Clients, Customers, and The Color of Butter

Once in a while, I enjoy dipping my toe back in the waters of graphic design.  I usually restrict the activity to personal projects, but sometimes my personal weakness intervenes and I end up doing work for someone else.  It’s always for friends, so it’s not such a hardship, but it does remind me of some other unsavory experiences similar to this.

I once had a client go ballistic on me about the color of butter.  No, really.  The web design had a yellow background, or a yellow frame, or something like that.  She wanted it to be the color of butter, and I complied with my best estimation of the color “butter.”  She didn’t like it, and I tried to explain that “butter” wasn’t a very precise color, and every computer monitor and printer displays color somewhat differently.  The response I got was something like “I am a color professional, and I know what the color of butter is.”  Reacting out of my own wounded pride, I asked if, as a color professional, she could provide me with the Pantone, Hexadecimal, or RGB color value for “butter.”  Not the most tactful way to handle a client, but it felt good at the time.

I recently did some work where the initial instructions were essentially “be creative and let’s see what you come up with.”  Of course, when I finished the design, it completely missed their expectations and sent me back to square one.  Since it is a project done for a friend at no cost, there’s no real harm done, and I have plenty of leverage to take my time on the new design.  However, it reminded me once again that client work is not for everyone.

It wasn’t until recently that I made the mental distinction between clients and customers.  I knew the difference at an instinctual level, of course, and I have worked professionally for both clients and customers.  But, I had never considered the difference consciously.

Here’s the thing:
Clients control your products and services.
Customers consume your products and services.

I made this realization when I was gearing up to grow and develop a full-blown organizational consulting business.  I like consulting and I do it well, but I was faced with the prospect of taking any and all the clients I could find just to grow the business.  Something just didn’t feel right, and it kept nagging at me.  In the end, I realized that I didn’t want to work with just anyone with the money to pay me.  I want to work in a way that I can pour all of my creativity and passion into a project, without concern for how someone else will alter or react to the results.

Some people love clients.  They are able to dance on the line between personal control and compliance to the demands of others.  I’m glad they are out there.  They are inspired by feedback to reach higher and work harder.  They make magic from the demands of others.  That’s not me.  My own preference is to collaborate with a small group of passionate people all focused on the same spectacular results.  It doesn’t matter if we live to have clients or customers, as long as it is what is right for us.

“The customer is always right” is hogwash.  Customers deserve the very best service and products you have to offer, but they do not have the right to change your identity or your principles.  Apple doesn’t design their products based on what people demand.  Your accountant cannot (legally) “massage” your tax return in order to circumvent tax laws.  If you refuse to change because it would violate your principles or ideals, then any customer or client is free to go elsewhere.

Living authentically is giving the best that you have to offer from your truest self, and then standing behind the results.  That’s the best that you can do.  If it doesn’t match the desires and demands of stakeholders and clients, then perhaps that relationship is not the best fit and it’s time to consider something new.

Do you give your best results when you are in control, or when you are controlled by others?  Do you want customers or clients?

One thought on “Clients, Customers, and The Color of Butter

  • Abby

    Jay – Thanks for writing this. I’m in the middle of some design work where I think understanding the target audience as either client OR customer could make a real difference. I’m pretty sure I would never have made that distinction on my own. I appreciate the insight! 🙂 — Abby

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