Getting to the Bottom of What Your Clients Really Want

This week I had a conversation with a web developer I sometimes collaborate with — we were talking about a new service I’d like to offer my clients and how he could help. He shared his initial ideas and my first reaction was, “That’s not going to work for my clients, we’ll have to think about this differently.”

And it got me thinking about how funny that is — knowing my clients. Being able to anticipate what they need and how they’d respond, and how what they expect from me is different from his clients’ expectations (even though the end product we sell — websites — is essentially the same).


I sent an email to a few clients to ask them what they thought, and I was right. “What they needed” was exactly as I expected.

It wasn’t that way when I first started my business. Back then, I was transitioning from “job mode” and viewed each new client as a “mini-boss”. They told me what they needed because the questions I asked were along the lines of:

“What do you need?”
“How do you want that?”
“When do you need it?”

Even with the answers, I still didn’t know what they needed — not really. I knew what they said they needed. And it didn’t occur to me to get to the bottom of it any further. Instead, I took their order, did what they asked, and hoped they liked it.

If they didn’t, I’d just keep working until they were satisfied. I wanted to please my clients — which is a noble intention — but I came to learn that pleasing people and making happy customers are not the same thing. People-pleasing opens the door to being taken advantage of, and that’s not how to run a profitable business.

I think a lot of creative professionals, in particular, find themselves in this situation — especially when they’re just starting out. We’re terrified of being exposed as the imposters we are, so we do everything we can to make sure the client is satisfied, but that can turn into a sticky situation if we’re not the ones in control.

The next phase is “setting boundaries” — where you go from pleasing people to pleasing people with a contract. Taking their order, defining the scope of work, and then filling the order in pretty much the same way — only then, there are extra things to worry about, like having awkward conversations: “That’s not what we agreed to, that’s going to be extra”. Those conversations, while necessary, can diminish the rapport and experience.

What to do?

Figure out how you want your client experience to be

Along the way, I stopped thinking about clients as people I did transactions with, and I started thinking about the experience I wanted to create for them. And for me. How I wanted to feel when the project was through — proud, respected, valued and appreciated. And how I wanted them to feel — empowered and confident with a sense of clarity about who they are and where they’re going.

From that angle, I asked myself, “What would it take for me to create an experience like that?” And I realized it was up to me to create the process, and it was up to me to guide them through it.

Clients don’t want you to take their order

You only think they want you to take their order, because that’s what we learned about being a good employee. But your client is not your boss, and furthermore, they’re not looking for you to make them a cheeseburger.

See, when you ask them for their order, they’ll give it. When that happens, they’ll assume they need to take on the role of dictating how the project will go — and depending on the client you get (their expertise, experience, personality) — it may go well! If they’re an “easy” client, they don’t ask for too much and they’re easily pleased. But if they’re not, it’ll go completely off the rails.

These clients are often described as “difficult” — but it’s rare that a client is difficult. They just need your help, and they came to you to get it because you promised them you could. Yes, some people are unethical, out to take advantage, and straight up jerks. But not usually. Usually when you find yourself in the position of dealing with a difficult client, it’s because they had a different expectation of how it was going to be. And whose fault is that?

I’ve been on the other side of the client transaction — where I’m the one purchasing the creative service — and I can tell you that what I wanted was not the “thing they sell.” It was the outcome. I wanted to improve my business, I wanted help, I wanted guidance. I wanted them to be the expert and to solve my problem.

Understand what all humans want

When I was in college I studied communications, and at the time, and in just about every class, we were presented with the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. I memorized it, but it took me a long time to figure out why it’s relevant in my work. If you’ve never seen it, or you need a refresher, it goes like this:


What this theory aims to teach us is that human beings all have pretty much the same needs, wants, and desires. It starts with basic needs — like, if you don’t have a roof over your head and you’re starving, you need to satisfy those needs before you can start worrying about finding true love or winning awards at work.

At the top of the pyramid are the things we should help our clients get. People want to be seen, understood, valued, respected, and to find a way to become the best version of themselves.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a life coach, a designer, a copywriter, a blogger or a virtual assistant … “what they buy from you” is part of their master plan to get what they need, and those “needs” are basic to all humans.

Understand what that means for your clients and help them get there. Then, create a process that you can guide them through.

Ask better questions

It starts with asking better questions than “What do you want?” and “When do you need it?”

Instead, ask probing questions that will help you understand where they’re coming from. They have things standing in their way of climbing up Maslow’s pyramid, what are those things?

“What change (in life/business) do you hope to see as a result of this service?”
“Looking back a year from now, how will you know this service was successful?”
“What is the future you want, and what’s standing in your way of getting there right now?”

Then listen, really listen.

Over time, as you come to understand your clients better, you’ll start to recognize patterns. Common fears and common expectations. From that, you’ll improve your process and experience.

Sell the outcome

When you can do that, the people interested in having your experience will come to you. People will be loyal to you because you helped them get the outcome they’re after — you’re not interchangeable with every other service provider offering “that thing you sell.”

To move beyond being an order taker, you must ask better questions, discover what your clients really want, and then sell the outcome.

What your clients want is not the same thing as