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Being blunt: you owe it to your clients

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We all know that person who blindly speaks what’s on their mind. Even when what they say is the truth, it can often be offensive if not delivered carefully. It’s very important to think before spilling words. How you craft a response or comment in the delivery of this ambiguous “truth” will depend on the situation and subject matter. For instance, everybody in the family might be aware of Aunt Sally’s halitosis, but is it best to tell her bluntly or just offer her a breath mint?

Some topics and hidden information, although truthful, should be left unsaid. Do the same rules apply in business? To a degree, yes.

For instance, unless you’re in the business of designing and selling clothes, it’s probably not a good idea to tell your client that you don’t like the way they dress. After all, if you’ve been hired to build them a piece of furniture or remodel their house, I doubt it would be an appropriate conversation. However, if the subject pertains to something you’ve been hired to do as a professional, you might very well be within your rights to speak the truth.

The fact of the matter is that we should always be speaking the truth when it comes to our area of expertise. Just because it could be a bad thing to be blunt about Aunt Sally’s breath does not mean it’s bad to be honest about what you’ve been hired to do. You just need to separate the difference between expressing personal feelings and professional opinions. Simply put, being truthful goes far deeper than words alone, it should also be displayed through a form of action.

For example

A good friend of mine is in the process of building a new house. He does not have a background in construction, but he has worked as a tradesman, so the basic understanding of process is within his skill set. He has asked me a couple of times through the years on how to best do a particular phase, but has never really been interested in my advice. I understand.

Throughout my friend’s 10-year journey of house building, I’ve had to bite my tongue a few times because I didn’t want my “advice” to get in the way of our relationship. When they reached the window stage, like proud parents they posted social media photos of the first few installed windows. The photos clearly revealed their lack of window installation knowledge. Unlike a correct installation designed to repel exterior moisture, the technique used created an open invitation for water to enter the interior space. Living in Seattle, where we get a lot of rain, I’ve become very diligent about fighting off the natural intrusion of water. It’s a common problem caused primarily from a lack of knowledge, laziness or both.

After reading a couple dozen posts from other friends about the awesomeness of the new windows, I quickly realized for me to say something would be like throwing a wet blanket on a homeless person. I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationship, but felt it was important enough to educate my friend before finishing the house. That’s when the light bulb went off in my head about the importance of exercising “the blunt truth.” Situations like this demand that you, the professional, educate your clients. This can take many different forms and should also follow a descriptive path that guides, rather than shaming them.

If you have been hired to do work, you are a professional. However, that does not always guarantee you the right to be blunt. It’s possible that the person you’re working for knows more than you about the very thing you are doing. If you are truly an expert and have your client’s best interest at heart, you don’t just have the right, you have the obligation to share with them the truth about what the results of your work will produce. If, because of your experience, you know how things are going to turn out in the end, should you not educate them about the foreseen results? Would you not want someone you hired to do the same? Of course you would.

Being blunt with the truth is only the first step. It can be the hardest one as well, as in the case of my good friend and his windows. Once you’re practiced in the art of being blunt, it does get easier.

The key is not in spouting off your knowledge just for the sake of being right or expressing your opinion. It needs to be directed with a spirit of doing what is best for your client. If you’ve been hired by someone to do a specialized task, they are relying on you for your expertise. So if they try to lead you in a direction that you know won’t work, don’t put them down for it with your expansive “knowledge”, but rather ease them into the truth with gentleness. Just because it’s blunt does not mean it must be offensive.

Using words is only the first half of being blunt. Showing a client the better way with mockups or case studies not only will support your words, but will probably have more meaning to them. Much like offering Aunt Sally a breath mint rather than a mouthful of hurtful words (albeit truthful), support material is non-confrontational and not personal, which are both important ingredients to guide with shared truths.

The bottom line

Clients only need full disclosure in those things that they are paying you to do. It’s your job to educate them through drawings and specifications that should eliminate the need to be forthright about everything. They don’t need to know that Bob the disgruntled employee cut all the parts wrong, but they do need the blunt truth that the schedule has changed.

Being blunt does not necessarily mean being honest. I never said not to be honest. I believe you should always be. Being blunt simply means telling clients all they need to know and nothing more. In other words, they could probably care less about what kind of glue you use, they just want you to assure them that your work will hold together.

And that requires you to be blunt about the truth, not open and honest about every detail of the truth.

David Getts is a certified kitchen designer and owner of David Getts Designer Builder Inc. in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue.

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