In Defense of Client Work

Q: “What’s the worst part about your job?”
A: “The clients.”

Q: “What’s the worst part about working with clients?”
A: “The clients.”

I could go on, but ask just about anyone who works in just about any industry and they’ll tell you the worst thing about their jobs is dealing with clients. Seems no one wants to work with clients today, especially the smaller ones. We stand in defense of client work.

This animosity toward clients is especially prevalent in the web design industry. People who work in client services, that is they must make clients happy, are often plotting an escape. A lot of designers and developers will do anything to develop apps, themes, or anything else that can be sold via a storefront as a commodity. Anything to get them off the whims of a single person or committee. We do that, too, but we’re so focused on the client side that we’ve barely stocked our store.

The same people that detest client work and shy away from it are the same people that will look at a restaurant website on a Friday night and say, “Ugh, why is this website so shitty?” They’ll never make the connection that if all the best people in the industry are working to avoid doing the hard work of making great websites for all the restaurants, car dealerships, beauty salons, veterinarians, and charities of the world, well, what do you expect?

We see this in a lot of industries. Doctors want to work in high trauma urban areas, or in special practices, or will sometimes gladly work with Doctors Without Borders. But few want to work in rural Indiana unless they’re from there. Even then that’s a tough sell sometimes.

Chefs want to work in high class restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, not necessarily at St. Elmo’s in Indianapolis.

Teachers want to reach those challenging students in struggling urban areas, or they want to work in comfortable suburbs.

Sure plenty of people work in the rural areas, in the “boring” sectors, but walk into any education or medical or technical school and ask if a student aspires to work in rural countrysides, or at a mid-tier restaurant in a second-tier city. I’ll eat my shirt if someone raises their hand.

But we all know that someone has to do these jobs. People in rural Indiana need medical care and teachers. People in Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne want really good high quality food just like people in New York and Chicago.

So it’s no surprise that a lot of web designers and developers dream of Silicon Valley and working on niche apps and websites and things that may be useful, but likely won’t make much of an impact. Some of them will and I hope they do. I’ll probably be users of their service.

But think about that. Tens of thousands of web designers and developers would rather work for months or years on a web app or theme or service that could fail miserably and never be seen by anyone than build a good website for a small nonprofit that’s been around for decades in their hometown.

Clients and Developers Working Together

It doesn’t have to be this way. It really doesn’t. A lot of the animosity developers have for clients comes from a few starting points:

  1. They don’t have particularly strong social skills;
  2. They don’t like the feedback they get from the client because they feel they’re wrong;

I assure you that somewhere in the bowels of Apple sat a team of people who thought the canvas textures in iOS were a bad idea but were trumped by Steve Jobs. Does that make him a bad client? I’ve had lousy clients and I’ve had lousy bosses (actually, just one lousy boss). The trick is to figure out why they’re saying or requesting what they’re saying. If it’s because they’re a busy body and wants to have their fingerprints all over it so it feels like it’s “theirs”, then get out. But if they just don’t like the shade of blue, what’s the big deal? You pick out a car and tell me how you feel if the dealer comes back and says, “We have the perfect car. It’s puke yellow. That’ll be $15,000.”

A person’s lack of ability to communicate and be friendly with people isn’t necessarily something a person can just remedy, but if your client is telling you something and it irritates you, remember this: the next time you go to your car mechanic and say, “It makes this funny thump thump noise”, you’re being a lousy client to that guy, too.

You don’t get to complain that clients break things or have stupid requests or can’t articulate things when you do the same thing to all sorts of other people. Your doctor tells you to work out and eat healthy, your mechanic tells you to change your oil and don’t drive so hazardously, and your CPA tells you to keep better financial records.

Noble Work

Doing “boring” or “unsexy” client work for small operations is as noble as teaching in an underserved school district or practicing medicine in an underserved community. Someone has to do these things. Everyone deserves great design and marketing at an affordable price.

I’m pretty proud of SuperPixel’s ability to do good work for small “boring” clients. Their work isn’t boring to them. I, for one, am happy and proud to work with those people and help them grow their operations.

What’s the old line from Don Draper in Mad Men? “We don’t need a big airline account. We’ll make Mohawk into a big airline.” Don respected the smaller regional client for what it was: a challenge, the underdog, a less interesting project that had good people doing good things that could become a big project.

That’s exactly where we want to stay.

About the author

Justin Harter