The phrase “the customer is always right” was coined back in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London. In the many decades since, it has cemented itself as a mantra in the business mindset.
This is problematic because it’s based on a lie. The customer is NOT always right. And when the customer is wrong, nodding in agreement is a bad idea.
For Harry Selfridge, the worst result of indulging the customer, no matter what, was a badly dressed Londoner. But if I follow this approach, my client ends up with a business strategy that doesn’t work, online content that doesn’t produce any ROI, and a significant loss of money, time, and resources.
Selling a bad product isn’t great for business. Period.
But, let’s be honest about this – if you walk away from every complicated client relationship, you aren’t going to last long. So, what do you do when the client is wrong? How do you tell them “no” without losing the deal?
How you handle situations like this can make or break your long-term relationship with that client. With 20+ years of entrepreneurship under my belt, I have learned a few things. Here are 5 pearls of wisdom to help you say “no” tactfully – and hopefully navigate your way to a productive solution:
1. RESIST THE URGE TO TELL THE CLIENT THEY ARE WRONG
It can happen so fast. The client throws out a wonky idea and the words pop out of your mouth:
- “That won’t work.”
- “We can’t do it that way.”
- “That won’t fit in the budget/timeline/scope.”
Eek! Big mistake!
Here’s a universal truth: NO ONE enjoys being told they are wrong. No matter how benign your intentions, the client hears only criticism and their ego feels the sting of being called out. This moment plants seeds of discontent that can eventually poison your working relationship.
It can be hard – really hard – but when the client is wrong, you need to hold back that instinct to correct them. You need to take control of the situation. That becomes more difficult once you have behaved reactively. So, take a deep breath.
2. ACKNOWLEDGE THE CLIENT’S OPINIONS
We all want to be heard. Whether they are right or wrong, the client is sharing their thoughts and opinions with you, and your first reaction should be to acknowledge them. Try something like:
- “I hear what you’re saying.”
- “I understand where you’re coming from.”
- “That’s an interesting idea.”
Acknowledgement is not the same as agreement but it shows respect to the speaker and sets the stage for exploring other options. You can follow up your acknowledgement with a request:
- “Do you mind if I share a few alternative ideas?”
Now you are able to add new information into the conversation without correcting or discrediting the client’s input.
3. ASK PROBING QUESTIONS
There may be times when you truly can’t understand what is going on in the client’s head. In that kind of situation, the acknowledgement strategy I just described won’t work because you don’t get what they are saying, or know where they are coming from, or think it’s an interesting idea!
When the whole thing seems unintelligible, your first response should be to probe further. Figure out the intentions behind the stance they are taking:
- “What led you to this conclusion?”
- “Why do you want to go in this direction?”
Keep in mind that, no matter how off-track you think they are veering, their motivation is pure. They don’t want the project to fail. Even when the client is wrong, their intentions are good. They ultimately want a great product. They want to succeed.
Your objective in asking more questions is not to discredit them; it’s to gain a deeper understanding of their reasoning.
You may discover that they are working with a mistaken assumption. If this is the case, you now have an opportunity to provide more information and clarify things. You may also unearth worries or concerns that you didn’t know about, but can now address!
4. PRESS PAUSE
Sometimes, input from the client genuinely catches you off-guard. This is especially common when you are already knee-deep in a project and the client introduces new demands that may throw off budgets, timelines, or deliverables.
If you feel your temperature rising, the best strategy is to press pause. Buy some time to figure out how to proceed:
- “I’d like some time to consider this new idea/direction.”
- “This is interesting. Let me explore this idea a bit and get back to you.”
Try to get agreement from the client to give you a reasonable time to consider the new information, and hopefully come up with persuasive alternatives! Usually a day or two is acceptable.
5. KNOW WHEN TO MOVE ON
If you know, absolutely, that the client is wrong and that following their lead is going to compromise the quality of the product, you need to be prepared to say goodbye.
Ultimately, your reputation and success relies on making good products, and on having positive, productive relationships with clients. It is not in your best interests, or theirs, to continue arguing with them, or to give them what they want, no matter what.
It is important to remember that even if this project isn’t a good fit for you, the next one may be. And you never know where this client may turn up in your future. You want to breakup on good terms!
Don’t burn your bridges. Remain professional, polite, and respectful. And continue resisting the urge to tell them they are wrong. Instead, stick to general statements that don’t assign blame, like:
- “My approach/model/design does not seem to align with the direction you want to go in.”
- “I don’t think I am the best fit for this project.”
End the conversation on as positive a note as possible, preferably with your foot still in the door for future work.
Losing a deal is rough. But learning to accept occasional failures and move on is an important skill to master. And it will ultimately lead to greater opportunities.
WHEN THE CLIENT IS WRONG: CONCLUSION
If I had asked the public what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse – Henry Ford.
The client’s vision – what they want to do and how they want to do it – is obviously important. But you are presumably involved because you bring valuable insights and expertise to the table. Your end goal is to help them solve their problem, innovate, and succeed.
So when the client is wrong (and this happens), you do them a disservice if you simply acquiesce. But arguing with them can be destructive to your relationship.
When the client is wrong, you need to call on both your knowledge and your professionalism. Find a tactful way to navigate the situation – without compromising the quality of the end product or service they ultimately desire.
Challenging? Yes. Impossible. Definitely not!