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The customer is always clueless (but so are we)

How to avoid succumbing to 'the customer’s always right' and produce great, creative work
Rough customer 2 (Rough Customer 2 image via Shutterstock)
Rough customer 2 (Rough Customer 2 image via Shutterstock)

This goes out to all my comrades in the creative commercial arts: The web designers, writers, animators, typographers, voiceover artists, photographers and all the rest who produce the world’s websites, ads, brochures, books, videos and every other permutation of the “content delivery platform.”

Friends, I feel your pain. It oozes through every project we work on, specifically on the Day of the Deliverable.

I don’t care how good you think you are, how much experience you have, or what your portfolio’s got in it. When your job is to design, it means that naturally there’s a paying client to whom you’re going to present it. On The Day, you’re waiting with baited breath to be judged. And this customer, well, he’s got an opinion. Nay, not an empirical, logical, scientific analysis, but an incredibly and unapologetically subjective gut feeling based on… well, what, exactly?

Let’s say, for example, we’re talking about a music track you’ve chosen for a promotional product video: that combination of melody and the rhythm that subtly, but undoubtedly, set the tone. We generally don’t really notice it as a separate element, but it’s there, and it matters. The right clip can take hours to search for, identify, try out, debate, replace, and finally settle on. So let’s assume you’ve done that work and you’re happy.

So now you’re showing an initial draft of the video, complete with your music selection, to the client: a team of three executives. Moti grew up in a house where he listened to and played classical music, can discern Soler from Saleiri, and regards pop music as trash. Sitting next to him is Lila — grew up in the 80s, idolized her sisters with their purple hair and stud-riddled faces, and hung out at clubs and concerts, exposed to nothing but punk rock. Finally, we’ve got Marty. He’s the guy with the perfect hair, Type-A desk with never more than four items on it, and sings in an a cappella group, blissfully yodeling mostly Elton John ballads.

So what kind of feedback is the Cultural Chaos Crew going to give you for your music track? And even if you let them fight it out and give you the results (I strongly advocate that particular approach), how confident are you that their opinions reflect, well, anything about their real-world audience?

And let’s not ignore the toughest part — you’ve got your own cultural background, opinions, audio comfort zones and turn-offs, and it’s all, you believe, based on a lot more experience and experimentation than these guys will ever see.

(Before I go on, I’ve got to share these two hysterical videos that highlight the general issue. There’s one about voiceovers and an even funnier one about design.)

Maybe you take the easy approach: Harry Gordon Selfridge’s famous “The customer’s always right”. I can hear my creative brethren laughing nervously. Or contemptuously. Or maybe that’s a snarl. Because if you’ve got any self-esteem or professional pride, and you actually live by that little dictum and give in at the drop of hat, you know exactly what you are — a sell-out art whore with a plastic soul. I wouldn’t hire you because we’d need to buy you a special chair so you could sit there without a spine.

Alas, I wish after thousands of “hang up the phone and sigh” interactions like this over the years, that I had the solution. I don’t. I mean, naturally, we all need to struggle to find a middle ground that we and the client can accept: perhaps an unfortunate piece of Muzak, a photo that looks like a stock image, or a ridiculous paragraph that doesn’t quite raise an eyebrow but certainly lines up the words cleanly and unobtrusively.

Still sounds bad.

But if you think about it, this can be a good thing. A challenge… the good kind. Because just as we’ve got a different life story for each of our trio above, and thus a more or less random set of feedback points, the audience is often that varied as well… and much more than you think. So when the client says, “I want an image that’s bold and edgy,” you can remind him that the unadventurous, conservative segments of the population won’t respond to that. “Our audience is actually conservative CFOs” is pretty common, as is my standard response: I know CFOs who would die to wear jeans to work,  make their own beer and listen to the Rolling Stones. Your “single mom” demographic? They can be fiercely independent… or pathetic pushovers. College students: party animals. Or nerds. You get the idea.

Are we all doomed to mediocrity aimed at the masses, earning a bland smile and maybe a .7% response rate on “Learn More!” button clicks from the lowest common denominator? Perhaps. Surveys and demographic studies help steer us, but personal perspective (ours and the client’s) will always play too much of a role to escape. But the solution can’t be to blindly follow the surveys or the CEOs…

Instead of compromising and aiming for gray and shapeless, we can try instead to create something so great it leaps gracefully over the walls of predispositions and prejudices, sprints past the obstacles of sneers or grumbles, and finds its way to the adoring masses who simply… know it when they see it. It’s as unscientific as it gets, but that’s where we artsy types find our greatest victories.

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About the Author
Jay is the CEO of RapidFire Consulting, helping Israeli companies "tell their story" - figuring out what to say and to whom - through Explainer videos and the other dozen modes of web messaging.
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