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Yvonne Shek

Yvonne Shek

Akendi Alumnus

Do Client’s Know What They’re Approving?

I am currently renovating my kitchen. It’s a pre-fab kitchen from a well-known company that sells furniture and home furnishings. They sell entire kitchens and all the components in-store and online. I looked at the cabinets and components in-store first and made my selections. After that, I had two choices:

  • I can either use their online software to configure my kitchen, or
  • Pay one of their sub-contractors to come into my home to measure and build my kitchen with me.

I opted for the latter since I am a newbie. The cost of $250 for an expert (measurer and designer) to come in for 4 hours seemed reasonable and less risky.

Next, I had to buy the kitchen components. All I had to do was to call in the order and everything on the designer’s list was ordered and paid for with one phone call. All the thousands of pieces of my future kitchen were ordered.

After that, I had a choice of either getting the company that measured/designed my kitchen to come in and put it all together for me, or get my own contractor to put it together. I opted for the latter. I had a good reference for a contractor.

The day that all the thousands of parts came, I asked the delivery staff to stack everything neatly into my garage, which they did. I had no idea what was in those boxes, or if I was missing anything. It was just unrealistic to sign for each and every part. So I signed on the dotted line to say I had received everything.

It really wasn’t until my own contractor looked more deeply into the inventory that he found two interesting things:

  1. When items were taken out of the boxes and roughly laid out on the ground, my contractor found that things did not align. They were a bit off here and there, and in the end, my contractor knew that I would not be happy with the result – if some issues were not addressed right away. We had a brief meeting and my contractor said, “You know your new sink isn’t going to align with your kitchen bay window, right? Your measurement guy didn’t take into account the plumbing configuration underneath the sink, which will shift your sink away from the window alignment.” And: “Here, in this obtuse-angle corner, I can get you a lazy-susan rather than waste all this space in your corner.” Also: “Your pantry is missing six good inches. Let’s get a bigger pantry instead of just panelling it over.” And: “This taller cabinet is going to push your microwave too low – not giving you enough clearance with your stovetop…”
  2. I also had extra items in the pile in the garage (like the sink that I had cancelled). I probably had missing items as well – but we wouldn’t know about that until probably even later.

I was shocked that I had agreed to all these very bad decisions! How could I? Can I change it now? But I had signed off…

Luckily, my contractor said that he would pick up the new pieces from the store, which would make things work out, and we will return all the unwanted pieces later.

Upon reflection, my problem as the client and not being in the business of renovation is that I did not know the meaning of what I had supposedly approved. I had no clue how bad those decisions were and the ramifications.

It was my fault, I thought. Earlier, the in-home designer sat down with me and explained my choices, my options, and I honestly did make those decisions with his guidance. I even looked over the drawings. They looked fine to me at the time – with my limited experience. But I did not know what I did not know.

This is often true for our digital clients. Ever have clients approve the information architecture or the wireframes, much like our kitchen blueprints, and then later renege or want to change them?

In my kitchen reno experience, I have learned to be a bit more empathetic about the whole approval process:

  1. Perhaps our clients just don’t understand what those blueprints or wireframes mean. How will the new screen elements align with their “windows” and business goals? If I sign off on “A”, what will happen to “B”?
  2. Besides wireframes, content is a big deal too. That’s like when I discovered I had an extra sink in my garage, or missing items later on. If our project is a website redesign with lots of content to migrate, there is no way that clients can sign off on every piece of content. Will each old piece of content be re-written, migrated, archived, or removed? When they do sign off on a content inventory and migration plan, they are in fact trusting us to “take care” of all of their content. They may only discover something is extra or missing late into the game – close to or even after the new website is launched.

So what can we do to help our clients out with blueprints and inventory approvals? Is there anything we can do at all? I believe we can.

First of all, it is important to gauge the experience of the client. Are they experienced at managing digital projects? How many? How often? We can ask them when was the last time they worked on a similar project. In my case with my renovation, it was “never.”

Next, we should ask them how involved they want to be – their interest level to learn the trade. I have clients who want to shadow us, learn about our every move from research to design. We also have some clients don’t want to be particularly hands-on. I was the hands-off client and I trusted the expert far too much. My interest level was too low and did not ask the questions I needed to ask, such as, if I do this, what does it really mean? I did not demand what I wanted. Rather, I let the designer take the lead. I did not want to be that bad client.

After that, we need to ask our clients about their key goals and expectations. What are the things they are willing to compromise on? Or not? For me, the sink being misaligned with the bay window was a horrifying thought. We need to ask our clients some theoretical questions such as: If you had to trade off A for B, which one is more important to you?

Before we develop our solutions, we should dig a little deeper before we offer solutions. The guy who measured our kitchen had a laser device to measure the room. That means he could have learned where my plumbing was – precisely, had he looked a bit harder. He could have found out where my microwave vent went and not suggested such tall cabinets on top of the microwave. One of the key success factors of effective people is “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Before we offer up solutions our blueprints, we need to seek a lot more information than just taking a few measurements. We need to look under the covers and find out what is going on. This means work. More work. Don’t be lazy.

I have to admit that what I am describing sounds a lot like a custom solution. And what I had gotten myself into was not a true custom solution. It was a hybrid solution. I had previously received a quote from a custom renovation company (or three). And their approach was more similar to what I just described. However, I have also talked with friends and colleagues who have gone the custom route. Their experiences with custom still run into the same problems. They also had to pay a lot more for their renovations. That brings me to the last thing we can and should do for our clients – no matter how customized or standardized the solution is – no matter if we are talking about kitchens or a digital product or service.

And that is to listen deeply.

Whether the solution is a standardized solution (e.g., out-of-the-box product), a customized solution (e.g., the type of consulting we do at Akendi or a custom kitchen), or a hybrid solution (e.g., my experience of buying some out-of-the-box products and having it semi-customized to my kitchen’s measurements) – listening deeply is required:

  • In the case of the standardized solution, a ton of research, in particular, qualitative research, would help you target what your out-of-the-box solution should deliver – every time. Out-of-the-box means it should meet the needs of most of your clients most of the time. Without research, you won’t know what that is.
  • In the case of a custom solution, we normally need to have weekly meetings at the very least to stay on track. Issues and even slight discomforts on the clients’ side need to be addressed early and often.
  • The hybrid is no different. Since a hybrid product is somewhere in between, it needs to include research where the vendor learns to listen to the existing problems and issues. It also needs a personal touch that involves a lot of listening and interaction.

In my kitchen renovation experience, the hybrid model, since the designer was already in my home, I would have paid $500 for him to ask more upfront questions and look under the sink. The opportunity was right there for them. All he had to do was adjust it to include more of that initial interview.

If we fail at:

  • Gauging the experience of the client
  • Their interest level to learn the trade
  • Their key goals and expectations
  • Even if we do not dig deep enough

But if we listen deeply and intentionally, we will still be successful. Listening deeply is the single most important of all of these tactics. Listening deeply could save the day.

Yvonne Shek

Yvonne Shek

Akendi Alumnus


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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.