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Your client is a free resource, not a problem

In which I do lots of preaching about how clients aren’t actually the worst after all.

My client is the worst!” Oh cry me a river. This mindset is old and tired. Client blaming is lazy. It’s an excuse to avoid the uncomfortable thought that maybe we are the problem.

Stop treating the client like a problem to be contained

The natural reaction to annoying clients is to shut them out. “Don’t let them join the calls! Keep them out of the code! Don’t let them speak directly to developers! Contain, contain, contain!”

But it’s pretty unlikely that your client is purposely sabotaging things for the sake of being a jerkface. They’re probably having some good old fashioned anxiety about the state of the project, and annoying you is their way of dealing with it.

So if you shut them out then their anxiety will increase, and their annoyingness will bump up along with it. I talked about this in my post “Hide a problem from your client and now you’ve got 2 problems“.

Seth Godin talks about hard work vs. long work, which I think applies:

Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up.

Seth Godin

Shutting them out is long work. It feels less risky, and you just have to keep at it. Figuring out how to let them in is hard work. It feels riskier, but that’s the type of work that will pay off.

The other day I posted about the book Extreme Ownership and it has a chapter called “Leading Up and Down the Chain of Command” that talks about this.

Instead of blaming others, instead of complaining about the boss’s questions, I had to take ownership of the problem and lead. This included the leaders above me in our chain of command.

If someone isn’t doing what you want or need them to do, look in the mirror first and determine what you can do to better enable this.

Leif Babin, “Extreme Ownership”

Stop blaming the client, and start blaming yourself. What are you doing that’s making the client act like this? What does the client need that they aren’t getting?

A Jobs To Be Done mindset may help. What’s the client’s JTBD which isn’t being met? Maybe they want their boss to be impressed, and if the project doesn’t go smoothly then that won’t happen. Maybe they want to learn from you, and shutting them out makes that impossible. Whatever it is, try to figure out what JTBD the client is trying to solve, and how you aren’t solving it.

Start treating the client like a free resource to be tapped

Your client is the best kind of employee:

  • They care deeply about the success of the project
  • They have the context and insider information you need
  • And best of all, you don’t have to pay them a salary

Make use of that! Don’t shut the client out, bring the client in! Get the client into backlog grooming and sprint planning and code review and retrospectives and anything else you can drag them into.

Include them more and more until the client starts to get to the point of feeling too involved, and then you know you’ve hit the sweet spot.

Here are some of the benefits you may see:

  • The client’s anxiety will decrease, because they won’t be in the dark about things anymore
  • The team will benefit from the faster feedback loops and less rework now that the person who has veto power is deeply involved
  • If the crap hits the fan, the client is less likely to point fingers because it’s their crap just as much as it is yours
  • When it comes time to hand the project off, the transition will be easier since the client was deeply involved along the way

What are they really paying you for?

I like to think about what the client is actually buying. Hopefully they aren’t buying a website or an app, because that would make you a vending machine. They may be buying your time and your expertise, if they see you as staff augmentation.

But if you want to be a partner or a trusted advisor, then maybe what they’re really buying is an experience. They think that in choosing you, they’ve chosen a particular experience that you can give them. That experience probably involves phrases like “low anxiety” or “learning environment” or “collaboration”.

I don’t know what experience your client paid for, but I can guarantee it’s not “being shut out.” If you were in the client’s shoes, would you like the experience you’re getting? If not, then turn it around. Build it with them instead of for them. Create the experience they thought they were buying. It’ll help you both.