Avoiding Confrontation Is Expensive


At Solspace we work on highly complex websites. These websites must be reliable as they are responsible for many millions of dollars of revenue per year whether they are e-commerce sites or sales funnel sites. In addition, these websites are managed by a complex set of stakeholders with varied goals and workflows. This all creates plenty of opportunities for conflict.


We regularly work with our clients to improve the flow of customers and clients through these sites. Sometimes we're making small changes. Sometimes we are overhauling entire swaths of the system. In all of these cases we rely heavily on our clients to help us with verification and validation of the ongoing changes we make. Only our clients understand their underlying business rules and the motivations behind them. Only they can validate the improvements we make.


Imagine you own a chain of gas stations. You hire a company to build you a new gas station on the interstate in a prime location. The company designs the plans for your review. But, you only take a cursory glance and say, “yeah, that seems fine.” But once they start the building process you ask, “How are big 18-wheelers going to get in and out of the parking area? And how will they fit under the overhangs for the gas pumps?”


Is it their fault for building it wrong or yours for not telling them what you needed? Maybe a little of both, but as the client you owed them the right information. If the builder wasn’t clear about the plans you should have confronted them for better clarity. If you never bothered to reveal your requirements and compare them to their plans, they should have pressured you to do so before starting the building process. Conflict is going to happen no matter what in this case. You can’t avoid it, only defer it.

Be Professional

In the modern economy which is where web developers and designers seem to land, as opposed to ranchers and lumber jacks and such, we are taught to maintain professionalism, to just deal with it and hope for the best. In short, we are taught to avoid confrontation. This habit in our culture is expensive. Instead of calling out obvious mistakes and oversights, we pretend to be professional and keep our concerns to ourselves. This leads to expensive mistakes on launch day.

A Little More New York, A Little Less Georgia

If you're going to build websites or hire people to build websites you should be required to spend some time in New York. New Yorkers are not even slightly shy about confrontation. Oftentimes you're doing something you don't mean to do; blocking someone's path or standing on their foot or something. Nevertheless, if you're in someone's way on the subway, you will be told very clearly and promptly.

I've only been to Georgia a couple of times. I'll just use it as a shorthand for those places where people rank politeness above clarity when communicating. This Deep South politeness might mean you avoid confronting someone and instead ever so slightly hint at the underlying conflict. Unless you’re from that culture you might miss the subtext. (Sorry Georgia. I don't know if it's true for you. But someone has to play the role opposite of New York.)

Our projects and our business relationships need to be polite and courteous. Grace and courtesy make daily life bearable. But we also need clear, direct and sometimes confrontational communication. When I have messed up, I prefer to be told promptly, clearly and directly. If some politeness has to be sacrificed along the way, I don't mind. The downside is too great.

The Day To Day

One of the reasons web developers don't want to confront their client teams is because they work with those people day in and day out. The nature of our work is that we are needed all throughout the week as our clients who manage complex websites need ongoing support and help. Web developers in this setting want to maintain a cordial relationship with their counterparts. It means they call me in to do the confronting.

Bad Cop

I'm the boss. So I do the confronting. I don't like the job. I don't want to be confrontational any more than anyone else does. But I dislike the idea of my clients or my business losing money even more. The truth is our clients cannot always present us with all of the intricate details of their businesses. Often those details just have to be uncovered along the way. That's why verification is essential. We build something. You test it thoroughly and get reminded of strange outlier business cases you forgot to mention. We revise and refactor and launch something that supports all the intricacy. But if you don't test before we launch, you don't remember the forgotten requirements and those 18-wheelers just drive on past.

Keep it funny, eh

This is where humor comes in. Ask any Canadian. Canadians are the nicest people you'll ever meet. (Yes this blog post is full of generalizations.) But Canadians are capable of confrontation. They can call you out on the stupid stuff you do. But they always do it with humor. It's magic. They wear down the tension of confrontation by making it funny every time. This is what I've found to work best as a communication habit. Have fun. Make jokes. Don't take anything too seriously. And quickly call out things that demand confrontation. Make a habit of quickly diffusing problems while making sure not to avoid the actual problem.

People Are People And Projects Are Projects

Another very helpful habit to develop around healthy confrontation is to always keep in mind that the person you are dealing with is a person. They are not an obstacle. They are not a project. They are not merely a pain. The more our relationships can be human, the more we can see that the mistakes people make are not the people. You can call someone out for making a mistake and since you have a solid human relationship with them everyone involved knows that the mistake is not the person. It's just a little problem that no one should be attached to. Just call it out and fix it. Move on.

Make It Work, Not Just Go Away

There's a serious temptation with clients sometimes to hire an agency that will just make their web problems go away. In a lot of ways we can make your problems go away. But there are some things that a client just has to own themselves. Some things just cannot be offloaded. As a client, if you are unclear about what your responsibilities are, then your agency may need to get better at constructively confronting you.

Addressing conflict may feel bad, but avoiding it will eventually feel even worse.