Saturday, April 30, 2011

Clients from hell...and Heaven!

I am reproducing an article I wrote a few months back. I find it as relevant now as I did then.

Recently, I saw a website titled Clients from Hell that had funny anecdotes from web designers about unreasonable or uninformed clients with strange requirements. It got me thinking about the clients I have interacted with in the last 10-12 years. Who among them would qualify as clients from hell?

Are they the clients who ask us to reduce our prices, even as the expenses go up? Are they the ones who expect work to be delivered two weeks earlier than our proposed tight schedules? Are they the ones who ask us to change features that they approved in earlier deliverables?

It may sound hard to believe but the answer to all three questions is No. Of course, we all wish for customers who would pay us more, or do their part in the development process on time, or have sanctity for prior approvals, but we recognize that these are reflections of the environment our clients are in and of the nature of the beast called e-learning development. More importantly, these demands for lower prices, faster timelines and flexible processes have a hidden potential for creating value in the long run.

Value is the real differentiator. So, it makes sense to look for client engagements where no or little value was created for anyone involved. When I looked at all clients from this lens of value, three types of clients stood out.

The Window Dresser

This type of client gets into e-learning to impress someone else or to appear to be someone they aren’t. It sounds hard to believe that such clients would exist, especially since a significant cost is involved in developing e-learning solutions. But I have come across such clients in some government departments or large traditional firms.

The problem with such clients is that there is no real commitment to the e-learning initiative and therefore, there is no champion for it in the organization. As a result, the carefully crafted content, a product of myriads of reviews and rework, sits on the specially chosen highly-secure servers for years without being used by anyone. So much effort and value lost! Another consequence is more long lasting and damaging: A failed attempt at e-learning results in negative perceptions about the effectiveness of e-learning that persist for very long.

The Pedant

These clients are sticklers for all kinds of rules and take great pride in their attention to detail. All deliverables are scrutinized for minute issues (e.g. line alignment down to a pixel) and a lot of energy and goodwill is used up in fixing them. Sometimes, this takes a different turn- a lot of time and energy is used up in adding bells and whistles to every page (e.g. this button should blink twice and stop, these bullet points should be accompanied by sound effects, this page should have an animated transition etc).

So what is wrong with such clients, you may ask. After all, don’t they help improve the quality of the output and therefore create value? Not really. The increased focus on small and insignificant details often means that deeper issues are overlooked, such as completeness of the content and its relevance to the audience. Once the training is launched, it falls short and doesn’t provide any real benefit to the users. Once again, so much wasted effort and so little value!

The Commitment Phobe

 This type of client delays making decisions on every step in the development process. Often, the person in charge is either not empowered to make decisions and/or the company’s culture is blame-oriented and hierarchical. The decision makers want to limit their role to seeing the final product and pronouncing it passed or failed, and junior staff is too inexperienced or scared to deal with any design- or content-related issues confidently. Sometimes, the situation is compounded by lack of support for the e-learning initiative by the SMEs.

The problem with such clients is that projects can take inordinately long time to be completed. E-learning launch, typically tied to an impending training cycle, is delayed and loses its momentum and support of several stakeholders. Sometimes, content is outdated by the time the course is developed. Colossal loss of effort and value for everyone involved.

As I pondered over the above three types of clients, I couldn’t help thinking of the clients who are at the other end of the spectrum, clients we love to work with. What attributes of these clients propels us to create great content that adds tremendous value to the end users of the training? This is what I think makes these clients special.

Total Commitment to Results
These clients have a single focus- the results that the training will help achieve. This means that they have a clear idea of both the learner and business needs and understand what will meet these needs most effectively.

Focus on the Big Picture
Another attribute that these customers demonstrate is a hold on the big picture. When the big picture is to change the mindset of employees, or to equip them with certain skills, it becomes easier to make decisions about where to expend most effort and energies.

Work as Partners
Finally, this set of clients always works with the development team as partners with common goals and approach the relationship from a position of trust and respect. E-learning development is a two-way street. When the development team and the client work as partners, magic can and does happen.
Credits: Illustrations by Irene Wan. Cartoon from

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