Last week, I had the honor of speaking at Pressnomics 3. I closed the day on Thursday and gave my 10 rules for managing client expectations. After I explained the 10 rules, the infamous Chris Lema joined me on stage and we did some role playing to show how to put the rules to work. There was a reception immediately following my session and several people told me that they got something out of my talk.

I was so thrilled to hear other people’s client experiences that were similar to my own. There was no shortage of sharing and this is why I attend conferences like Pressnomics. I truly value the opinions of others and I am always open to learning from the experiences of my peers. However, some of the most interesting opportunities to learn from others come from those who disagree with me the most.

Enter Sean Tierney

Sean Tierney was the third speaker of the day. I listened to his presentation and enjoyed it. It was unfortunate that he ran short on time – I wanted to hear the rest. Sean also took notes during other presentations, which you can find here. As you can see, Sean didn’t care much for my presentation:

Steve Zehngut
10 rules for managing client expectations
  1. client is always right even when they’re wrong <-  (could not disagree more – fire these clients and be honest)
  2. don’t use email, use skype
  3. don’t react. write the email while you’re pissed off and then delete (have done this before)
  4. ——stopping here— this advice is horrible. speaker encouraging consultants to take shit from clients. awful.
this talk hurt my head…. cannot endorse any of this consulting advice. the logic that “your clients are paying you therefore they are right” is simply insane.
During my session, he tweeted twice. Apparently, I touched a nerve…

My Explanation

I carefully chose my words for Rule #1. “The client is always right (even when they’re wrong.)” I am fully aware that words like “always” can be polarizing. Good. That is by design.

This slide appeared on the screen behind me as I read it to the audience. Then, I asked for a show of hands: who agrees with this rule? About 5% of the room raised their hand. This caught me by surprise, and my good friend Jon Brown commented later that I was noticeably taken aback by this.

I went on to explain my reasoning. This rule is about changing your frame of reference. If you think of your clients as wrong or dumb or lesser than you then your communication them will always seem insincere, no matter what words are coming out of your mouth. If you tell yourself that your clients are right, your attitude will shift for the better.

A recurring problem I’ve seen in my 20 years in this industry stems from this notion: “My client hired me for my technical expertise.” When a client makes a request that doesn’t make technical sense, I find that technologists focus solely on the request itself.

I recommend that my peers shift their thinking and ask questions to understand the business reason behind the request. The client is making the request for a reason, and that reason is always right for their business. While it is true that my clients hire me for my technical expertise, they understand their business better than I ever will. By recognizing this, we become better partners.

Sean believes I encouraged my peers to take shit from clients. This could not be further from the truth. I am not a doormat, and I would never advise anyone to roll over. But I do feel that it is my job to find a way to make my client right. Always. And I can do this while still maintaining a relationship that is fair to me and to my team.

An Invitation to Discuss

I surround myself with people who are not afraid to speak their mind. (Hey, I hang around with the likes of Chris Lema, Karim Marucchi and Rebecca Gill.) While Sean and I might not see eye-to-eye on this, he is entitled to his opinion.

Do you disagree with me? Would you be willing to join me on a Google hangout? Let’s record it and post it for the benefit of our community. Post a comment here if you and let’s make it happen.