The Customer Is Not Always Right

4 min read

When did the marketing industry create this culture in which the most important thing is to please the client?

I know that even asking the question makes me seem hopelessly naive–possibly a little dim. Marketing is a service industry, and clients are its lifeblood. If your customers aren’t happy, they’re not going to come back for more. Providing great customer service is paramount to success.

Consider Nordstrom, a retailer that’s often held up as a model of great customer service. Shouldn’t every business have people who work just as hard at pleasing their customers as Nordstrom does? Don’t customers like doctors who provide convenient hours and treat them with respect better than doctors who don’t? Isn’t there some equivalency for ad agencies?

Yes. Of course. But these examples aren’t really parallel. And “great customer service” is not the same thing as “pleasing the client.”

To be most successful, Nordstrom needs you to come back more than once. Nordstrom wants you to think of them whenever you need shoes or perfume or a party frock. Going to great lengths to make your shopping experience easy and pleasant makes perfect sense for them.

But you wouldn’t shop at Nordstrom for long if their clothing fit you terribly and made you look silly–especially if your Nordstrom associate told you it fit you perfectly and made you look smashing. Similarly, you wouldn’t keep going to a doctor who had great office hours and the best coffee in town–and misdiagnosed you at every appointment. In some ways, great customer service is a bonus; you wouldn’t shop at Nordstrom in the first place if they didn’t have great clothes, and you’d never seek out a terrible doctor for the quality of magazines in the lobby.

Yet, lots of advertising agents act as if pleasing clients is absolutely the most important part of their jobs. “Don’t disappoint the client” is their mantra.

I cry foul. Just as a doctor has to be responsible for appropriate diagnosis and treatment, even if it means disappointing–even devastating–the patient with bad news, so a marketing firm has to be responsible for sizing up the opportunity and developing strategies and tactics that will help the client succeed–even if it means telling the client that its product is crappy and its approach to marketing has been all wrong.

I think most marketing firms are willing to do this. Where they often break down is in the day-to-day delivery of service to clients and in the actual execution of the plan. This is where “pleasing the client” turns into “doing whatever the client tells us to do, even if it’s the wrong thing.”

I once had a client who hated the color orange. I once had a client who hated Norman Rockwell, even though a Rockwellesque visual approach to his advertising was both attractive and effective. I once had a client who insisted on developing an “original” piece of music that was a note-for-note rip-off of a popular song.

At a certain point, these clients should be told, “It doesn’t matter what you like. I don’t have to sell your product to you. I have to sell it to your customers. If orange is the right color to use, we should use it–even if it gives you the shivers.”

But even this is not my real issue. I have a greater problem with the ongoing sycophancy of many agency-client relationships that foster and encourage clients to become tyrants who walk all over the people they’ve hired to help solve their problems. And so they provide incomplete direction. Make ill-considered copy changes. Demand arbitrary deadlines. Indulge in last-minute reversals. All because the agency’s position is, “we must please the client at all cost.”

No, we don’t. We must provide great counsel. We have to be honest about our clients’ chances for success. We have to execute our plans with creativity and intelligence. We have to be the best advisors we can be. But we shouldn’t encourage clients to change our work just because they can. We should have a little integrity ourselves. We’re professionals.

Clients should never put up with bad advice. Clients should always insist on changes when the agency has it wrong–not just the big things, but the fine points, as well. Clients shouldn’t put up with advertising prima donnas who think they’re doing art.

And we have to be responsive and sensitive to our clients’ needs–even their whims and their quirks. Goodness knows, we have them, too, in spades. But we have to be very careful to avoid creating a toxic environment in which we’re afraid of our clients, so we acquiesce to every question or demand, no matter how unreasonable or wrong-headed.

After all, you shop at Nordstrom mostly because you like the clothes. You choose your doctor because you trust him or her to help you stay well or beat a disease. You choose a marketing firm because they’re experts who can help your company succeed–not because you want a flunky to do your bidding.

Is pleasing your client important? Yes. Is it more important than providing sound advice, even when it’s not what the client wants to hear? Of course not. Great client-agency relationships are about respect and trust–not blind subservience.