It's the age-old saying that the "customer is always right" and was it one of the first lessons that I remember being drilled into me by my first business studies teacher, the terrifying Mrs Twomey way back when I used to sleepwalk my way around the halls of Causeway Comprehensive. It seldom happened to this wise woman, but this was one of the occasions that Mrs Twomey was very wrong. The customer is not always right, sometimes the customer not only needs to be guided, sometimes they need to be flat out told what to do.
Anyone who goes into business for the first time will tell you, there is a tremendous excitement on your first sale, you can almost taste it, and you can't help but feel like you are going to be on the cusp of something big and wonderful and this is a feeling that you should try and hold on to for as long as possible. For example, I still have the first cheque ever issued to Avalanche and I can't bring myself to cash it. It reminds me of that first six months where I figured it all out as I went and a part of me always wants to hold on to that idealistic time.
There are two sides to that coin though and right alongside that excitement is a palpable fear of things going wrong, that the next customer will have a poor experience for whatever reason and your business will be dead in the water as this will generate a tidal wave of bad reviews. Cue the anxiety. As with the majority of things in life, the real answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. I took the "customer is always right" adage as gospel until I moved into the real world when I realised that for all the theory in the world on B2B or B2C, you can't really understand the difference until you are in business.
For those who are a little unclear, B2B is shorthand for business to business. The products and services of the business are marketed to other businesses. It is how Avalanche operates; we typically provide a service to other companies. Business to business relationships are developed and ongoing, and the processes involved typically take longer than B2C relationships.
Websites/businesses that offer consumer products are B2C and this is an abbreviation of business to consumer. The B2C sales cycle is shorter. The consumer is encouraged to buy the product immediately and it is typically a done and dusted exchange without much interaction. Your interactions with ASOS or Dunnes Stores would be an example of this B2C relationship. When you break it down there is a very important difference between both: In B2B you have clients, in B2C you have customers. How you market yourself, branding & how you deal with issues that arise from conducting business are also very different.
For example, when you are a B2B provider, people are generally more patient with issues as they are in business themselves, they know some items are beyond your control. Your exchanges are usually logic-based and focus on time, money and resources. That is what will happen most of the time, now and again though you will have a clash with clients, it can be for a variety of reasons and even though it can be tough to face, some conflicts will be your fault simply due to a lack of experience.
Thankfully, in close to 8 years of Avalanche, I can count less than 10 occasions where I have even had what you could call "a bad client" and I can count on one hand the number of times it has gone very south, all of which I probably contributed to due to a lack of experience. In all situations, I have found if you have a clear dialogue with people, you can pretty much work through most situations. As a service provider, what is important that you don't march to the beat of your client's drum just so you can try to keep them happy. When you are looking to move to the best outcome for your client, which is always the main focus and your biggest responsibility, sometimes it will go against their ideas and you have to be prepared for this.
I have found the best method is to go through the client's issues, outline how the problem arose and then plan together how to fix it. Keeping people in the loop is pretty much the key to diffusing any tense business situation in my experience. It took me a long time to toughen up and that is not to say that I have not made mistakes. Particularly in the service industry, which is where Avalanche resides as outlined above, people are coming to you for your knowledge & expertise, so it is your responsibility to make sure that you push back when you need it. Being a yes man just is not going to cut it when people's business and livelihoods are on the line.
The idea of never being "off" when you are self-employed is 100% true, I had what was supposed to be an idyllic holiday in Santorini partially ruined as a client (whom I had never met, despite being in their office multiple times, I was never deemed important enough to deal with the big cheese directly) decided it was our fault that their staff deleted the entire database and told me that I would have to fix it free of charge. I had a slightly different view and after butting heads for a while (& the obligatory threat of a solicitor's letter (The hollow threat of the unimaginatively ignorant, seriously, you suck if you ever utter these words to another human being in business)), I simply fixed it as I was wasting time arguing with the client in question and they flat out refused to move an inch on it.
I lost 3 days in an internet café on Santorini, but l learned an important lesson in client management. Some people just need someone to blame rather than focus on fixing a problem and, on this occasion, my job was to be a punching bag to inflate the client's ego & self-worth. After the fix, it was never referenced again, as if it never happened. No thank you for fixing a huge problem and perhaps I should not have expected one, given my interaction. I did so with a smile and politely doubled my maintenance contract that they paid for a further 3 years.
Anybody in business or indeed, stepping into the workforce for the first time needs to learn, it does take some time to develop a thick skin and at the beginning, any criticism would be taken extremely personally but over the years, thanks to exchanges like the above, I have come to realise that people typically lash out due to a lack of knowledge and communication. If you can use these two avenues in a business conflict, you will solve pretty much any issue. You don't have to be your client's best friend, but you must ensure that their business and website is performing to its absolute optimum. This is your ultimate responsibility and what is my aim with every client and project that we work on at Avalanche.
For example, in the last 18 months, I have had a client receive a full eCommerce website after we build and hand details over and break it within 4 hours of logging in after trying to edit the source code without any idea about what they were doing, they then proceeded to demand a full refund as they missed out on over €20,000 in sales during the downtime. This was a website that was seeing less than 10 hits a day at the time and sold items for €50 each, I knew this figure was pulled out of the sky so instead of escalating the conflict, I remedied the site problem, explained what they did to cause it and how to avoid it in the future. Crisis averted; everyone is happy now, right? Information & communication saved the day.
In the B2B world, these tools are not utilised enough in my humble opinion. In the past, I probably would have freaked out and not known how to handle it but as I had been there before, I knew how to defuse it before it even became an issue. Thankfully, the vast majority of clients that I have dealt with over the years have been lovely and are happy to let us work for them in the background while they focus on their business. Several sites have over 50,000 products on them and inevitably, things go wrong from time to time for several different reasons.
I am happy to say that 99% of clients will understand as long as they are informed, and you communicate how you are going to fix their problem. Most people will assume the worst and go straight to panic mode, it simply becomes a case of managing your clients, similar to any sports team I have ever been involved with and a lesson I learned directly from my old man. Some people need a soft touch, others need to have a fire lit under them. Carrot and/or stick. Whatever metaphor you want to use, treating the people and not the issue itself is the quickest route to a fix and is probably the best advice I can give to anyone who is getting into business themselves and come face to face with that initial conflict (which will happen, I guarantee it). Information & communication. Repeat it.
Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight and all the lessons learned over nearly 2800 days in business. It is an entirely different matter when you manage to find the client from hell who completely abandons reason, seemingly just to torture you. I have my client from hell story and it never fails to leave people aghast. I had my hellish experience back in early 2015 with a woman by the name of Julia Holmes.
Part of your brain is probably trying to establish how you know that name right now. It is probably because she was the subject of an international manhunt which included the FBI, the PSNI and was a professional con woman for most of a life that was spent swindling people out of money all over the world. An eventful life, to say the least, that unfortunately met a gruesome end in May 2015. Told you, it would be eventful. The truth is often stranger than fiction.
At the time, Ms Holmes (As she insisted on being called) was running a business called Irish Bee Sensations which was generating a lot of online attention and by all accounts was on its way to being successful and even got a shiny gold medal at the Blas na hEireann 2014 Food Awards. The only problem? It is widely believed that the honey was being bought in bulk from your favourite German supermarkets. It was then being repackaged as 100% Irish organic honey.
News items like these don't help the scepticism I possess of the many business awards ran in Ireland, to be honest!
Julia Holmes (real name: Cecilia Julia McKitterick, although it is believed she had up to 40 aliases) was introduced to me through a business associate of mine who would outsource work to Avalanche. She had links to Neven Maguire and as mentioned, her honey business was generating a lot of buzz. Couldn't resist that one.
So, at the time, Colm (who outsourced work to Avalanche) & ourselves had no reason to question the business and I took it as a stepping stone to working with Neven Maguire which would be a solid client for any firm to have in their portfolio as a widely renowned chef and TV personality. As with any good con, it began with great notions and promises. She seemed like a lovely woman enjoying her golden years and the attention her little business was bringing her. I was picturing her and her husband in some sort of marital bliss making honey after their 30 years of marriage (Another lie, she was a serial bigamist, she only met Tom Ruttle a few years earlier and he seems to be a victim as much as anyone). She reminded me of my nan, and we were delighted to get to work for such a sweet woman.
After an initial consultation where she was very specific to her needs, we settled on a design brief that she was happy with and got to work on it. As we were a subcontractor, we received our customary 50% deposit, so I had no reason for any red flags with the client yet as all was rosy in the garden. The website we built for Ms Holmes began as a beautiful, minimalistic site where she could easily sell her wares. I was really happy with it at the time and I remember sending the live link happy with the overall build thinking this was a very straightforward project.
Then began the constant phone calls at all hours. At the beginning I put it down to an older client who was a little unsure of the process but almost like a light, she completely switched from sweet to downright vicious. She had somehow become an expert in web development overnight and was outlining what we should be doing and why. None of which, made any sense whatsoever and was pieced together from a quick Google search. It was at this point I began to start getting suspicious and as I listened to her ideas, I took them on board and decided to roll with them to get her off my to-do list.
By the time, we were finished and jumped through all the hoops set out, the website was an absolute abomination, think of the first time you used MS Paint as a kid on a computer. It resembled something like that. It was such poor quality; I removed the Avalanche signature that we place on nearly all of the sites that we create. Something I hate doing as it is a big part of our SEO strategy, but I simply had no choice given the state of what we ended up with.
This was when the shit really hit the fan and Ms Holmes called me after weeks of radio silence to demand a complete refund, that we had cost her over €100,000 in lost sales due to problems with the site (which we completed at her exact instruction) and she would be taking up all legal routes to claim the money back unless we paid her a lump sum for the distress. I received this phone call from her in May 2015 on the way home from my local gym in Ballybunion and I remember shaking after it. In my mind, I began to picture myself in court being cleaned out by this woman, I was still in college debt at this point as I awaited my first big cheque so my parents' home would need to be sold for damages etc. The absolute worst-case scenarios flooded my brain with images all the way home.
It was only when I got home, my fear turned to logic which in turn rolled into anger. Now, I typically have two default personalities that I switch between depending on what a situation calls for. My speech and mannerisms typically change with each. The Avalanche persona which is now my default after years of experience. It is calm, composed and generally takes a lot to rattle me. The other, my Benmore persona was honed by years of being the skinny cry-baby on a council estate that kept getting my football stolen. At some point, you just have to fight and get your fucking football back.
Now, I keep that aggression for taking the frustration I get from work/life from time to time out on the weights at the gym or by planting fellas with shoulders on fields around Kerry in the pursuit of a football. After making some notes in preparation, I picked up my phone to call Ms Holmes back with a steely determination to fight my corner and say my piece, but she never picked up. The call rang out and I was frustrated as I had built myself up for 45 minutes before making the call.
The next information I had about Ms Holmes came a few days later via RTE News and it was that her and her partner had been found dead on May 18th, 2015 after being found side by side in their bedroom by burglars who had broken into the farmhouse to steal scrap metal, they rapidly called the Gardai, implicating themselves in a burglary but not wanting to become suspects in a murder. You could not make it up! It is not known how long they were dead, but their bodies were said to be badly decomposed.
It appears that Julia and her partner, who were trying to evade the Garda, the PSNI, FBI and duped businesspeople, were simply not noticed to have gone missing. Stories about Julia Holmes and her journey through life began to surface online over the coming weeks and they need to be read to be believed. I will link them below if you wish to read some more on what was a fascinating if unstable con woman.
The strange part of this tale in terms of clients from hell is that I must have been one of the last people that Julia Holmes spoke to before her partner and she committed suicide and she chose this time to berate someone who was providing a service to her, perhaps to squeeze some funds out of Avalanche as her many trackers closed in around her. Either way, it has served me well as a lesson. No matter what disagreements I may have with clients, things will never get so dramatic again!
If I can get through that, my two-pillar plan of information & communication will win every single time. I have businesses regrets, it is only natural, absolutely everyone does, I sigh about the ones that got away etc. We have had clients that were too much too soon for us and decided to move to other firms. I see them now and even though, I know the people involved so I am incredibly happy for them, part of me pangs that they got away from us and I wonder what we could have done differently.
What I can say is that we have learned from every single client we have ever had, and our track record speaks to this. It is a fantastic experience working with business owners the world over every day and I am lucky enough to say that I love what I do. Our clients all know that we do our utmost for them which is probably a big reason why we are still hanging around. I have not seen everything yet in terms of business as I am still a baby compared to some of my peers in the design game but my experience with my client from hell has me prepped for pretty much anything that can be thrown our way.
I wonder what my business studies teacher Mrs Twomey would make of Ms Holmes and her demands. Would she stick to her "customer is always right" creed? Given that she did not hesitate to throw me out of that class, I don't think she would have had any patience either.
The customer is always right until they aren't.
Pretty much sums it up really.