Don’t Give Your Customers What They Want

I was a little underwhelmed to say the least, but I bit my tongue when I heard these words from Chris, my designer friend.

“The client wanted a tri-fold brochure. Something they can mail out to 500 people at a time. So I gave them what they asked for.”

Nothing personal against Chris (or tri-folds), but the thing is, he didn’t push the creative envelope at all.

Assume your client doesn’t know
Knowing the many possible mailing options available (and believe me, a standard tri-fold would be the last on my list), I couldn’t believe that he didn’t try to give his clients something more…attention grabbing…more dazzling—even on the relatively small budget in question.

You and I can list at least 10 amazing alternative concepts off the top of our heads. But was Chris able to? I’m sure his client wasn’t.

Customers can’t tell you what they want
Henry Ford didn’t rely on customer “wants” alone…and neither did Steve Jobs. Both claimed that if they had listened solely to their customers, they would have created ever-faster versions of something that already existed—a faster horse-drawn buggy, a faster Apple II, a more colorful tri-fold.

Instead, Ford and Jobs went out on a limb and invented something their customers didn’t even know was possible.

For us, be it as designers or printers, this means listening to our clients and then going out on a limb. Assume that all they know is—in our case, a tri-fold—and that they are unaware of the many, more impactful alternates available to them.

Suggest something beyond what they “imagined”
Are they asking for a tri-fold? Provide a printed piece with a more intriguing shape and fold. Do they want a self-mailer? Offer a dimensional solution or a jumbo-sized postcard.

Customers can’t always tell you what they want. Use their idea as a jumping off point then read between the lines. Use your vision and your knowledge to always be a step ahead of the standard requests. Dazzle them with your insight—showing them that you care about their project—and you’ll make them your best friend for life.

Sabine Lenz is the founder of, the first online paper database and community specifically designed for paper specifiers.

Growing up in Germany, Sabine started her design career in Frankfurt, before moving to Australia and then the United States. She has worked on design projects ranging from corporate identities to major road shows and product launches. From start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, her list of clients included Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Deutsche Bank, IBM and KPMG.

Seeing designers struggle worldwide to stay current with new papers and paper trends inspired Sabine to create PaperSpecs, an independent and comprehensive Web-based paper database and weekly e-newsletter. She is also a speaker on paper issues and the paper industry. Some refer to her lovingly as the "paper queen" who combines her passion for this wonderful substrate called paper with a hands-on approach to sharing her knowledge. 

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  • Kelly Mallozzi

    This is so great Sabine! Thanks for the reminder and great title too – Such a grabber!

  • Roger Buck, CDC

    Great thoughts as always Sabine!