Artemy Lebedev

§ 87. The customer is always wrong

March 25, 2002

He wants himself in the center of the canvas, of course. He is to be painted as Jupiter sitting on Olympus, with the clouds at his feet. At one side of him stands George Washington, in full regimentals, with his hand on the president's shoulder. An angel with outstretched wings hovers overhead, and is placing a laurel wreath on the president's head, crowning him—Queen of the May, I suppose. In the background is to be cannon, more angels and soldiers.

O. Henry. Cabbages and Kings

I feel like continuing the talk about clients and customers. Who is a client? Anyone who at least once in a lifetime walked out to buy some sausage may view himself as a client.

The relationship between service providers and service users is usually far from being simple. Let us make an arbitrary division of the world into providers and consumers (and be reminded that any person can be either of them, on and off).

The provider has self-esteem: “It’s all on the shop-front”. The client wants a detailed account of the sausage he takes interest in: the price, a not-for-everyone tip-off whispered in the ear (“This one is not good enough. Take that one—we had it for lunch, all folks found it nice. And cheap at that. ”)

The client wants the provider to accomplish his wishes and make his dreams come true. But in doing so, the client has his own ideas of what “the very thing” is. If the provider fails to reach that level—say didn’t care to cut off hangers from the sausage—the client will point it out to the provider or just go away to some other place.

If the provider has beat expectations by not only cutting off the hangers, not only wrapping up the sausage in the best paper available, not only estimating one pound by the eye, but also went to the length of telling the client that in line with the standards adopted by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, frankfurters, if unopened, can be stored in a refrigerator for 2 weeks, and for 7 days after being opened, while fresh sausage can be stored for 1–2 days, opened or not, after the completion of the processing operation,—then the customer thaws out. He understands that elsewhere he was treated worse than he could have been.

Sausage provider should be a know-all expert in his field. He’s got to have his own opinion and experience. If an ignorant customer comes to him, a conflict may ensue. There are two scenarios: either the old customer will learn new tricks, or he won’t.

First scenario
An ignorant client comes to a provider that’s ranked as the finest expert in the sausage business.

“Whaz up, bro. Gemme 5 bucks worth of hotdogs. And move your ass.”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but we don’t make hotdogs. I would wish to recommend you lap cheong boiled in German beer, sir.”
“Are you f… nuts, man? You got Meat&Sausages shop sign hanging out front, don’t you. Why the heck don’t you make goddamn hotdogs instead of this shit?”
“We produce and sell the most exquisite home-made gourmet sausages, sir. So you can’t find hotdogs here.”
“I f… pay you for what I want, man. Been eatin’ them hotdogs since I was in f… diapers. And I’m not gonna get the f… tricks you pull.”

And he goes never to be back again. Will the provider be fazed by the loss of this sort? Unlikely.

Second scenario
An ignorant customer comes to a provider that’s ranked as the finest expert in the sausage business.

“Would you please give me 5 bucks worth of hotdogs?”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but we don’t make hotdogs. I would wish to recommend you lap cheong boiled in German beer.”
“Man, what’s that?”
“That is the best thing we could possibly make, sir.”
“Alright, let me have some to try.”

If the client likes the product he’s bought, he will not just come back for more, but also trust the provider. He’ll try other products, get his taste refined and gradually evolve into a knowing (good) client.

But there’s another angle this situation can be regarded from.

Third scenario
A knowledgeable customer comes to a schlemiel of a provider that doesn’t dig that sausage business of his and makes sausages only because he’d be far worse in any other field.

“Good day, sir. Would you be so kind as to cut up one pound of cotechino for me, please?”
“We don’t have no that stuff.”
“How about ham then?”
“It’s all in the display counter, see?”
“And which supplier did you get these cocktail wieners from?”
“Man, take the thing or leave it. It’s all we have and don’t expect nothing else.”

The customer will unlikely buy anything. Or he will—for a pet. And he’ll never come back.

Fourth scenario
The most knowledgeable client comes to a provider that’s ranked as the finest expert in the sausage business.

“Good day, sir. Would you be so kind as to cut up a pound of cotechino for me, please?”
“Of course, sir. Would you like it precooked, boiled or fresh?”
“Fresh, of course. Is there the Jamaica or the California nutmeg in it?”
“Only the Jamaica, sir.”
“Why, do you recommend it? It used to be the California.”
“We concluded, sir, that the Jamaica nutmeg is more delicate.”
“Goody-goody. Will you get me half a pound of it for a start then? I’d like to try it first.”

This kind of client unfortunately isn’t born yet.

In ten years of my professional engagement I have met quite a variety of clients. There’s a queer belief widespread among designers that a client is sort of an enigmatic personality with unpredictable demands and the all-time funny pet phrase “add some red in here”.

Nothing of this is true. A client, as I’ve already said, can be anyone. If you have had to face misapprehension, rudeness, a poor quality job, then you must have gotten the hang of what the client knows and feels.

Professionals are generally scarce. In any business. Bad dentists, musicians, writers, cashiers, teachers are everywhere to be seen. Do you think there’s a fair lot of good designers against this background? There are few of them, if any.

In his turn, the client doesn’t have to be a professional in dealing with designers. He usually doesn’t care for nuts and bolts of visual culture. But he still has a story to tell about what he’s done in his business, otherwise he wouldn’t have had a good reason to come to a designer. Designer, as a rule, doesn’t care for nuts and bolts of visual culture either. He uses his computer as a typewriter and looks at the client as if he were a goblin.

When the customer asks the designer to depict the globe in a logo, designer does what he’s told out of fear of losing 50 bucks. If this were just an imagined situation, we wouldn’t get loads of logos with globes to hurt our eyes. It’s not that the metaphor of the planet is bad in itself. It’s just out of place with a company with a blinds hanging business.

A designer should have his own position and be able to justify it. It won’t help him become a good designer right away. But teach him to understand it will.

Searching for a job, a bad designer writes in his CV that he knows Photoshop, CorelDraw, Illustrator, 3DMax, Painter… A good one lets you get a glimpse of what he’s done. This is right because it doesn’t matter using what software and how exactly a god job was done. There’s no point in knowing the niceties of a tool with which you can’t make anything worthwhile.

The designer’s task is distracting the customer’s attention and doing a job in the meantime that will earn the customer an income (an income calculated in any reasonable way). A good designer is an illusionist. Distracting the customer’s attention with sound reasoning is half the business. He must also hit the point, one way or another. Whether the customer understands what’s been made for him is not the point: the point is getting the people the customer works with to understand that. Me and you are essentially the folks design is made for.

Of course, the customer is always wrong: he’s got some other business that needs to be taken care of.

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