I dunno what it was about 90’s TV, but for some reason the phrase “The customer is always right,” has been burned into my brain since childhood after hearing it on sitcom after sitcom, cartoon after cartoon.
It was always said by some stuffy Managerial Parental Stand-In Type, upset that the protagonist was putting up any kind of resistance to the bad way they were being treated, or how ludicrously difficult the customer was always being.
But for some reason? I registered it as Real World Gospel.
While I’m not certain how ubiquitous that exact phrase actually was in the retail and restaurant eras of my youth, when I started hosting and waiting tables in my teens, I carried it with me like a secret code.
And it made me a hit with customers.
How Not to Fight for Your Ideas: Playing Possum
Sure, I had my share of crying on shift in my first year or two, overwhelmed by the quick-fire anger of strangers, and the initial confusion as to why I was a scapegoat for things I had no control over (like whether their burger wasn’t the right temperature, or why their food was taking so long 5 minutes after ordering, or how fizzy the Coke was, or the fact we didn’t carry Coke at all (“Pepsi OK?”)).
But over time, I got really, REALLY good at what I now recognize as…. playing possum.
Deep breath. Go dead behind the eyes. And smile.
“You got it, let me take that right back to the kitchen.”
“I’ll check with the chef right away.”
“Ah, sorry about that! The machine must be acting up. Can I get you something else?”
It was always, always better than arguing. And sometimes, it even saved my tip.
Clearly, this is what it meant to be a professional, and an adult.
When Pleasing the Customer is A Bad Idea…
So as you can imagine, when I started my own freelance copywriting business at the tender age of 21, I brought that logic with me into client work, too.
Sure, my clients didn’t know anything about writing copy but at that point… neither did I, really.
Most of them were just thrilled to see their ideas reflected back to them at all, let alone phrased beautifully and (somewhat) strategically.
But a few others had… opinions. And strong ones.
Certainly, they weren’t quite sure what they wanted, but they were sure it wasn’t gestures vaguely at google doc this.
So I’d sit on calls and listen to what I’ll generously call “feedback”, and just as my service industry training had taught me:
I’d take a deep breath. Go dead behind the eyes. And smile.
“Sure, I can make that ~pop~ more.”
“Ah, you need me to just take the gloves off on the tagline? Ha ha, absolutely, I know exactly what you mean by that.”
“You rewrote this whole section? No, it’s not an incomprehensible mess at all, this is great, I’ll go in and just clean up the grammar.”
Until quite suddenly one day, I realized I’d had enough.
How (and Why) to “Push Back” with Authority
After a fifth wildly frustrating feedback session with a client who’d continued to move the messaging goal post over and over (“It needs to sound cooler.” “No, warmer!” “It’s too familiar now, I need to be more authoritative…”), I finally worked up the courage to say with all the calm I could muster:
“Honestly, we’ve tried several great angles here, and I no longer think the writing is the issue. I think you need to step back and get a little more clear on your actual offer before I go back into this.”
And then, to my utter shock, the client paused, thought about it, and replied:
“You’re right. Thanks so much for all your hard work here. Give me a couple weeks and I’ll go through all the drafts and pick my favorite. No need to recreate the wheel here, you’ve done enough.”
So I didn’t just burst into flames?!
I didn’t get immediately fired????
In fact, the client seemed to feel safer and more trusting now that I’d pushed back than she had when I was just letting her run the show.
You’re the Pro – Act Like One
Mentally, I edited my professionalism mantra in my mind:
“The customer is always opinionated. Sometimes, those opinions are wrong, and it’s probably my job to respectfully point that out sometimes, or else I’ll be chasing my tail forever.”
Doing creative work for clients who run the gamut of marketing and strategic expertise reveals a lot about humans in general.
And while the vast, vast majority of the people we’re blessed to work with over the years are joyful collaborators and partners…
… Every once in a while, there’s some sonofagun on deck to test your mettle, convinced that the one Simon Sinek book they read negates your track record of success, years of experience in the field, and industry knowledge.
Bless their hearts.
So: what do you do in that moment?
Do you go to bat and fight for your ideas?
If so, for how long?
And if the pushback continues, at what point do you lay down and just take whatever comes to preserve your sanity, reality be damned?
Three Strategies to Fight for Your Ideas
An excellent question indeed — and one Margo Aaron and I dug into at length on this #HAMJAM on IG Live.
But just in case you don’t have an extra 30 minutes or so to watch that, let me offer you this:
When you’re in a sticky client situation, unsure whether to go to bat for yourself, or play possum?
First: You’re the Expert
Remember you’re being hired as an expert, which means part of your job is to advocate for the client’s vision as you understand it. (And it’s ALSO your job to partner with clients who appreciate your role in that collaborative process. #ahem)
That means “the client is always right” simply can’t work. Sure, the client may see things differently, or have questions — as they should! Creative work is highly collaborative, after all.
But your first response to critical feedback, or a request for a different angle, doesn’t always have to be “Yes, thank you, more please!” in the name of being a team player… especially if you know how, and why, your idea works.
So if you see the client’s feedback is getting in the way of the vision they relayed to you? Say your piece, by golly.
Second: Know How to Share Your Thinking
Know how to show your work.
This is why I work on frameworks and processes so deeply with my Power Position clients — because if you DO receive pushback (in the 11th hour especially), being able to point to the steps and logic that got you where you landed can save your behind, AND help the client understand why certain decisions were made.
And third, especially if steps one and two don’t help:
Remember Your Clients Deal with Doubt Too
Remind yourself, client feedback that drifts into the bad behavior category may have nothing to do with you.
Fear, insecurity, self doubt, and imposter syndrome are likely just as much a part of your client’s mental boardroom as they are yours. Not all frustrating feedback means you did a bad job. Sometimes, it just means your client is going through some stuff elsewhere, or are breaking out into a cold sweat about this next phase of your business.
How can you tell, though?
Track the quality of feedback they give. If they can’t offer clear next steps, or if every time they see updates based on their feedback, they still hate it?
It’s probably not you, friend.
And yes, sometimes in the name of saving brain bandwidth and sanity, you’re gonna have to let the client do what they want (or gracefully exit the gig).
So they’ll choose the boring color palette, rewrite your silky smooth tagline into something clunky, and add unnecessary details to the offer that’ll confuse the heck out of customers.
And that’s OK — and very much not your personal failing.
Learning to pick your battles is all part of the ride.
Standing Up for Your Ideas Helps Your Biz
But next time, just remember this: You deserve to stand up for your ideas — and doing so will help you ground yourself in the skills you know you have, and the way you see things.
Because sure, yessing a client to death might feel helpful in the short term (after all, they’re paying you, right?)…
… In the long term?
If you want to make your mark in the industry as a trustworthy, reliable expert — sometimes it’s worth it to fight for the way you see things, and the steps you’ve taken to bring that vision to life.
So don’t be afraid to go to bat (respectfully).
Take the swing sometimes, by golly.
You’ll be glad you did.