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Sometimes You Need to Break a Few ‘Golden Rules’ to Be Able to Really Serve Your Clients

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Sometimes You Need to Break a Few ‘Golden Rules’ to Be Able to Really Serve Your Clients

Entrepreneurship is about creating solutions to clients’ problems that they cannot solve themselves … To succeed in business, you need to know your clients’ problems inside-out before they come to you … And when you offer a solution to your clients, you should never ever miss the mark – otherwise you could lose their trust and your credibility.

We hear business experts talk about these fundamental principles all the time, and there’s a lot of truth in them. But do we perhaps take this advice too literally?

What if, in some situations, clients play a key role in finding answers to their own problems? What if sometimes we can serve our clients better when we put aside all our knowledge about the problems of our market? And what if creating a completely useless solution might be an inevitable step towards finding one that actually works?

Playing the role of the client

Recently I attended a short workshop to expand my skills around human-centred design. In simple terms, the workshop taught us how to find effective and compelling solutions to clients’ unique problems through following a structured collaborative process. We role-played in groups of four – one ‘client’ and three ‘consultants’ – and ran a mini-project on redesigning the client’s Christmas experience.

I gladly volunteered to take the client’s role, even though I knew that this exercise might stir up some emotions. Having grown up in Europe, and being far from my family, Christmas in the southern hemisphere tends to leave me with a void. Spending time on the beach, having a BBQ with friends and getting ready for holidays can be fun, but in my mind, Christmas means something entirely different. My consultant team had a tough task ahead.

At certain stages, I was allowed to talk to my consultants, and at other times I needed to step aside and let them work among themselves. At the beginning of the process we talked a lot – questions and answers were fired back and forth. Soon I felt that I’ve successfully explained everything my consultants needed to know – what Christmas used to mean to me and what I’ve been missing in recent years. Then it was time to work separately.

One surprise after the other

To my great astonishment, the consultants started to develop a strategy that didn’t feel right at all. But I had to stay silent, and watching them go down the wrong track was excruciating. All I could do was reflect on how I should have explained myself differently. While doing this, I became increasingly clear about my real problem, and the kind of outcome I was looking for.

As the consultants presented their carefully crafted solution – recreating the Christmas experience of my childhood as closely as possible – I felt torn. It seemed that I had accidentally led them down the wrong path and that all their work had come to nothing.

I tried not to hurt their feelings, but it was important to clarify the misunderstanding. I summed up my thoughts in a single sentence: ‘For me Christmas is now like an empty cup, and instead of filling it with old experiences, I’m looking for new ones that will give me those old feelings of excitement and surprise.’

This was the second time in the workshop when my jaw dropped. While my consultants needed quite a long time to pull together the first solution, which didn’t work, they only needed a few seconds to round up the second version. And it hit the bull’s eye.

Interestingly, when we all shared our experiences at the debrief stage of the workshop, I learnt that another group went through a similar roller-coaster ride.

Three important lessons

This workshop made me think about how I interact with my own clients and taught me some important lessons:

  1. As service providers, it is sometimes best if we don’t make assumptions about our clients’ problems or expect them to be able to clearly articulate what they need. The more we talk, the more focused our communication becomes, and the better we understand each other as well as the issue that needs addressing.
  2. Clients can play a key role in finding answers to their problems. They may have a vague sense of the end result right from the start, and our role is to help them dig deep and make it feel safe for them to share their insights. Once we are all clear about the issue, finding a powerful solution might only be a step away.
  3. Sometimes we need to take the risk of coming up with the wrong answer. However, this doesn’t mean that we’ve hit a dead-end. The wrong solution can become a point of conversation, leading to real breakthroughs.

Of course it’s important that you prepare your clients for what to expect, right at the start of your collaboration. Otherwise there is the danger of false expectations and unpleasant surprises. And you certainly don’t want your clients to go through the sort of moments of self-doubt and mistrust that I experienced during the workshop – that could be disastrous. But once you establish a common ground for collaboration and adopt effective communication strategies, you’ll be able to move mountains together.

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