By Aaron Griffith
Good business relationships rarely just happen. While a smitten designer and their starry-eyed client may start out well with a "honeymoon" of a successful initial project launch, things can get rocky fast. The once-anticipated phone calls requesting new designs that used to be welcomed are now dreaded, and the previously infrequent and brief revision requests are now hostile diatribes critiquing every aspect of a submitted project.
Truly, if you thought that hearing "Let’s just be friends" from your junior high love interest was bad, wait until one of your clients cancels your project with an email that ends with "One of our sales guys bought that Photoshopper thing; he’s going to give this logo stuff a shot."
Just like a romantic relationship, client/designer partnerships take work to be successful. While each client has their own unique needs, here are a few tips that hopefully will keep your working relationships healthy and enjoyable.
1. Don’t be afraid to say "no"
This may seem counterintuitive, but you certainly can have too many clients that require way more time and effort than they are worth. If you have the time, energy, and manpower at your disposal then, by all means, take on new projects and grow your business. However, if you don’t have these limited resources (and they are limited!), don’t place an unneeded burden on yourself or your team to pull an excellent final product out of thin air. If you over-commit yourself then there is the risk of not spending the time and effort needed on existing work, making your current clients unhappy and potentially driving them away. It can be very tempting to obligate yourself to new projects that could be enjoyable or lucrative for you and your team, but if you know that you can’t handle the work at that moment, it is far better to say "no" then to risk your reputation and good name. At best you will either hand the project in late or you will overwork yourself and your team while sacrificing time on existing work- neither is desirable. Far better to politely decline a request and ask for a rain check- the prospective client will respect you for it and potentially come calling later.
On a related note (and keeping with the relationship theme), sometimes a "divorce" is called for between yourself and a client. If you find that one client is taking up most of your time, causing most of your headaches, and could easily be replaced by someone better, the time may be right to move on. A decision like this should never be made lightly, but it can potentially make your life easier and open up space for better customers.
2. Talk things out
A lot of problems in a romantic relationship can be avoided if both parties are willing to admit that they aren’t mind readers that intuitively understand the needs of the other person. The same goes for designers and their clients: no matter how well a designer thinks they understand a client’s instructions, they likely are missing something because the client either doesn’t think that they need certain information or they assume that such info is a given. By simply asking a few pointed questions to your clients, you can stimulate necessary discussion that will do away with uncertainties that lead to unnecessary revisions and wasted time. Here are a few examples:
- What is the ultimate purpose of this design?
- Who are you trying to reach with the design?
- How will this design be used (flyer, website, billboard, etc.)?
- How much time should I spend on this/ how much money are you willing to spend?
Also, if you anticipate any potential conflict or difficulties that will arise with your client while you work on a project for them, negotiate the details before starting work. In many cases negotiation may mean letting them know that you require a certain amount of freedom in your work to make their design a success. To have a reference point for future discussions, write down all the agreements that you and your client come to in your negotiations. Ultimately, you need to make sure that you understand as much as you can about who your client is and what they expect from you before you start work. While talking things out at length beforehand may seem tedious, trying to work solely off of your intuition won’t get you very far and it likely won’t endear you to your clients.
3. Create a work process
Creative types typically eschew uniformity and predictability, but the implementation of a standardized (read: boring) work process might be just what you need to improve relationships with your clients. Yes, "process" has the connotations of an overused piece of management-speak, but what is it really? Simply put, it is a standardized way that you organize your thoughts and work so that you can work more efficiently and effectively. Your process doesn’t have to be too specific or detailed, but it should touch on every aspect of starting, working on, and delivery of your project to a client. What does a process look like? Here’s a general example upon receiving a project request:
- Confirm project details (due date, cost, etc.)
- Task out every aspect of project
- Figure out what tasks are yours; delegate others with specific instructions
- Create draft for review
- Solicit feedback from client
- Make adjustments based on feedback (Repeat steps 5 and 6 as needed)
- Bill customer
- Check back in 6 months for more projects
You may think that something as simple as this plan is unnecessary, and you may be right. However, it can be very helpful to have an ordered checklist of things that you always do to refer to when working with clients. Having a process checklist like this hanging on your wall can give you direction and keep you on track when managing multiple or complex projects. Better yet, one idea might be to even share your process with your client- that way you can point them to specific steps that you are on in your work for them. A client will appreciate knowing exactly what is going on with the project, and they will be less likely to badger you with requests for status updates.
4. Get "preemptive" feedback
Before you asked your middle school crush out on a date, you probably ran your game plan by your friends and had them look for flaws ("Dude, you should definitely not take her to Burger King and then Schindler’s List!"). Similarly, there are few things that can be more helpful than having other people look over your design work and critique it before you submit it to a client. However, getting good, actionable feedback isn’t always easy and it can be a very humbling process. Here are two tips for those who want to get preemptive input from others:
Get feedback from the right people
Not all criticism is created equal. Some of it is really valuable, some is average, and the rest could get you fired if you implemented it. Therefore, you need to choose your feedback sources carefully. However, this doesn’t mean that you should only solicit help from other designers or professionals in your field. It is essential to get an outsider’s perspective that comes from someone in your client’s target market, or at least other designers that understand the population that you are trying to cater to.
Put your ego aside
Getting your work critiqued by others can be a painful process, especially if you put lots of time and energy into your projects and you take pride in what you do. However, if you really want good feedback then be prepared to have your design ideas called into question. Don’t be defensive or view critiques as ad hominem attacks on you or your philosophy as a designer (unless of course they actually are – see #4 in this article for help on distinguishing between the two). Try to remember that your work isn’t ultimately about you- it is a service for someone else and their needs as a client. Once you do this you are lessening the emotional burden on yourself, thus making it easier to hear and implement suggestions from others regarding your work.
5. Be timely
You wouldn’t show up 30 minutes late for a first date, and regular tardiness can be a constant source of aggravation for some significant others. It’s not too different with your design work; be on time, and nerves are much less likely to be frayed.
Being timely sounds simple (and it is), but it is essential that designers understand that nothing peeves a client like turning projects in late or missing set deadlines. The key to being on time has a lot to do with staying focused on your work, doing what you say you will do, and not stretching yourself too thin (see tip #1). But perhaps the best strategy for working with your client in a timely manner is to stay in constant communication with them. This may mean giving a regularly scheduled update on the project’s progress, or it may just require the occasional email or phone call to let them informally know how things are going. Choosing how to do this is up to you, but the main reason for doing so is to keep your client aware of any issues or problems that you run into that would prevent you from handing in a project on time. Most clients will have no problem pushing back a due date because of unforeseen circumstances as long as they are kept in the loop with what is going on and they are made known of the problems when they happen. Explaining an unexpected issue two weeks (or even two days) from the due date is much easier than two hours before the project was due.
Hopefully this article has given you some help in successfully improving and maintaining your relationships with clients (with a few free dating pointers along the way, free of charge!). This list isn’t exhaustive- there are many different strategies to build rapport with your clients- but just starting with these 5 basic practices will strengthen the relationships you currently have and build a solid foundation for starting new ones.
- A Client’s Perspective on Hiring A Designer
An excellent blog post that gets you in the head of a typical design client. Short and insightful.
- A Quick Way To Improve Client Relationships and Your Own Capabilities
A gutsy and simple one-time task that could help you understand your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to working with clients.
- 10 Tips For Communicating With A Difficult Client
Got a client that is already driving you nuts? Shay Howe’s suggestions in this piece might help you out.
- 11 Tips on How to End a Client Relationship
If you need a “divorce” from a client here are some good tips on how to best handle the situation.
- 13 Tips for Effective Communication with Clients
Some good reminders from DesignM.ag about how to talk to clients to maintain a positive and effective working relationship.
- Concept Feedback
Here you can post your designs and receive critiques from other designers and marketing professionals. The site encourages providing actionable critiques and suggestions, not simply a rating system (although they have that too).
- Smashing Magazine Design Forum
A text-based forum for designers. The forum is a great community of Smashing readers that are usually very helpful.
- The Graphic Design Forum
Offers a great place to get feedback regarding design, and they also have sections for photography and software-related questions. Interesting articles too!
- Designers Talk Forum
Over 25,000 members that discuss topics related to web design.
About the author
Aaron Griffith is a marketing project manager for Air Cycle Corporation and LampRecycling.com. Both companies provide recycling and other green solutions for businesses and large organizations all over the world. Aaron also contributes to Concept Feedback, a community of designers and marketers dedicated to sharing ideas and feedback on design projects. You can follow Concept Feedback on Twitter.