an idea for a website, landing page, application, or other project, and you do everything you can to deliver a product that meets or exceeds their expectations. But what happens when what the client “wants” is at odds with what the client needs?

Why Are You In Business?

We all need money to survive … but very few of us are driven solely by money. Most web professionals I know want to do great work – they want to help their clients succeed.

Most clients simply do not know what they need. They think they know, some may even insist that they know (which makes it all more difficult), but most clients – especially small to mid-sized ones – don’t dig deep enough to get to the root problem they are trying to solve. Some may not even think they have a problem to begin with.


Giving Clients What They Ask For

Think of a fictitious client who comes to you wanting a website. They come to you with a sitemap of pages they want, which includes a photo gallery, mission statement, and a beautiful splash page with animation. You know the website as they asked for it will not impact their bottom line (positively, anyway), but you simply quote to build the website as requested.

You win the bid, complete the project to its specifications/requirements, and the client is initially happy with the result. But then what you feared comes to fruition … the project isn’t a success. Despite you doing the best you could, the plan was flawed, and the website does nothing for the client’s business. It’s not your fault, but the client invariably blames you, the developer/designer, for the failure.

What’s the alternative? Propose what the client needs instead of what they want. Often this will mean several additional discovery sessions and more work understanding the scope of the project. But in the end, you will be able to help your client build a project that will be successful, and often times even the initial project will be much bigger. And since the project has a much better chance of success, you are much more likely to receive future business.

Giving Clients What They Need

Instead of giving clients exactly what they ask for, instead develop a process for determining what they truly need and propose a solution to their problems. This is more in-depth than simply providing a quote or proposal for what they initially asked for, but in my experience it is almost always more work in the long term, and has a much better chance of success.

The key to a successful project is in a thorough needs assessment. Without truly understanding the problem, how can you possibly propose a solution that will work? Below is a look at the process we use to determine needs and come up with a solution.

The Initial Interview

In the initial interview, clients often think they know what they need. We listen to them, but ask lots of probing questions during the process. If they are a new client, we also ask lots of questions about their business and industry to try and understand as much as possible about their overall business goals. We may have even done research on them and their industry before the meeting to be more prepared.

In addition to asking probing questions about the specifics of their website or application, we also ask high-level questions about the project, such as:

  • What is the overall goal?
  • How will we measure success? Visits, sales, leads, etc.
  • Who is your target audience/customer?
  • Who is your competition?
  • What makes your website, product, or service better than the competition? How can you prove that?
  • How will this website/application/etc help you achieve your overall business goals?

These are just a few of the questions we may ask. The answers to some of these questions will spark even more questions. It’s not uncommon for us to talk for two or three hours.

Determining The Real Problem

From research and conversations with the client, we often find that the website itself is not what the client wants. The client usually has a pain point, a deep problem, they want solved and they think (or hope) the website or application will solve it. They might need more sales, and they think the website will just magically bring in the business. Or they might be getting inundated with customer service issues and hope the website will alleviate some of that.

We have had clients come to us wanting a printed flyer to hand out to generate business, but they really needed a website and online marketing campaign to actually reach their target market. Determining the root problem allows you to craft an appropriate solution.

Propose a Solution

Before presenting the solution, be sure to first get the client to confirm the problem. We will typically say something like “from our conversations, we understand that one of your biggest challenges is customer support” or “we understand your main issue is reaching new customers”. When they confirm that, we then explain what we think they really need.

It’s important to note that we don’t necessarily criticize their ideas. People are very protective of their ideas, and they almost always think they are good. Instead, we simply use our research and industry data to show why our proposed solution might help them reach their goal faster or more efficiently.

You’d be surprised how many clients appreciate the work we put into this process, and are excited about working with us even when the overall project may be much larger or more expensive than they originally thought. When other competitors simply quote what they asked for, we went above and beyond by providing what we felt they needed.

  • Pam

    Great job presenting an idea that is hard to make clear. We use a similar approach to new projects or requests for estimates, and clients truly appreciate it. Our job is to provide a solution not design a few pages. But if we don’t know what the problem is, HOW can we possibly solve it?

    Often, we have found that a client does have pain-points and issues to solve, but did not realize that a website can help with them. That a website does not need to be only a digital brochure. Once they discover the true potential, you can visibly see their eyes light up. This is when we know we have done our job right.

  • Really, Brandon? I just put the final touches on an upcoming article called, “Give Your Customers What They Want.” Just so you know I didn’t write it as a rebuttal to this one …

    Seriously, though; your article is dead-on. The process you’ve describe here is what I loved best about being in the web business. It’s about being a consultant, and not just a web technician. Clients actually do get excited, even as you’re asking them to spend more money. That’s because they can see they’ll get more in return.

    My favorite was a client who wanted a website that “would no longer embarrass him.” His nephew had built his original site, but now he needed a more professional one. What’s “not being embarrassed” worth? A few hundred dollars? Once I showed him how a new site could mean a number of additional clients, he ended up spending 4 times more than he originally intended. For prospects with serious business goals they want to achieve, or serious problems they want solved, taking them through this process is a win for both the client and the developer.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more! Clients come to us for direction and the benefit of our knowedge for what works and is in their best interest. If a creative firm ever falls into the trap of providing only what a client asks for–without valuable direction and/or better ideas it has diminished into a glorified copy shop/printer.

  • Billy Stanley

    Quite often a client has a strong initial opinion of what they need. Overcoming a strong opinion built upon limited understanding is sometimes exhausting or even impossible. I’ve been fighting this battle for 15 years.

    Early on, I began to establish a process of “consultation” which would solve this problem and reveal the client’s true needs while simultaneously teaching them about my capabilities and the Internet as a whole. I now regard this as the most important part of Web development. From this common ground, we can build a strategy and prioritize it to fit their budget, however small.

    Still, sometimes a client simply won’t acknowledge 15 years of wisdom or they won’t afford the amount of consultation needed to get us both on the same page. In these cases, I am always tempted to just “give them what they want and take their money”. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, but when I do I always regret it.

    So, my personal rule is that, if I don’t agree with what they think they need, I should just let ’em go. It won’t benefit either of us to patronize them.

  • How can you stop clients from taking the new scope and having someone cheaper do the work?

    • Lee,

      There are a couple of ways to avoid this. First, I would never write a project plan before being hired. I know that’s against the grain of how we think: I can’t get hired without quoting a price, so I need a detailed project plan to do so. The problem is, you give away the farm.

      During preliminary talks, I gather just enough information in order to be able to prepare a quote. And if that information ends up being extremely detailed, I still would never hand that document over to the prospect without his commitment to do business with me.

      Another option, something we found to be successful, is to charge for a detailed project plan. We told the client that he is free to take it to any developer he wants (none did). If he hired us, we applied the cost to the price of the development. Using the architect vs. the builder as an analogy, most clients understood. I can’t recall a single one balking at our methodology.

      Hope that helps.

  • JayNL

    I never give my clients what they want. I just listen to their story and design what I know they’ll like. So far in my 6 years of web designer, I only had 3 designs not right the first time.

    Clients have a weird way of explaning they just want a Joe Average website :) I make SMB sites, which is a perfect niche for me :)

  • Great post! I agree that people are very protective about their ideas and sometimes one needs to walk delicately. Rather than criticize, which may put them on the defensive, I like to suggest that there are “opportunities for improvement”. With this approach, they are much more receptive and open to listen which will likely be to their benefit.

  • Rohit

    Agile/Iterative way of working also helps in addressing this challenge.

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