I Went to the Dentist & Here’s What I Learned About Client Work

I recently went to the dentist and couldn’t help but relate the experience to client Web work. I’ll get this out of the way and admit I’m equally wary of the dentist as anybody out there, and I get unnecessarily anxious when I hear the word. That said, I wasn’t in my most comfortable state of mind when appointments were made.

I couldn’t help but relate my experiences to that of the client work I’m involved with every day. There is so much to learn from other service-based industries, and I took this opportunity to relate my experience at the dentist to how we should treat clients.

Be personable and friendly

First impressions are a big deal. Professionalism is just as important. I was fully aware that much of my anxiety was eased by the time I took my seat to fill out some paperwork. That was because the receptionists at the front desk were quick, to the point, and most of all friendly. They likely deal with over-anxious people on a really consistent basis, and have adjusted really well to that temperament and handle people accordingly.

This is professionally applicable to client work but in slightly different context. Not only are our first impressions super important, we’re also evaluating the first impression our clients give as well. When you’re in a dentists office, you’ve already chosen your service provider. In our line of work, the first conversations are most often evaluative, in a long line of phone calls, emails, and other conversations with any number of companies or freelancers.

If we can do everything in our power to move beyond the initial evaluation of clients and more quickly become a useful consultant to them, initial conversations are much more likely to graduate into something useful at a more rapid pace. Of course you’re going to get poor inquiries from time to time, but the faster you’re able to move beyond the small talk and speak seriously about a project, the faster you’ll be able to determine what’s worth pursuing.

Empathy goes a long way

One of the main reasons people don’t like going to the dentist is to avoid any ridicule coming as a result of not going to the dentist. Many times clients will do the same thing, often lambasting their existing site and making excuses for it not being more up to date. I’ve heard more times than I can count a client discuss how much they dislike their site, and make a point to explain that “it’s okay to be honest” to unlock some sort of filter that might be holding back my real opinions. If the client knows their site is in poor shape, there’s no reason to discuss it further. In reality, it’s the most ideal situation you can be in out of the gate, you’re both on the same page.

Instead of using twenty minutes to take shots at the existing site, we’ll always move on to the next step of the conversation and try to keep the conversation more serious. It’s a great opportunity to discuss specifically what the client doesn’t like about the current site and take notes about how those concerns can be alleviated when planning the new version. It’s one of those cases that usually provides unfiltered, invaluable feedback that will be exponentially useful throughout the project.

Explain and explain well

I’m not a dentist. I had no idea what was going on, nor what was involved in the procedures¬†mentioned. I was almost more nervous when I could tell the doctor was going to tell me a bit more (what I felt would be simply awful) news. As a dental patient, I just want to be told what certain things mean in layman’s terms and that things are going according to plan and on schedule. On the other hand, if things are veering off track, I want to know as soon as possible and be educated in what happened and what’s going to be done to compensate for the change in circumstance. I want to know that the dentist has dealt with this issue before and knows exactly what should be done next.

I think this is a keystone moment in client work. If we’re all being honest with ourselves, there are numerous points in time where the game plan is adjusted, where the project scope changes, and where miscommunication happens to a certain extent. This is an area we can all focus on in every project and never truly master. The best we can do is be a resource for our clients.

The ball is in our court. It’s up to us to partner with our clients and guide them through the process. It’s very likely they’ve never gone through this before; they’re nervous and struggling with the prospect in its entirety. If we can alleviate concerns as they come up (ideally before they come up) the project will be that much more successful and the client that much happier (and likely to sing your praises to their colleagues).

Part of what I enjoy so much about our job is making a website (and the management of said website) less scary to clients. Proper explanation has facilitated success in that regard like nothing else, and still to this day I learn something new with every project that I’m able to implement the next time around.

Additionally, evaluations of explanatory conversations are valuable for both the negative and positive outcomes. For every situation that comes out well, you know that it was handled properly given the circumstances. With every negative result, you’re able to discuss and compensate the next time around. Even if things are luke-warm after an explanation, you can be fairly sure that you’ve been pacified by the client (out of frustration, embarrassment, confusion, or a combination of the three) and therefore failed in your explanation. Every outcome is noteworthy and full of information.

Empathy comes into play here as well. We need to consciously put ourselves in the shoes of our clients. Doing so will make our explanations that much more valuable and easy to understand for them, and that’s the most important part. Keeping that in mind will help head off potential confusion points at the pass and keep the project moving forward as fast as possible.


Explanation is a huge deal, but of course it comes with it’s limits. Only to a certain extent are the finest details really worth covering. Tools are a topic for your colleagues, not your clients. I’m sure there are some of you out there, but I don’t think many people are excited to hear specifics surrounding the tools your dentist is about to use during a procedure.

The same goes for us, designers and developers alike. We love talking about tools with one another, but unless it’s part of the project requirements (or questions are specifically brought up out of curiosity) it doesn’t need to be brought up when speaking to clients.

As you’re sitting in the chair at the dentist, are you curious about the size of mirror the dentist is going to use? The gauge of drill bit? The quantity of Novocain? I don’t think so. In fact, speaking in such detail would confuse and bewilder me. I just want to know that the dentist is confident in his approach, knows how to get the job done, and the procedure is going to go as expected.

Clients shouldn’t care about you being a Photoshop or Fireworks user, if you’re using WordPress or ExpressionEngine, if you want to use SASS or LESS, if you use jQuery or MooTools. We (sometimes) enjoy having the conversations debates, but that needs to be left alone when it comes to speaking with your clients.

Sometimes, though, clients are curious about the tools you’re going to use. When that’s the case, it’s of course acceptable to speak in any detail deemed necessary on the subject. It’s equivalent to you being that guy asking about the size pick the dentist is going to use and why. You asked for it. When the circumstance does come up, it’s a great way to explain the reasons behind your decisions in tool choice, and you should do so with confidence.

There are other times where a project inquiry will come in with a specific set of requirements, some of which may include a specific brand of tool (e.g. CMS). That changes the game a bit, but can quickly determine whether a project is a good fit for you depending on your choice tool set.

Customer service is a huge deal

My big picture take home message throughout this experience was a huge reminder that customer service, in some ways, is everything. Kevin and I speak frequently about how client interactions went, and what we can do better the next time around. There’s always something that can be done better, and we always learn something new with every project.

I lived a number of reminders through my recent stint with the dentist, and I’m glad to have gone through it as it allowed me to put a number of client philosophies to the test from the ‘other side’. I’m going to be more conscious of this in my daily life, as I’m sure I’ll be able to catch a number of potential adjustments to be made in my client processes. I’d encourage you to do the same: with every service-oriented experience you observe, take some time to go over it in your mind to compare how you felt and how the other person acted. Regardless of whether it went well, what could have gone better and what went well? Chances are it can be applied to the timeline of a client project and make the next one that much better.