The Problem With Having To Educate Your Customers

John Locke wrote an article named “There are no Clients from Hell” referring to the popular site for freelancers – Clients From Hell. I’ve been following the site for some time and there are plenty of educational stories, both for freelancers and clients.

What John says in his post is:

This site encourages the idea that clients who make non-constructive requests or unreasonable demands deserve to be lambasted and mocked online. This reinforces the fallacy that the designer is always right, and that clients are better seen and not heard.

I find this false sense of smug superiority to be quite disgusting. Designers who ridicule your clients — are you ready for an uncomfortable truth?

dilbert.com
dilbert.com

It’s an interesting point of view really. In theory there should be that vetting process when you decide whether this would be a good working relationship. While it’s always good to start with something small at first and spend some time getting to know each other, it may not be possible. Especially if you’re running a distributed team or just work remotely with your clients, being unable to meet them in person.

The Other Perspective

I admit that there are some publications revealing the incompetence of a customer in a funny way, where customers have to be educated instead. And it’s normal – every niche has its own specifics, and only experts in the field know (almost) everything about it. It’s different on the outside.

For instance, not knowing the right name of a color, or asking for Comic Sans for their site, aren’t hilarious in the general business world. It’s a lack of understanding of the terms and the niche specifics, which is a different story than being unable to recognize some generic business concepts at all.

Business Vs. Niche

Business Etiquette for DummiesEvery niche/field has its own specifics. Processes, terms, best and worst practices and such. But there are tons of commonalities that are applicable for almost any business out there.

Let’s start with the basics.

  1. Each business relies on money, since we live in a world where rent, food and various goods are acquirable in exchange for cash
  2. Each product costs money. The main percentage of the cost is related to the cost of the product itself, or an extrapolation of the time for building it/acquiring it, plus some external costs for transportation, or other business-relevant expenses, and marketing efforts
  3. Each service requires a certain amount of time for completing a task/project
  4. Every business relationship depends on solid communication, defining clear requirements and respecting all parties involved in a project
  5. There are common laws in physics and biology that cannot be invented – at all, or at least with the entire common knowledge of the human population

We can continue listing the axioms for building any business, but these are some good foundations to start with. I sincerely doubt that there are 100% free services since people should live somewhere and eat, which requires a source of income that comes from somewhere. Even if there’s something that you can get for free, the entire business model is based on some revenue stream.

Let’s review some Clients From Hell examples that violate the axioms above.

CLIENT: (upon reviewing his site) Why didn’t you use any of my company pictures on here?

ME: Did you send me any pictures?

CLIENT: No. [source]

Not providing any clear requirements and deliverables required for the project makes it impossible to guess, or at least hardly probable.

I want you to divide this page into 3 identical sections, making the center one the largest. [source]

“Identical” and “larger” for undefined boxes don’t play together nicely.

ME: Here’s the presentation.

CLIENT: I like it!

Two months and five invoice reminders later:

CLIENT: I never really liked it. It’s not what I expected. It’s not worth the money. [source]

False expectations, lack of feedback and not paying on time are not the best example of a professional business relationship.

“I would love your friends and family rate, as this is coming straight from my pockets.”

— From someone who is hiring me for a professional service that benefits the small business they run. [source]

There are certain rates available for the general public. Trying to get a discount is usually an insulting request, especially when trying to make a living off something and devaluing the services of your partners/contractors at the same time.

CLIENT: We really, really, really need this done by 4:30.

ME: No problem. Once I get the feedback I’ll jump right on it.

Feedback doesn’t come in until 4:25.

ME: So, is the deadline pushed then?

CLIENT: Why would it be? [source]

When a service requires a certain amount of time, focus, iterations and at least a pinch of creativity, trying to force a process despite of your delay is hardly professional.

We would very much like it if you did the work for free, but if not, we can pay you $20. [source]

Asking a random contractor to do work for free is not something that you would like your clients to ask you to do either.

CLIENT: How long will the next round of changes take?

ME: I haven’t received the next round of changes.

CLIENT: Yes we wanted to know how long they would take before we gave them to you. [source]

Asking for an estimate of a completely unknown project is like asking for the price of a real estate, without defining any other parameters at all.

We need you to re-create eBay for us and we need it done by 5pm today. [source]

eBay’s market cap is around $71,000,000,000. Other than not providing any specific requirements of what should be recreated exactly, cloning a billion-dollar business in a few hours is hardly doable.

I’ve heard most of the quotes above myself, in different context. Without pointing fingers, I do believe that they all violate the general principles of a business communication, and these would be equally ridiculous and insulting in any other business environment outside of the IT world as well.

Business Consultancy

thomasaedison-10000-ways

Leaving the general business rules aside, there are niche-specific questions that are not obvious to most customers.

For example:

  • What is the average hourly rate for service X?
  • What is the average price of Y?
  • What does the process of building Z include?

There are some public numbers provided by different agencies that serve as an example. But there is lots of work happening behind the scenes that’s not transparent, or the end service includes a different set of things.

In the web development industry, there are a few things that a reasonable client would do, for example:

  • Spend a few days browsing the competition, ask peers for some numbers, check for some quotes or research some authoritative resources on pricing in the industry
  • Pick a company – based on browsing online, portfolio, or recommendations – and be prepared to pay as much as needed
  • Hire a business consultant or pay a given agency for a discovery meeting that narrows down the requirements and sets some rough estimate of the amount of work and the project cost

Unfortunately, business owners often skip that process and come with false expectations. They ask for numbers without requirements. They compare apples to oranges. They require enormous platforms for unrealistic time frames and budgets. At the end, they embarrass themselves and waste contractors’ time.

Asking for a custom rearrangement for your home usually involves an interior designer. Legal consultations with lawyers are usually charged by the hour, and involve other compensations when needed. Approaching a doctor for a medical procedure involves some tests and examinations, which is either paid by you, or by the country (again from your taxes), or both.

There are plenty of relevant examples around us that prove that point. Ignoring the global business rules for a certain niche does not make sense. Contractors and agencies should spend a lot of time on education.

Problems With Educating Your Customers

There is nothing wrong in educating your customers. It’s a normal part of a business relationship, and it usually leads to a successful project. However, setting the wrong example and violating various business rules is not healthy for anyone.

1. Education Costs Money

Educating a customer takes time. And defining the initial requirements may be a long process, that involves various iterations and going over the A and B in the IT world.

If you are looking for a professional solution, you need a certain level of understanding in that field. We have started a free email course for web development basics in order to cover those for our prospects and customers, since there’s a lot involved with building a website that they are not aware of.

So you should either spend months on educating yourself on everything, or pay a business consultant or an agency representative to go over every single bit of the project for you. It’s not free.

2. It’s Adding Up

A project requires a certain level of communication as the development goes, but with the large number of customers who believe that installing a WordPress with a premium theme makes a complete web solution, that communication is adding up. Big time.

If you are not aware of the general process, you can expect the price to go up. More calls, additional surprises for external costs and more back and forth is going to add up if you don’t invest in a proper training or consulting with an expert from the field.

3. Respect Isn’t Taught

People are impatient by default. They don’t like wasting time and they get nervous when they are not familiar with a given field.

However, respect is mandatory. If you expect to work with another professional, respecting their experience and portfolio is required if you want to build a great project. Trying to navigate the project yourself against the recommendations of your agency means that you’re either failing the rules of a business relationship, or work with the wrong contractor.

4. Your Current Solution May Be Broken

I wrote about the slippery slope of WordPress customizations, and Andy covered the 90% completion of most projects looking for extra help.

Building a professional solution requires a certain process and covering a long list of requirements in order to ensure the high quality on every level. The fact that you’ve used a few free solutions to build your Lego that does 90% of the work doesn’t mean that the other 10% are possible at all, or would be quick to accomplish. Way too often customizing an impossible combination of random plugins will be more expensive than starting from scratch the right way.

5. Experience Takes Forever To Gain

Installing WordPress is not development. It doesn’t rank you as the first result in Google either. It doesn’t automatically bring a large user base to your site at all.

All of those skills take years to learn and excel. And all of that education comes at a cost. If a certain task requires 5 hours to accomplish, it likely took an expert years to learn how to do it the right way so that it’s technically correct, doesn’t affect the high level of security or speed of the project, is designed beautifully and will increase the chance that your visitors would like you. If you are willing to spend many years on learning the ins and outs of the craft, that’s fine, but otherwise don’t question the experience of a reputable expert.

6. There Are Other Costs Involved

If you are looking for a complete solution, that doesn’t end up with setting up a site. That’s a lot of effort when it comes to clean design, usability, SEO, marketing efforts, and other services related to the hosting infrastructure, tools that automate your publications or posting, different analytics tools and tracking engines that monitor your servers, and so on.

7. It’s a Long-Term Commitment

Building a website requires a long-term commitment, often by both parties. An abandoned website does no good to your business.

For example, Amazon has over 800 internal teams working on different bits of the Amazon experience. Building a business takes time, requires maintenance, additional features, content, optimizations and what not for you to be on top of your niche.


It’s great that there are plenty of services that allow you to create a website online for free, or at a low cost. Don’t make the wrong assumption that this will automatically make your business successful. And don’t blame the Internet for not bringing any leads to your business if you haven’t invested enough in it.

5 thoughts on “The Problem With Having To Educate Your Customers

  1. I have given up trying to educate new customers. Usually, when you try to convince them that something should be done in a different way, they would think that you want to increase the price of the service and will become very suspicious and obstinate.
    Recently I had a client who wanted me to make some changes to a template of one of the new and free WP themes. I tried to reason with him that the way he wants things done is wrong and he will lose all changes when the theme is updated, and that instead he should be using a child theme. He told me that he has been USING WordPress for 8 years and what he asks has nothing to do with updates.
    What was even more laughable was that he demanded things to be done immediately for as little as USD 5.

    1. From my experience over the past 8 years as a freelancer and a business owner, there are different types of customers.

      There is the “cheap” kind that wants everything done ASAP, preferably at no cost. That’s the lowest tier clients looking for minor customizations or building a clone of Facebook for $200. I’ve tried to work with that group for some time, and it’s often impossible to argue with them since all they compare with is price. And there are always thousands of inexperienced freelancers who have no idea what they’re doing, but they’re bidding a few bucks or offer services on Fiverr for $5.

      However, there’s the higher end business owners who care about quality and standards. Their business is reputable since they pay attention to their work and deliverables, and they are aware of the consequences of a hacked website or a fragile server. Even if they’re not aware of these, they appreciate you as a consultant and take your opinion into account, and are often willing to invest more for quality services.

      Unfortunately, the majority of the customers are in the lower end, just as the majority of the service providers out there. Finding the right clients is hard, but it’s doable.

Your thoughts?