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Beg the Question

Working in the creative industry we’re perpetually faced with the challenge of extracting meaning from the requests of a client. We have to learn to read between the lines of what they really want vs what they say they want. Failure in this area can usually – in my experience – be traced back to poor communication and an over abundance of assumptions.

Here’s an example – it’s a work of fiction- but it’s a true example as this sort of scenario  has presented itself many times, in different ways.

A client approaches a manufacturer with a request, and says, ” Listen, I was in Texas last week, and I saw this vehicle! It was amazing! It was red, with a narrow front end, big rear tires and small tires in the front!” Can you make me one?”

This is a weak description at best, but not wanting to feel dumb the manufacturer says, “Sure! When do you want it?”

He then begins to read into (make huge assumptions) about what the client wanted based on this poor description.

  • Big tires in back, small ones in front.
  • Color is red.
  • He saw it in Texas?

Must be a tractor!

When the client returned to see his newly commissioned Formula 1 race car he was sourly disappointed to say the least. A few simple what, where, how, and why questions would have made a world of difference:

  • What do you like most about it?
  • Where exactly did you see it? (Under what context?)
  • How do you plan to use it?
  • Why do you feel this is the best vehicle for you?

Applied to your project these questions could be used almost verbatim to help you understand the needs of your client more.

Here’s a more grounded example:

A client asks for a spot like an “Apple commercial”. You don’t question, you just do! After all, Apple has been very successful with that kind of spot. You produce it perfectly, on every aspect. The client sees the spot, recognizes it’s exactly what they’ve asked for, but it just doesn’t ‘do it’ for them. So, where’d you miss?

In my experience the client was not asking for a spot where an “expert” with a british accent talks about the product on a white background with some catchy acoustic music. Most likely they were asking for something that was honest, simple, clear, and fit their brand perfectly. They feel something from what they’ve experienced, but often can only identify what they’ve seen, and not all the unseen elements that made it powerful to them.

One thing I don’t want you to take away from this, is that clients are dumb, don’t know what they want, and can’t tell the difference between a race car and a tractor!  The client knows what they’re trying to accomplish, and it’s our job to help them articulate that – to us, and their audience.

One extra questions I always try and ask:

  • If your audience walks away with one message, what is it?

And never be afraid to ask a tactful, “why?”

Have a strong understand of their motives, perspectives, and emotions towards the project, and the results will be a better product, and a stronger relationship between you and the client. That has, at least, been my experience. What’s yours?

How do you understand your client’s needs?

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