The Rapid Elearning Blog

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It’s a tricky balance working with customers.  They commission the elearning courses, pay the bills, and are the ultimate authority for their elearning projects.  So you have to listen to what they want.

On the other hand, a demanding customer can negatively impact the elearning course by making demands that don’t fit sound instructional design.

I once worked on a project for a group of CPAs.  They wanted to entice young people to consider a career as accounting paraprofessionals.  So we created a number of design treatments that attempted to make the world of accounting seem exciting to young people.

All of the treatments were rejected because of this or that reason.  Mostly, they were too out of the box for the client.  The person who headed the project said, “You know, Tom, I really like these ideas.  The problem is that all of the other people on the board are a little uptight so we should probably not get too wild with these ideas.”

Well sure enough, we didn’t.  We built the project exactly like the customer wanted.  I was inexperienced at the time and catered to our customer’s every demand and ended up with a subpar product.  After viewing the final project, the customer stated that it was kind of flat and boring and not really what he had envisioned.

Now it could have been the subject matter (I don’t know enough accountants to be sure), but my guess is that we spent too much time listening to the client and not enough trusting our expertise.  Had I been more proactive and assertive, we could have had better results.

The challenge is figuring out how to balance satisfying the client, who can sometimes be misinformed, and getting a good elearning course built.

Here’s how you do it.

1. Make a personal commitment to excellence.

The best way to manage your customer relationship is to earn a reputation for doing a good job.  In my wallet, I have a card that I’ve had since I first started working.  It is the essence of how I do my work.  The card states, “Always maintain a ‘service-first’ attitude.  Make it a rule in everything you do to give people more than they expect to get.”

You cannot control anything but yourself and what you do.  If you’re committed to a quality product and helping people, you’ll get through your work (and life) with much more joy and purpose.

2. Leverage your expertise.

Perception is reality.  Regardless of whether you’ve done one project or one hundred, the customer thinks you’re the elearning expert.  Act like it.  Without sounding like a know it all, be prepared to explain your ideas and why they will work for the course.  One of my favorite books is E-Learning and the Science of Instruction because it has some good research-based information that I can easily share with customers who ask to do something that I don’t think will work.

Going back to my CPA project, my problem was my lack of experience working with customers at a higher level.  I was intimidated and not prepared to offer my expertise.  I acted like a beginner and I’m sure that didn’t inspire the customer’s confidence.

3. Be a good listener.

You’re there to help solve a problem.  Listen to the customer’s needs and really focus on a solution that will help the customer.  Ask good questions.  The more you get the customers to talk, the more likely they’ll believe you’re the expert.

My wife once told me two things.  The first is that I should always ask three follow up questions when talking to people.  And the second was something else.  I wasn’t listening.

4. Establish clear milestones and timelines.

One of the biggest time wasters and causes of frustration is lack of communication about the project goals.  Work with the customer to set clear objectives and expectations.  This helps move the project forward.  It also helps keep things from going off track.

Project managers talk a lot about scope creep.  No, not the guy trying to cover halitosis in the cubicle next to you.  Instead, it’s when project demands start to creep outside the scope of the project.  This is common on elearning projects.  Having clear objectives and expectations helps solve this problem.

5. Earn the customer’s attention.

I once heard Dr. Phil tell someone that “the difference between winners and losers is that winners do the things that losers don’t.”  Be prepared.  Be on time.  And most importantly, be proactive.

This is a competitive world and there’s always someone who can do your job better for less money.  Earn a reputation for having all of your stuff in order.  Don’t waste time and don’t wait on the customer before you respond to needs.

I know so many elearning developers that will put work on hold until they get to meet with the customer or get more direction.  It’s almost as if they relish the times when they aren’t in touch so that they can relax.  Take Dr. Phil’s advice, and keep on moving.  Do the little extra things that tell the customers you’re paying attention and committed to their success.

6. Give the customer choices, but not too many.

If you come to the project with only one idea, you open the door to all types of issues.  If you come up with too many ideas, it becomes debilitating, because you’ll spend too much time going through all of the options.

Come prepared with at least three treatments of an idea.  I usually create a straight forward linear course, one focused on content sharing and some interactivity, and then one where I can craft a more real world environment for the learner.

I’ve seen designers build the course treatment they want to do and two others that were so obviously not the right course, that by default the customer always chose the “right” one.

7. Give them the fuzzy thumb.

This is an emergency trick and requires the utmost skill.  I don’t recommend it for amateurs.  In fact, I am a little leery to share it with the public.  Usually I reserve this advice for a quiet corner in a noisy pub…and only in the strictest confidence.  I’m assuming that you won’t share what I’m about to reveal.

People have a tendency to offer input because they want to feel like they contributed.  Many times this input is of no value.  In fact, sometimes it might even derail a project if the customer demands you implement it.

I have a photographer friend who came up with the “fuzzy thumb technique” to counteract this tendency. When he submitted photos to the customer for review, he’d always slip in one with a fuzzy thumb in the image (or some other obvious issue).  It never failed, the customer would focus on the thumb and he’d be able to steer them to the better photos and avoid the customer making demands that hurt the project.

Offer a document with typos, or face an object the wrong way.  Do whatever it takes to draw the attention to an obvious error.  The “fuzzy thumb” allows customers to give feedback and it usually makes them feel good (and sometimes superior) because they spotted an error.  In return, you get to do the project your way with little interference.

I built a quick demo to explain more about the fuzzy thumb technique.  I included some of the PowerPoint animation tips I provided in the previous post to give you some more ideas.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - managing customer expectations for elearning

Click here to view “Fuzzy Thumb” tutorial.

Note: Be forewarned that this trick takes the skill of a magician and could backfire if not done properly.

These tips will help you do a good job and please your customer.  You’ll no longer have to kowtow to a misinformed or problem client who can put a damper on your desire to build excellent elearning courses.

Stock images from stock.xchng, a great site for free stock photos.


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41 responses to “7 Proven Techniques for Keeping Your E-Learning Customers Happy”

January 22nd, 2008

I agree that working with customers can be tricky. Sometimes, they are focused on a new industry “buzz” and not what they really need. As a professional, it is imporant to help the client understand what they need. I am not convinced that the “Fuzzy Thumb” approach would work for most people.

I agree that a client can easily get caught up in finding issues with typos, poor grammar and placeholder graphics. But they may have doubts about the abilities of the training team if they feel that they are not reviewing professional quality training materials. I would always suggest proofreading content for grammar, spelling and consistency. Otherwise, they may miss seeing an important problem with the content that should be fixed. I am often concerned that the client didn’t take enough time to properly review content when they don’t have any comments or changes. It is easiest to make changes when the project is still in the storyboard phase.

In my experience, it is best to set the client’s understanding properly each time they are reviewing content. Their first reviews should be looking at the content. Is it being presented clearly and in a logical order? They should review the interface and functionality of typical interactions. Do they like the colors, language and styles used? When they sign off on the content and interface, it is safe to move into production. At this point, it becomes more expensive to make changes as media will have been recorded and activities programmed.

Once the course is created, they should give it a final review to make sure everything is correct. Since they already approved the content, they should only make note of things that are wrong and not wordsmith the contents. Explain that although additional changes can be made, it may negatively impact the project timeline (and budget).

LOL. The tongue in cheek tutorial was pretty funny.

Those are good points. The first comment makes a good point about getting a sign off to avoid some issues. I do the same. However some customers can still nitpick or ignore that they signed off on a treatment.

Great post, Tom! I loved the fuzzy thumb technique!


Hi Tom,

Great tips. I really like the idea of the “fuzzy thumb” technique but it sounds like something you may not be able to implement on every project because pinpointing the very fine line between conspicuous and unnoticeable (just to make the mistake noticeable enough to detract the customer from any other idea they might have without coming across careless or silly) sounds pretty tricky.

This is probably where experience comes in handy!

I had to write to tell you how much I enjoyed your “fuzzy thumb” idea!

I hope I don’t have to use it soon, but I will keep it in mind for the next “nit-picker” I do a project for.

Thanks for producing such a great Blog,

Soooo, was your fuzzy thumb in this blog the word “kowtow”? I wonder how many of us had to look it up.

Thanks for your supremely excellent communications in every single one of your blogs. You rock!!!!!!

First and foremost – I LOVE your ideas and look forward to reading your blog as soon as it enters my inbox! I have implemented many of your suggestions and purchased several of the books you recommended in previous blogs.

However I’m cautious on the fuzzy thumb theory. I would be worried it could backfire and make the designer look unprofessional by presenting poor quality or worse…the client likes the fuzzy thumb!

I think it’s better to acknowledge the clients idea in a positive manner but then present solid reasons why you recommended a certain picture, background color or layout. Give stats from white papers, universities, or case studies that confirm why you made your selection. If your recommendation is based on your on own “hunch” then push your experience, education, and knowledge.

Thanks for the comments. As Manny pointed out, the fuzzy thumb is somewhat tongue in cheek and like I said, requires the skills of a magician.

Mike and Michelle bring up some really good points about working with customers that could easily be added to this post.

Michelle, it’s funny that you mention it, because my friend who used the fuzzy thumb actually had a customer choose the wrong image. Then he had to come up with some other scheme to get the customer back on track:)

January 22nd, 2008

I’ve worked with customers who, on our first meeting, had a very clear vision of what they wanted…and that vision was less-than-practical, to say the least. I think Tom’s point about establishing the desired result really fit the bill here.

Knowing the purpose of the requested deliverables gave me the edge I needed to gently steer the customer to the right alternative. It generally went something like, “I’m fully prepared to give you exactly what you’ve asked for, but let me show you some options (translated: “alternatives”) that you might want to incorporate into the job.” Then, when I showed them the alternatives, I could point out that doing it this way would eliminate the possibility that this bad thing would happen.

In this way, I never directly told them that the bad thing would happen if I did it as they requested. No feelings were bruised, they had the chance to feel like they were brainstorming the project with me, they still felt like they were in charge, and I invariably got the assignment that would yield the greatest success.

Excellent points, Tom. Keep ’em coming!

Hi Tom,

I also look forward reading your e-mails when they arrive. I laughed when you spoke about the fuzzy thumb, or intentional mistake. This is a fairly well-known technique sometimes used in sales when trying to close a deal.

Point 2 about leveraging your expertise is a good one. I think it was you who also championed the idea to speak up if elearning is not the best solution. I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes, when work is infrequent or the consequences of error are intolerable a performance support tool is better. We need to not be afraid to suggest the best solution to the client’s problem. A good book I’ve discovered on this subject is Job Aids and Performance Support: Moving From Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere by Allison Rossett and Lisa Schafer.

Thanks for sharing your expertise!

January 22nd, 2008

Interesting ideas — again! The presentation is fun.

Thanks for sharing!

I have on a few occasions left in an overt spelling error or two to check whether or not reviewers actually went through a project AND to give them the satisfaction of “contributing something.” Sneaky but satisfying.

Hi, Tom. Love the topic. This is always one of my biggest hurdles. Thank you for the valuable technique. I am working to implement it right now in the module I am getting ready to present for feedback. Kind of fun too. ;o)

This is good stuff..!

The Fuzzy Thumb = brilliant! Woe unto the designer with a customer who has “lots of great ideas” about the visual design of the course.

You *may* get lucky and those ideas *might* turn out to be great, but the odds are overwhelmingly against you.

I once made the mistake of going out to my customers for feedback/suggestions on big website design. It sounded like a good idea at the time. Needless to say, I opened the Gates of Hades on that one. Never again.

[…] Fuzzy Thumb Technique rings in at lucky number 7 out of “7 Proven Techniques for Keeping Your E-Learning Customers Happy.” This is a […]

Hi Tom,

Great job filtering down the complex task of customer satisfaction to this short but very relevant list. I especially like the fuzzy thumb technique and would like to share my use of it with your readers.

I’ve used the fuzzy thumb technique with subject matter experts when I need more content or a better explanation for content already given. Sometimes they get writers block or just don’t think my query is that important, other times they are genuinely busy. Anyway, if they don’t get back to me in time, I “help” them by sending some sample content and ask for their sign-off. Doing a critical review of my work gets them thinking and pretty soon, they are writing the content I need instead of just picking holes in my work.

The best part is that in such a scenario the instructional designer’s competence doesn’t come into question, because the mistakes are not in the treatment of content (ID domain) but the content itself (SME domain).

Hei, Tom The Fuzzy Thumb Technique is quite good, but for normal new customers we can use it for a while. But the regular customers or for a huge project we cant use this things, since they wont fell happy if they pointed out issues, they see only the error free content.

Anyways your idea was good until unless the clients are new and they have the mentallity to point out to someone.

Keep post some more techniques

Love the idea of the fuzzy thumb, but as some other posters have said, it takes experience to know when to intriduce a fuzzy thumb and just how fuzzy the thumb must be.


January 23rd, 2008

Tom — you’re right the fuzzy thumb would take the skills of a magician. Abra Cadabra!!!!

Hey Tom,

Just came across your site, the post is gud and i liked it. Found nice facts. You got a great skill dude.


Hey Hi!! Thanks for the reply.. 🙂

I’m a software professional and blogging is a personal interest of mine. So what about you tom?

Hey Tom!

You have literally summed up all the points which are practically faced on job! I feel maintaining a balanced approach with the client is a skill which one inculcates with time, experience and attention.

Thanks for giving your valuable insight.


“Found nice facts” – it’s perfect facts. Anyway it’s great site

January 25th, 2008

I prefer deadpanning

Wow – where were you when the page was blank

A (much less fun) alternative to the fuzzy thumb is fat red text. Occasionally insert a note in bold red text that says something like, “Is this image appropriate?” or “Is the following correct?” even if you’re sure it is appropriate or correct. Sprinkle some fat red text through the material to wake the client up and give them something safe to tweak.

January 27th, 2008

I don’t know how many hours have been wasted by executives in the office wanting to know what the “walls would look like if we changed the color.” I’ve often thought about adding something to distract him and on occasion I have done it. Now I understand how to use this tool effectively! I also like Cathy’s idea of inserting bold red text that immediately gives the client something to focus on. I have several projects I’m working on at work; I’m going to try this next week.

Aggghhhhh! Tried ‘fuzzy thumb’ and client loved only the thumbs.
Now we’re stuck implementing ugly project.
You’re right. Skill of magician needed. Should have started with Cathy Moore’s bold red text.

Hey Tom! That was good gyan! I loved the 6th point “6. Give the customer choices, but not too many.” I guess it works most of the time… Loved the Fuzzy thumb presentation … but one needs to be very careful aboout it… chances of backfiring is great again!!

Anyway, if they don’t get back to me in time, I “help” them by sending some sample content and ask for their sign-off. Doing a critical review of my work gets them thinking and pretty soon, they are writing the content I need instead of just picking holes in my work.

[…] Feel like you have so many more ideas about how you could help your organization or your clients, but that What Clients Want is just some training? Absolutely!! There are definitely some clients who are open to suggestions and ideas from the “expert”. Some understand that there is a reason they are paying you to do what you do. But there are also those that come in with different feelings. Some feel like they could do it but they just don’t have the time. And that may even be the truth sometimes. Some can’t do it but figure they know what they want or like (or at least what someone in their organization wants). At the end of the day, I have to put a lot of my personal feelings aside because its about delivering a product the client has asked for. Tom Kuhlmann wrote a post last year about keeping the customer happy. […]

[…] a previous post, I offered seven techniques to keep your customer happy, today I’d like to offer a few tips to help manage the expectations and relationship you have […]

The fuzzy thumb idea is pure genious!! All this time I thought my many typos were hurting me but now I see the light!

Great article!!

lol@Fuzzy thumb technique … now a smart client will know about it of course.

I haven’t ever deliberately put a “fuzzy thumb” in a project (though have found one or two that were included by mistake!). I’ve often done the “big red text” technique with good success – though one time had a reviewer simply comment on the highlighted items and ignore the rest of the content.

May 16th, 2010

Hi, Tom

This is the first time I have read your blog and I found it very entertaining and informative. I am new to the Instructional Design field and I will definitely use your 7 techniques in order to build relationships with clients. However, I think I will experiment with other avenues before I try the fuzzy thumb technique because I have seen other people try something similar and failed miserably. However, I teach various software courses and my student’s knowledge levels range from beginners to advance and I have had to perform something similar on those students that think they know more than I do.

I guess I can call it the fuzzy brain syndrome – once the student explains to me that they really don’t need to take my class they are just there to refresh their skills I start the process of treating them as the master of the class. I will refer to them often to provide advance examples of how to use certain concepts in the real world since they have so much experience and guess what happens? They will eventually approach me after class and explain that they are self-taught and must have overlooked certain concepts and procedures during their studies.

[…] Stock.xchng: lots of free stock images. [original post] […]

[…] is a demo used in the blog post, 7 Proven Techniques for Keeping Your E-Learning Customers Happy.  It's not a serious course but what makes it a good example is some of the screen […]