What to do when the customer's a fool

Does your client want a product or service that you know won't fit their needs? Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols advises how to toe the line between what experience tells you, and "the customer is always right."

Realize that sometimes he's not.

It's been a rough week, so when the phone call came from my integrator buddy Jack I was only half-awake.

"I've got the contract, Steven!" he said. "Great," I said, trying, and failing, not to yawn. "A thousand-plus users, dozens of servers, their end of the Internet connection," he continued. "Sounds great." I said. OK, so when I'm tired, I'm a zombie.

"There's just one problem. The company insists on using Exchange/Outlook for its Internet e-mail system." Then I woke up, and then I swore.

Could the company have made a poorer choice than Exchange and Outlook? I don't think so. OK, Exchange has made great strides as a mail server and it finally deserves to be called a groupware server. I wouldn't hesitate for a moment when installing Exchange on NT--2000 or XP, but that has everything to do with Active Directory and not Exchange. But Outlook? How many times must customers see their e-mail systems go down for days at a time due to the latest Outlook transmitted disease like Melissa or ILOVEYOU before they'll stop using it?

I really don't understand. Microsoft has the greatest marketing machine this side of Coca-Cola, but you'd think after the umpteenth time that a company goes out of business for a day or two because of an Outlook bug, it'd stop. I mean, you'd stop hitting yourself on the head with a hammer after the first concussion, wouldn't you?

But, no. Some customers must have their Microsoft product even if it's not good for them. It's not just Microsoft, however. Lots of customers want bad products or products that are fine, but fit their needs like a cheap Montgomery Wards suit. So what can you do when your customer's a fool?

First, you try to talk him out of Outlook. If he won't budge, you need to decide whether you should dump the customer. If you know the customer is going to want your head when the service fails, you walk. You're going to lose any up-front money when things go haywire.

If he won't budge--but won't kill you either--what do you do? You quit bellyaching and you do the job with the product he wants as best as you can do it.

I see people blow this one time and time again. Your customer doesn't care that you know what he really wants is Linux instead of W2K, DB2 instead of Oracle, or a Compaq instead of a Dell. But if you keep grinding your axe, you're going to lose the job. You can be a technology purist in your own home, but at the customer's site he's the boss, not you.


Besides, sometimes the customer does know his IT business better than you do. How many times have you had an eager newbie in your employ insist that the customer must replace all his obsolete stuff with the latest and greatest? Sometimes that's the smart move. Most of the time, though, the customer has good reasons to stick with his old ways. Like because the old ways work. Or maybe--putting my hatred of Outlook's security flaws aside--the customer really needs what I admit is an excellent combination of personal information management and e-mail client.

Maybe the customer is a fool, maybe he isn't, but he is always right.