Does the Customer Matter in Doing Your Best Work?

filed under: Creative Inspiration
At Chocolate & Caviar, we have a rule about working with customers that’s as inviolable for us as the rule of changing underwear before a date.

Always talk to the customer or decision maker before starting work on a project. Always. And in person.

In the current era of internet businesses and automating everything, it seems as if we’re all striving to create the perfect client onboarding process that contains as few contact points with a customer as possible without requiring any further effort on our part.

What the faceless internet forgets, however, is that, for those of us doing creative work, rather than selling pre-made and pre-packaged products, the word customer comes into our businesses in its literal sense, hanging for dear life onto our ability to make the work and the experiences we offer custom.

To customize it to the specific needs and desires of the person at the receiving end of the work.

When we read a brief from a client, an email requesting either a design or a story, or when we talk over skype with someone who’s acting as the middle-person between ourselves and the decision maker at a company, we know that we don’t have the whole story and can’t start creating yet.

That’s because creative work for both the creator and the commissioner rests upon feelings and emotions. And these feelings and emotions often don’t find their true expression in the words that we use. So that email we receive or that message related to us by a well-meaning in-between party can never talk to us about the underlying truth of what it is we’re meant to be creating.

When we meet with a customer in person we gauge the customer’s non-verbal expressions and note his silent cues, guiding him as we speak through words and phrases that help us understand how he feels and translating what he means in the technical terms that will help us build our creative process.

When we’re face to face with a customer (even with a screen between us), we can uncover a whole lot more of information that comes to us not through verbal communication or through the thinking part of the brain, but through a more subtle communication that registers somewhere deeply in the feeling part of our guts and hearts.

What really tells us what the customer wants is not the vague term “more jazzy” that he uses to describe the changes he’d like to see, but the way he hesitates before saying the word, drawing in his breath and scrunching up his nose, and the way his eyes cling to us for affirmation.

“Is jazzy more colorful?” we ask.
“Well, yes, but not exactly. I just mean more… brighter colors, you know?” his eyes glisten with enthusiasm. “With more… movement (he sways his hands into the air over his head) coming through. You know?”

In an email, we’d miss all those minute details.
And we’d be left thinking:
“No, we don’t know. What does he want?
What does jazzy mean? What does it mean to him?
More colorful? With more intense colors? More morose colors? More fluid structure?”

And we’d be the ones throwing our hands up in desperation.

Custom communication: failed.

But because we had the conversation in person, we do know.

Not because he said “jazzy” but because we’ve seen his spontaneous hand movements, and we’ve seen the emotions flash through his face, and we’ve heard his voice change sound as he talked about his pet project and described his ideal outcome.

We do know, now.

Not because we’ve established what “jazzy” really means to the client, but because we received a feeling from him. And we can go to work designing and writing and polishing and editing until we feel that we’ve captured that feeling.

Creative work is a form of play.

It’s a communication, a dialogue that strives to find that solution to a problem by encompassing both the ideas of the customer and the vision of the artist.

When custom communication fails, and we retreat to standard forms and email descriptions, we often find ourselves looking for a satisfactory compromise. But creative work should never be a compromise.

In a compromise, both parties lose; both give up something they want (the customer his ideal result and the artist her artistic vision) and “settle” for a solution that appears to cover enough common ground. But that’s never enough. Not for great work.

In creative play, both parties win. Creative play is the ability to combine both the customer’s desires and the artist’s vision into a final that reflects and encompasses both completely.

Creativity, after all, is defined not by its boundlessness but by the ability of the artist to take constraints and turn them into functional parameters, to take limitations and turn them into advantages that will turn into the very stuff of the work itself.

The artist or creative who only wants to express what he thinks (ignoring the client) or who wants to use a project simply to feature his technique and talent is bound to fail. Because his work functions as a monologue to himself that includes no one else, addresses no else, and therefore interests no one else.

The artist or creative who gives the customer exactly what he said on the surface of his words, failing to recognize that the customer may lack the technical and creative vocabulary to ask for what he really wants is bound to fail because she fails to acknowledge the true feelings beneath the spoken or written words. Because she will produce work that is mute, speaking neither to her own artistic vision nor to the feelings and ideas of the customer.

The artist or creative who finds a way to uncover his customer’s deepest desires and underlying feelings is bound to succeed. Because what she will produce will be a true dialogue of minds and feelings and ideas that couches practical results into artistic technique. What she will offer will be a work that speaks not only to the desire of the customer and the vision of the artist, but also to all those who view and read the work, drawing out their voices into a true polylogue of perspectives and opinions for having recognized something of themselves reflected back into that work.

How Do You Create?

What’s the process you use with your customers to create custom work? Do you find interpersonal communication as important as we do? How do you uncover the true desires of your customers?

Give us your best tips! Let’s open up this dialogue.