It is easy to get too wrapped up in the details of what we do, and the minutiae of what we sell.

That’s narrow thinking. Because what clients are buying — what truly makes the money change hands — is usually something else entirely.

The richer and happier freelancers understand this.

I stole the idea ages ago from a guy who ran a little pastry cafe:

“What I have on the counter are muffins and bagels and croissants. But what my customers are paying for is twenty minutes of peaceful indulgence on a park bench on a sunny day, after a truly crappy morning. Three dollars, twenty minutes of serenity, with raisins.”

That’s how he saw every customer, every purchase. That’s what he thought about when making decisions about the business. It simplified everything.

I love the way Derek Sivers of CD Baby thought of it. He really didn’t care about building a business or running an e-commerce site. “I was only trying to help independent musicians sell their music.” He made millions thinking that way.

A young marketing coordinator is getting things ready for a big trade show. At the eleventh hour she realizes she has entirely forgotten to have the product literature translated into German. A huge gaffe. There will be yelling. When she calls translators, what she’s looking for is pain relief. She will gladly trade a handsome fee to get her ass out of the fire. That’s what she’s paying (a lot) for. The translations? Yeah, fine. Just by Tuesday, please.

A former client calls me. Some shift in the industry has almost pushed his business off a cliff. He’s scared. He wants to entirely trash his web site, re-emerge as a ‘new’ company. I’m not in love with his idea, or what he wants to say. He doesn’t care. Because the website isn’t the point. He needs a grand and flamboyant gesture for his employees, for his clients. For himself.  “Maybe I screwed up, but we’re back.” That’s what he’s buying.

You think you’re producing a three-minute video with animated graphics and custom music soundtrack. But what the client is paying for is a chance to impress the hell out of her boss and her boss’s boss three weeks from today.

What the author wants is to have his book sell by the millions all over South America, in Spanish.

Sometimes, all the client wants is to have everything checked off her to-do list every Friday. No hassles. She will pay for that.

I know, it’s hard enough getting through the day without worrying about all these ‘ulterior’ motives, too. Holy crap.

But thinking this way will help you understand the puzzling things clients do. (Well, maybe a little, sometimes.)

It can also help you win die-hard, never-leave clients for life. Because you’re selling what they want. Which ain’t always what it says on your business card.

It can also clarify your mission, give you a North Star for the project. It always helps to know what you are actually shooting at. No matter what the client says.

That is where the money is. And in truth, most of the fun, too. Doing stuff that matters, that gets people jazzed.

Oh. But an important point.

It’s best not to promote or talk about any of this too overtly. This is all subtext. It should come through sort of on its own.

If you get it, the client will know. No need to say it outright. That will only ruin it.