Give Customers What They Want

Even if your customer is in the wrong, make them think they're in the right--your bottom line will thank you for it.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the July 2003 issue of Teen Startups. Subscribe »

(YoungBiz) - Claire Randall, now 17, started a home-based graphic design business in Galveston, Texas, when she was 12 after teaching herself to use the software and making her own business cards. After designing cards for several friends and then for a local seafood restaurant, Randall thought she had everything figured out. Then she made a mistake on a customer's order.

"I was working on a card for a gymnast," she recalls. "It was late and I didn't double-check the colors in the picture." When Randall delivered the order the next day, the gymnast took one look at the cards and started laughing. Why? The cartoon gymnast on the card appeared to be missing part of her leotard.

Fortunately, Randall says, the customer was a good sport, but it still taught her a valuable lesson. "Always review the final design with your customer before printing," Randall advises. And while it may sound like advice specific to graphic designers, taking the time to make sure you deliver what a customer wants is good advice any 'trep can use.

Wishy-Washy Customers
In Randall's case, the customer was definitely right. Rochelle Barros, 21, and Shelley Gumbs, 19, however, ran into a more difficult customer relations problem.

Barros and Gumbs, owners of Boston Urban Designers, create brochures, business cards, stationery, fliers and newsletters for their customers, one of whom, they say, was extremely vague when she placed the order. "She said, 'Do whatever you want,'" Gumbs says. "So there was nothing to go by."

Having free reign to do what you want might sound like a designer's dream, but it was actually a nightmare. Since the client didn't really know what she wanted, she kept making change after change and never really seemed to be satisfied with the design.

In this case, Barros and Gumbs say there's not much a business owner can do without risk of losing the customer. There are, however, ways to work around customer service problems like these:

Give yourself plenty of time. Negotiate with the customer to come up with a time frame for the job, and make sure you are comfortable with it. Then write it down so there won't be any misunderstandings down the road. Barros and Gumbs learned this the hard way when they accepted a job to create T-shirts for a New York youth organization. While their typical summer workday had been four hours long, "We had to work five or six hours a day for three weeks" to finish the project, Gumbs says.

Brainstorm with the customer. Customers may tell you to do whatever you want, but in many cases, they don't really mean it. Think about your least favorite color, for example. Now imagine giving your designers no instructions for the business cards you order, and they unknowingly come back with a design that uses the exact color you hate. Not the ideal situation. Graphic designers like Barros and Gumbs could keep design samples on hand (theirs and others) to show customers. They could also ask a few specific questions (like "What's your favorite color?"), and they'd be a lot closer to pleasing the customer with the end result.

Give your customers options. It may not be possible every time, but it's a good idea to present a couple of alternatives to a customer. And in most cases, it's not too difficult or time-consuming. Barros and Gumbs, for example, could start with a basic design for a business card, then show the customer several ways it could be varied by changing colors or fonts.

Disarming the Tough Customer What if a customer is just plain difficult? Anthony Aiello, 18, from Piscataway, New Jersey, is a salesperson in his family's hardware store and custom cabinetry shop. Aiello says he can spot a difficult customer a mile away just by their body language. Often, he says, their arms are folded or their hands are in their pockets, and the looks on their faces are less than pleasant.

Instead of running from a difficult customer, Aiello says, try simply talking to them. But, he cautions, "Don't ever argue with customers, even if you know they're wrong." If Aiello does happen to disagree with a customer, that's fine, he says. "I believe customers always have a right to their opinions."

So how do you convince a customer when you think they're making a wrong choice? Aiello has come up with a diplomatic approach that usually works for him. Go ahead and show them the option you think is the better one, and say something like "Here's another idea you might consider."

The most important thing to remember is that the customer deserves respect and fair treatment. "If you treat customers right," says Aiello, "they keep coming back to you again and again."

Next Step
  • Surveys show that 68 percent of the time when you lose a customer, it's because they don't feel you are interested in their needs. Find out more about what customers really want in Y&E magazine's "Customers Count."
  • Mark Csordos, author of Business Lessons For Young Entrepreneurs, lists some of the pitfalls of customer service in his article "Take a Lesson."

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