Clients are not what they used to be. While the idea of a client as someone who wants their needs met has not changed over decades or centuries, what has changed is how well clients understand their needs and, more importantly, communicate them. I recall a conversation with a colleague, quite some time ago, who wanted to expand his business interests and so opened a coffee shop in a busy CBD. One particular thing that frustrated him immensely was the way a company offering interior design solutions (design and fit out) was treating him as the client. In the words of my colleague, he was made to feel as if he had nothing to offer in terms of his own ideas regarding the look and feel of his shop.
The fact is that the owner understood that his business should look smart enough to attract customers and for that he needed the help of professional designers. But he also wanted to weave his own ideas into the place. He wanted to be more than a client who was paying for a service. He wanted to collaborate, even if just a little bit.
These kinds of examples are not rare. How well we understand that clients are also a type of collaborator is an entirely different story. Everyone gets to experience being a client. And if we start from there, we can quickly realise that clients are far more satisfied with a service when they are able to contribute to solutions. Admittedly, that is easier said than done. But it is a reality we can’t get around. Narrowing the idea of ‘client’ as someone who is simply there to pay for a service/product does not augur well for the future of a business. People feel better about paying for services when they are engaged, when their ideas are also validated; when their knowledge, however small, is considered and integrated into the final outcome.
It is worth acknowledging that some industries are quicker than others in adapting to the idea that a client can be value-adding collaborator. Some industries may be better suited to explore such options and make it work in their favour. However, it should also be noted that it is not always practical to heed a client’s input into the process. But that in itself is not the point. The point is that if we value the client as a collaborator, we can design our approach in such a way that maximises the options available to a specific client. Seeing a client as a collaborator is largely about having the right mindset. It is about understanding that while clients may not always know precisely what they need, they can inform the solution if they feel they are collaborating on it.
The essence of collaboration is that it allows all parties to add value to an output. Any time we seek to produce something, the key is to strive for the best possible solution. That approach opens up possibilities that go beyond the divide where on one side we have a provider, and on the other, a paying client. The interests of the client and the agency that is hired to provide a service align in the very solution they agree to design. Suffice to say, the coffee shop owner who felt his own needs as a client wanting to collaborate went on to expand his business ventures. He learned a lesson which he used when he sought out agencies for future services.