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Two Kinds of Customers


I want to walk you thru a quick thought exercise and see if you land where I do. Ready?

Imagine Customer Number One

You answer your phone and the customer is looking for help on a project. They know exactly what they want and what they need. They’re clear about the tasks they want to assign you and have reasonable estimates about how long it should take. They want to know about your availability and cost to see if they can afford you. But other than not knowing your rate, they know everything else they could know. They’re the educated customer we’re always talking about.

If they want a web site, they know they want WordPress used as their CMS. They know that some themes are better than others, so they’re ready to pay for one of the more popular and well-coded ones. They know which plugins they want, and they’ve checked the ratings and downloads to know they’re not picking bad apples. They know where they want to host it and they have the budget for managed care.

You get off the phone, having enjoyed your time and no more than a minute goes by before it rings again.

Imagine Customer Number Two

This customer sounds like they don’t know a thing about what they want. They want your help on a project, because they’ve heard you’re smart and friendly. They’re not clear on the tasks or why you might be the right answer. They don’t know anything about technology, which is why they asked their friend for a referral. And they’re hoping you have time and aren’t too expensive to help them. They don’t have a target date because they honestly have no idea if their project is small, medium or large.

If they want a web site, they’re the folks that don’t even know what a CMS is. They have no sense of budget and can’t grasp what aspects of the project could be done in minutes verses days. They don’t know what a plugin is, but if you say so, they’ll get it. All they know is that they need something – and of course, they’ll know it when they see it.

The Big Question

So here’s the big question: if you could only pick one customer, which do you pick?

Most everyone I know picks the first customer. We all want “smart” customers, who know what it takes to do what we do, who know what they want, and who don’t have unreasonable expectations.

Two kinds of customers…but are we picking the wrong ones?

What if the first customer is the wrong type of customer to select? Could that be the case? Hang with me for a second while I make my argument.

Let me start by saying I know this thought exercise is foolish because you’d likely take both on, if you had the bandwidth. Let me also state, up front, that the point of the thought exercise was to walk you down this road that I’m about to travel. So don’t fill up my comments with explanations of why my thought exercise didn’t meet your standard.

The first kind of customer is an easy customer.

They “get” it. They deliver a consistent and certain level of profit because your work is repeatable. And because it’s repeatable, you know the cost. And because you know the cost, you know how to make sure you’ve baked profit into the job. So in the end, you have a repeatable process with a clear sense of profit margin. It may not be a large margin, but it’s a guaranteed margin. And seriously, who doesn’t like that.

But there’s a twist there.

It’s a repeatable process. And if it’s repeatable, then one might argue (as I’m doing here) that you could eventually be removed from the equation. Do we really need you there? Couldn’t someone else, someone cheaper, someone faster, someone cheaper and faster ultimately replace you? History has a series of situations where this has been the case: the gas station attendant, the bank teller, and the list continues.

So that first customer, while profitable, also pulls you into work that will ultimately go the way of the dodo bird. Maybe not this year. Maybe not this decade. But eventually.

Now think about the second customer.

The truth is that they don’t know what they want. They don’t have set instructions. The job isn’t just assembly. It’s a job that requires co-creation – where you and the customer interact enough about their plans that you’ve internalized them and can now help them make good and sound strategy choices.

In case #1 you assemble the solution for a known problem. In case #2 you talk, so you can find & describe the problem.

The world will always need problem solvers

Now you know why I think you might be better off picking that “difficult” customer. Because in the end, you, my friend, will be more valuable to them than to our easy customer. You’ll be worth more and therefore be able to charge more.

But maybe it’s not about charging more, because you’re not motivated that way. I get that. But think about this. The world wil always need problem solvers. So by picking the second customer, you develop a valuable skill that will be useful and generate income for you forever. Shouldn’t that be motivation enough?

Developers – hear me!

I hear you tell me, all the time, that you rather have someone else stand in front of you so you don’t have to deal with the customer. You’re doing it wrong. If you’re not honing your problem finding, problem defining, and problem solving skills, you’re going to be left in the dust. Don’t put someone else in your place unless you’re getting incredible mentorship and getting to see the interactions happen, so you can learn from it.

That’s my take on why you should choose difficult customers instead of the easy ones.

What’s your take?

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