Client Experience vs. Quality Work

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“Deliver quality work and the client will be happy” is something I used to tell myself and our team members at Barrel over the years. Upon deeper reflection, this isn’t necessarily true.

In recent years, we’ve talked more and more about the “client experience” – what it looks and feels like from the client’s perspective to work with an agency like Barrel. Do they feel like they’re taken care of? Are the cadence of communication and meetings too much, too little, or just right? Are we doing a good job of explaining the various creative and technological aspects of projects? Do we have clear deliverables and visual aids to help them understand what’s going on?

Where does the quality of the work fit into this? What does “quality” mean anyway? Is it the same for Barrel as it is for the client?

The Restaurant Analogy

If we compare the client experience to that of a diner’s experience at a sit-down restaurant, it’s easy to picture the things that can make or break the diner’s overall experience. These include but are not limited to:

  • The cleanliness and ambiance of the restaurant
  • The location and comfort level of the seating
  • The attentiveness, anticipation skills, and responsiveness of the front-of-house staff
  • The clarity of the menu
  • Cadence of dishes coming out
  • The quality of the plates and utensils
  • The restaurant’s bathroom
  • The beverage program
  • The food itself

Notice how the food, which is what we typically think of as the primary reason for picking a restaurant, is just one of numerous touch points in a diner’s experience. Everyone has different criteria for how they perceive and evaluate their experiences, so one diner may be appalled by the wallpaper design of a restaurant while not minding the under-seasoned food while another diner may be extra sensitive to the waitstaff’s timing on bringing out the food and feel that the dinner’s been ruined because things took too long. The point is, the diner’s experience sometimes has little to do with the “quality” of the food coming out of the kitchen.

What is Quality?

In our business–the business of making websites and executing digital marketing campaigns–the people involved in the work take great pride in the “quality” of the work. These are designers, web developers, copywriters, marketers, etc.–I’ll refer to them as the “makers” going forward–who pay a great deal of attention to the details and care about things like functionality, performance, consistency, and the overall feel of things. For them, the sense of quality is in the flawless execution of the product, whether it’s a beautiful website that loads seamlessly or, going back to the restaurant example, a gorgeously cooked fish entrée.

Some clients appreciate this and those who are discerning usually are willing to pay a premium to ensure they receive this type of quality. The makers love working with clients whose sense of quality aligns with theirs because it feels great to be valued for the very things that you’re most passionate about and where you’ve exerted the most effort.

The challenge in our business is that the perception of quality in the work is just one reference point out of many other interactions, deliverables, and documents that encompass the overall client experience. As demonstrated in the restaurant comparison above, there are so many other elements that can impact the way a client feels about their relationship with an agency. Here’s a small sampling of these moments and elements that can delight or go awry:

  • Initial onboarding process and getting ramped up with introductions, kickoff, and scheduling
  • The nature of the meetings (e.g. were they organized and tight? meandering and energy-sucking?)
  • Key presentations (e.g. did they inspire excitement or cause concern?)
  • Comportment of project team members (e.g. were they professional? overly casual? knowledgeable? too junior?)
  • Expectation management (e.g. proactive in surfacing schedule adjustments or potential delays before they become a problem; being aligned on what it means to be “done”)
  • Workflow (e.g. intuitive use of tools and centralized way of aggregating messages and sharing files)
  • Strategic value-add (e.g. coming to the table with ideas and expertise vs. needing to be told exactly what to do)
  • Client education (e.g. patient and clear explanations of terms, concepts, and reasons related to the project, especially around technical matters)
  • Scope management (e.g. clear guidance and communication around what is and isn’t in scope including being aligned on payment of overages)

Playing Out a Couple Scenarios

Imagine delivering a kick-ass website that’s beautifully designed and functions flawlessly. People are saying great things about it. The client has to be delighted, right? But also imagine that the project process was rocky, the client was not happy about how expectations were managed, there were some frustrating moments when both sides wanted to walk away from the project, and the client felt nickel-and-dimed for features that they believed were in scope.

The work may be deemed as high quality, but the client experience was faulty. Chances are, the client will be looking for a new agency partner because a poor client experience can linger.

On the flip side, imagine delivering an okay website, no wow factor and minimal comments from other people. There are some issues but they can be worked out with some post-launch adjustments. The agency’s project team wasn’t pleased with some of the creative choices the client made throughout the process, but they tried to be as collaborative as possible. From the client’s perspective, they absolutely loved working with the agency. They felt taken care of, their questions thoroughly answered and their requests quickly addressed. When they asked for things out of scope, they were firmly told by the project manager what was possible and what wasn’t within their contract and provided with the option to pay more for additional work, which they gladly did. The client gushes to their peers about the agency and the experience before the site even launches.

Having It Both Ways

If I had to choose between the two as an agency owner, I would take client experience over the work quality (quality as defined by the internal makers) anytime. A great client experience is what enables retention, referrals, and growth of the business.

Luckily, this isn’t a choice I have to make. At Barrel, we strive for both things because we believe both are very important. And I’d also argue that striving for quality, even if the client doesn’t appreciate it the way the makers do, is important for attracting and retaining great talent that keeps the bar high and positions the agency to deliver on both the experience and the final work product.

Setting the Table

Whenever I think about restaurants and the diner experience, I can’t help but think about Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. In my twenties and early thirties of dining out in NYC, I always enjoyed going to USHG restaurants because I knew the dining experience would be superb even if the food wasn’t the most exciting or mind-blowing. Some of my favorite dining experiences were at Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Blue Smoke, Tabla, and Maialino.

When I think about a couple of the most memorable dining moments at these restaurants, it has nothing to do with the food, but everything to do with how I felt about the experience:

  • At Blue Smoke, we had ordered a pulled pork sandwich and found a strand of hair in it. We told the server. The manager came out and apologized. We got a brand new sandwich and also got desserts comped. It was all so quick and efficient. Sometimes it’s the recovery from the mistake that makes the greater impression.
  • At The Modern, I was treating my friend who had returned from his tour in Iraq. Danny Meyer himself was walking through the dining room asking every table how the meal was going. I told him we were celebrating the return of my friend. He thanked my friend for his service. A few minutes later, a server came by with a dessert cart letting us know that we could have whatever we wanted, fully comped. I don’t even remember what I ate but I remember thinking, “I’ll keep eating at USHG joints as long as they keep having restaurants.”

A great book I’ve referenced from time to time to get inspiration for upping our client experience is Meyer’s Setting the Table, his memoir on starting his restaurants and the various principles he follows to ensure delightful dining experiences for his customers.

At Barrel, we have our moments where we deliver a great client experience and win fans for life. But we also have our missteps and gaps that need work. The challenge for us will be to continue enhancing the client experience while ensuring that the standards remain high across the board as our operations scale.

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