Client Relations: Should You Give Customers What They Want or What They Need?

Dear Copy Bitch: I’d like your take on something. Lately, I’ve been dealing with clients who want to go in directions with their copy and marketing that I don’t think are in their company’s best interests. So what should I do? Take their money and do what they want? Or say no and walk away? I mean if I were in the business of building houses, and a client wanted a bay window, but I didn’t think it would work where they wanted it, well…I don’t have to live in the house, do I? So what say you, Madame Copy Bitch?

–Ed, Boston

Answer: Before you don your mercenary or martyr hat, consider another option: it’s called honest vendor.

I don’t always agree with my clients’ decisions. But that’s okay. I don’t need to as long as 1) I’ve spoken up and given my reasoning for The Other Side and 2) they listened to–and considered–my reasoning.

So, to get back to your specific question, my answer is no. You shouldn’t simply give customers what they want, at least not when it comes to copywriting and marketing advice. Nor should you ignore their desires and do what you think is right.

Here’s what you should do:

  1. Listen to their wants. Let them have the floor and talk.
  2. Ask questions. Dig deeper. When a client says, “I want to create a social media plan for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and a blog” he or she might be saying, “I really need to get on board with all this social media stuff because everyone else is,” or he/she might be saying, “I really need more sales and this is the way, I’ve heard.”
  3. Once you understand what’s motivating these “wants,” you can then make suggestions about what they really need in order to fulfill these desires.
  4. Keep in mind that your suggestions aren’t enough. Despite the fact they’ve hired you for your expertise, you’re just one more person in a sea of well-meaning people telling them what they need to do. I always arm myself with hard evidence, like articles by respected industry experts that supports whatever I’m recommending (I don’t make recommendations based on hunches either. I have my hunch and then I research to see if my hunch is right).
  5. Don’t overwhelm the client with too much info. Give him or her enough to gnaw on. And give the person time to digest the info.
  6. Then, let it go. It’s out of your hands. At the end of the day, the client gets the final say.

Here’s when I do what the clients wants, even if I don’t think it’s what the client needs:

  • If the particular task, in all fairness, could “go either way” in terms of results
  • If it’s simply a marketing/business decision that the client has thought about (I realize I’m not always going to agree…at some point, I need to respect my client’s need to run his or her own business and make decisions–and potential mistakes–as a result)

Here’s when I’ll walk away:

  • If the client has asked me to do something unethical (e.g. spam a list that hasn’t opted in) or, obviously, illegal (no amount of money is worth this)
  • If the client’s tactics make me feel uncomfortable, for whatever reason (listen to your gut)
  • If the client never, ever listens to my recommendations. I walk because I don’t see the point in continuing a relationship with someone who doesn’t value my expertise and recommendations. It makes me wonder why he or she is paying me to begin with.

How ’bout you, dear readers. How do you handle this scenario?