Why we shouldn’t give customers exactly what they want

- June 3, 2015 3 MIN READ

One of the worst mistakes you can make in business is to always give your customers exactly what they want.

It can be hard to resist, especially when you’re first starting out, but I believe this skill is what separates web developers, copywriters and architects from a cashier at a fast food joint (no offense to them, but you get my point).

Often, delivering exactly what’s been asked for will hurt your client’s bottom line and cost you business in the long run. So, paradoxically, learning how to not give your customers what they want and instead work out what your customer needs can be the key to turning a one-off transaction into a lifelong partnership.

Yes, the customer can be wrong

First, let’s be clear: customers come to us with needs, and they almost always try to express those needs as clearly as they can. Where they go wrong, however, is in asking for something so specific, it excludes other options they may not have considered.

Imagine you’re a freelance web designer, and a potential client has come to you asking for a basic  template-based website, with maybe a palette swap or some other superficial modifications. You know very well that this is a quick build, but you also know it isn’t what the customer needs.

If you take the job, bite your tongue and do as you’re told, you’ll get the job done in a week or two and the customer will (hopefully) pay you. Then, when the lackluster site you’ve built to order fails to stand out in the noisy social world, (as you knew it would), the client will decide that the website wasn’t a good investment and cut an expensive luxury – you – from the balance sheet.

Your expertise is what differentiates you

Picture yourself as a visual content specialist, and imagine that a prospect comes to you with a lot of data he wants synthesised into an engaging infographic. He even shows you an example of a competitor’s infographic that was published recently with much the same data.

How is doing what he asks going to help his business?

You know that simply copying what somebody else has done won’t make his company stand out, and you can probably offer a host of alternative ideas that would work better. Which type of professional designer will this client value more in the long term? The order taker who does what he’s told, or the craftsman who cares enough to educate his customers about their options?

Your expertise will be remembered, and eventually, valued

Let’s go back to the first example above – the one where the client wanted the cookie-cutter website. Suppose you had advised against this option and offered to build something from scratch that would really have stood out from the crowd. The customer may still have said no, but they sure would have remembered your advice when the site underperformed. And your name would be the first on the list for building a proper site later on.

In the second example, your willingness to urge against a simple copy/paste infographic not only shows you’re fully invested in the project, but that you have expertise the customer lacks. Your ideas could take the project in directions the client would never have thought of by themselves. That kind of innovation turns you from an expense to be minimised into an investment to be treasured.

And in both cases you’ve gone from being a simple service provider to a long-term, trusted partner.

It can be hard to say no to our customers sometimes, especially when they seem to know just what they want and are willing to pay for it. But, just as no responsible parent would serve doughnuts and ice cream for breakfast because a child asked for it, a responsible solopreneur has to know the difference between wants and needs. Our clients work with us because we know things they don’t. Speaking up when that’s the case is the surest way to show our customers we care.

Have you ever had a situation where you persuaded a customer away from what they were asking for, and it yielded a great result for them? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.