How a White Water Rafting Guide Shaped WillowTree's View on Client Service

Who are the guides who have had the most impact on your life? What are the qualities that allowed them to have that impact?

At WillowTree, we believe our purpose is to guide our clients through architecting exceptional experiences. Our clients partner with us to take away the unknown and fear that can come with investing in digital solutions that will transform their business. We say our purpose is to guide, but in a field filled with “consultants” - experts who provide opinions and advice - what does it really mean to be a guide? What’s the difference between a consultant and a guide?

Here’s an excerpt from our employee handbook:

“For our clients, our purpose is to guide. We are proud to help people navigate some of the twists and turns of this complicated, crazy work. We take satisfaction in being helpful, trusted and valued by the people who want our help to succeed. We have empathy that this work can be difficult and stressful, and we are glad to be of service to our clients. We work in a really young industry, where standards and conventions are in their infancy. By learning, teaching, and explaining the methods we’ve developed, we can help to advance our clients’ interests and – in some ways – our industry.”

I started our client services discipline when I joined Dynamit (now WillowTree) and, over the past ten years, how our team best serves our clients has been a passion regardless of where I’m working in the business - client delivery, operations, sales, etc. That passion has fueled my desire to learn from others in the space whether it be Zappos, Amazon, Nordstrom or recognized thought leaders in the CS and CX space. I’ve read countless articles, books and white papers on the subject, but nothing has affected my perspective more than a trip we took as a company to white water raft on the New River Upper Gauley with a guide named Ray Ray.

upper-gauley The Upper Gauley River. Credit: American Whitewater

A little bit about the Gauley River … “The Gauley River in West Virginia is recognized by paddlers as one of the top ranked rivers in the world. Its technical rapids, inaccessibility and scenic quality contribute to its world class designation. Dropping more than 650 feet in 24 miles, the Gauley River features over 100 rapids.” And there’s more “Set against a backdrop of towering cliffs and steep slopes of brilliant fall foliage, the Upper Gauley River is a high impact adventure recommended for only serious whitewater enthusiasts. It is ranked as one of the most uniquely challenging single day whitewater runs in the world and certainly in the United States.” It’s the planner in me that likes to consider worst case scenarios and create plans to mitigate - so you can imagine what was flying through my head. For the weeks ahead of our trip, I thought about all the things that could go wrong - a capsized raft, getting my foot pinned under a rock. Let me tell you the bus ride to the river didn’t help that fear at all, the driver gave us the most worst case scenario talk I’ve ever received. When we hit the bank of the river, my heart was pounding and my head was swirling with anticipation and what-ifs but that is where we met our guide Ray Ray. Ray Ray reminded me of the Mountain version of a west coast surf instructor - (think Eric Christian Olsen from NCIS Los Angeles). The course we had picked was the Upper Gauley on the week they had released water from the dam above (the hardest course West Virginia has to offer). The first thing he asked our team was to raise our hand we had been white water rafting before - of the six Dynamiters on the boat not a single one raised a hand. The initial response on Ray Ray’s face was short lived but clear and followed up by something like “well s$%” and a smile. He didn’t hide the difficulty we’d face ahead, in fact, he addressed it head on and focused us all on how we’d tackle the challenge together. Ray Ray made it clear this would be a team effort and our listening, communication and responsiveness would be key to our success, or we’d end up in the river.

upper-gauley-2 What can happen if something goes wrong. Credit: American Whitewater

From then on out Ray Ray made it his goal to do what he did best, prepare an inexperienced rafting team of head-strong, passionate and driven people down one of the most challenging white water courses in the eastern US. We talked about what could go wrong and the fears we all had in our head. He sat us down in the boat and began to explain the mechanics of paddling in the raft, how we needed to listen to his instructions, work together and communicate. He also told us that if we needed him he’d get down and paddle with us. It was clear he was going to do everything in his power to make our trip a success and FUN. He didn’t add energy to our fear but he didn’t pretend it wasn’t there either. He used his experience to know what to do and how to guide us to build trust and bring us together as a team. Trust is one of those outcomes we want, and so did Ray Ray, because he knew the success of our day was going to require it.

Before each rapid, Ray Ray would remind us of what he showed us on the shore and give specific instructions for that rapid and some instructions for a few key “what ifs” that could pop up on that rapid. We focused and paddled with mad intent on following our leader who remained calm, level headed and instructive both on the technical aspects and how we should work together to get through the rapid. After each rapid he’d shout “paddles up in the middle” and we’d clap our paddles together like a big high five to celebrate what we’d done together before we headed further down the river. A key element to his guidance was delivering the right information at the right time to make it most useful and using those mini milestones to build confidence with our team.

I remember coming to the end of the river and feeling this huge sense of accomplishment and thinking “We did it!” followed by “Wow, that wasn’t nearly as scary or hard as I thought it would be” and in that moment I knew instantly it was because of Ray Ray. He caused a group of novice rafters to do something they’d never done before and pretty successfully too. We never capsized (although one of the other rafts did) and we only got our raft stuck on the rocks once, but Ray Ray got us through that with the same calm, instructive and casual manner he did with anything else.


I left the river with so much energy to take what I’d learned from Ray Ray back to the office and infuse it into the way I personally and the rest of the team worked with our clients. We even bought a rafting paddle that sits in the corner behind my desk. Every time I reflect on that trip, I think it’s a perfect analogy for the partner our clients want us to be - guide, use our expertise in our field, create clarity about each stage of the journey, communicate proactively about what we needed to be doing, focus on driving success and avoiding the natural pitfalls of technology projects but using our experiences to get the best results - all while being calm, instructive and helping the team have some fun along the way by being humans not “consultants”. While digital projects aren’t “life or death” they have survival stakes of their own - promotions for the client team, validation of future investments in technology, and immediate topline and bottom line impact. Projects have lasting impacts of the relationships between the company and the solution’s users - customers or internal.

Ask yourself, am I so concerned about being right that I lose sight that being effective means my client is successful? Do I hoard expertise, methods, and risks relating to our work because I don’t think the client can handle the information or because it gives me some kind of power, or do I constantly seek clarity and proactively communicate with my client, even when it’s hard, to prove that I’m part of their team and earn their trust? If Ray Ray didn’t talk about the hard things we’d do together and I ended up falling out of the boat, I’d blame him, not the river. I wouldn’t trust him, and I would certainly never have Ray Ray as my guide again. Work today is too filled with win-lose situations where expertise and methods and project risks are kept so close to the vest to maintain a power dynamic over a client or hide a problem that could easily be solved quickly upfront by a (sometimes awkward or uncomfortable but critical) conversation and a joint destination and plan. How backwards that thinking is to view the firm and the client as being on opposing sides when really we’re all just headed down the river together in the same raft.

This year we’re renewing our commitment to being more like Ray Ray, to be being the guide our clients wants and deserves and to clapping our paddles together after each rapid we get through.

Most people experience “consultants” in our field, few people experience guides. We believe our clients have a right to expect more… It’s why we’ve changed our mission statement to reflect how we already do this at WillowTree when we’re at our best:

"Together with our clients, we build exceptional digital + software experiences that are right-sized for today and scalable for tomorrow.

We commit to connecting personally, making and keeping promises, and guiding our partners as a part of their team."

Or as I used to say for months after our rafting experience, “All day, Ray Ray.”