Why a relationship with your client is about more than your skills
Designers are masters of the craft. Well, lots of crafts: experience, aesthetic, and communication.
Communicating with non-designers is key to success as a designer.
As the Design Team Manager at Netguru, I manage the amazing team of 60 talented designers, one of the top & fastest-growing design teams in Europe. Together we help companies design beautiful software that meets their business goals. My mission here is to support and mentor them while they help our clients achieve their business goals.
We’re going to discuss:
- Earning your client’s trust
- Explaining design in non-design language
- Managing your relationship
- Keeping realistic expectations
Every relationship starts somewhere
We design products and interfaces for humans. Apart from being an employee, a manager, or a boss with budgets and deadlines to meet, a client is also a person with their own professional and personal goals and limitations, with a background and a family. Therefore, your first meeting with a client relies on gaining trust as much as on showing your portfolio and proving your designs bring enough value.
You should remember they put a huge investment into building the product, often having one shot—pass the project to impress investors or audience and keep the project alive. So you should make them feel they do the right thing putting their future in your hands. It is crucial to know the business environment your partner comes from. You need to gain trust and show not only do you care about getting the job done but also about your client’s business success.
Earn trust with transparency
Your client might not be a design expert, but they are experts in their field. To gain their respect, make them feel respected: listen to what they have to say and make them part of your process.
Part of developing trust with your client is giving them visibility into your process and your progress. If your client can grow to understand your decision-making on a micro-level, you’ll see it pay off on the macro.
To keep your client in check, follow these tips:
- Be transparent with your progress,
- Provide regular status updates on whether you are on or off track,
- Propose measurable goals for your work and measure and track them,
- Show real/test user session recordings, present heatmaps, and flows.
This will demand regular and open communication—whether it’s a daily/weekly email, a weekly video call, or regular meetings is up to you. The goal is to make sure your client is aware of the hard work that goes into the design, and the consideration you put into every detail and decision.
Learn to speak the client’s language
The language you use can have a tremendous impact on trust—you must never hesitate. Your doubts will raise the client’s doubts about hiring. The last thing they need is to leave their business future to your gut feeling. Always talk about facts, not assumptions and statements.
Your knowledge should go beyond UI/UX—see what the business strategy and the go-to-market strategy are, how the company works, whether your solutions will make them inoperative, what their competitors do well and what they do poorly, and what the overall market conditions are.
Moreover, you should address the client’s business needs—not some mythical users they don’t know or care about. Talk about users in the business context. For example: “(X) would help our new users achieve (business goal)”
The ability to talk openly is an incredibly difficult skill to obtain that will often distinguish great designers from outstanding ones. It requires courage, self-criticism, and humbleness. When you learn how to speak about the flaws of your solution and stop being afraid of asking questions, you will notice a big difference in the relationship.
Risk management in your relationship
You’re often the person with the least to lose when a project fails, but get involved so much as if your career depended on that one single project. You should feel co-responsible for your clients’ successes. Your responsibility is to keep them informed about the broad implications your design solution may have. Look at every decision and argument from their perspective, and it will truly change the quality of your relationship.
Clients appreciate it if you share your concerns so that they are not surprised at any stage of project design or development. Speaking about risks will strengthen your position as an expert and increase trust. As a designer, you might quit the project earlier, so your decisions might start to affect other stakeholders in the further stages. Therefore, sharing your insights throughout the process will positively influence the future success of the project.
Sometimes, the best solutions are beyond the risk threshold of risk of a given client. Be vigilant and see if solutions that seem to be the best from your perspective, are too risky for the client to introduce or operate. You might save their budget.
Respect the client’s time and money
There are not only technological but also organizational and personal costs of designing digital products. Everything you design will eventually need to be built, maintained and supported. Your idea for a new tool or feature will then require somebody’s time to operate it.
Sometimes a simple CRM or no CRM at all is better for the organization. A custom system can generate a big operational overhead for small startup teams. So unless it’s at the core of a business you can advise skipping this idea. Introducing a wide range of best-suited tools will not only generate more costs at the beginning, but could also cause issues with training the staff to operate them either now or in the foreseeable future. I personally remember clients’ appreciation expressed many times, whenever our design recommendations took the nature of their business into consideration.
Pick tools and priorities wisely
Keeping your client’s affairs in mind, you should focus on what has the biggest impact at an acceptable cost. Small changes in big, well-established organizations can bring about huge costs and impact. For example, changing a logo will have a marginal effect in small companies. In developed enterprises, on the other hand, it has the potential to cascade to a lot of effort expended for altering all bits of brand exposure and generate a ton of costs.
Don’t overestimate the value of some elements of the design process that might not matter at all in the end. Start with questions about things such as the product’s go-to-market strategy and sources of traffic. The client’s homepage should present a value proposition that is easy to understand as well as a unique selling point. At certain situations, these are way more important than animations, micro-interactions, and a flashy UI.
Educate your partner
Software might be eating the world, as they say, but not everyone must have shipped a software product to the world. Each time you recommend a certain solution, or recommend against it, you should back it with a straightforward explanation. Explore the technical expertise and savviness of your partner and explain the nuances of wording or terminology. It is our job to educate them—we shouldn’t force anything or expect a leap of faith. The client has the right not to understand basic design patterns—it is a designer’s duty to explain and educate, and, most importantly, stay patient throughout the process.
Engage experts to help your client
Last but not least, use your network to help your client’s business. If the go-to-market strategy or content plan is missing, find someone who can jump on a call and help you establish some basics and guide the client. Consult technical experts often and appreciate their expertise. Have an open mindset and synergy with other teams.
- Marketing can help you study the market and the competition, and better understand the go-to-market strategy and the internal resources needed to execute it;
- An SEO expert will ensure that the application benefits fully from search engine optimization, which includes websites, apps and Google, Bing or app stores;
- Content writers can help adjust the copy to fit the target audience and convey the brand message better so that it generates the necessary conversions;
Technical experts (engineers) will make sure that your solution is viable for implementation, both on the frontend and the backend.
A relationship with a client is a long-term investment
While beautiful designs can attract much attention from the design community and bring you more potential clients at some particular moment, they will never be as profitable as strong relationships based on trust and good communication in the long run. Treating your client as a business partner, and their affairs as if they were yours, will pay off in recommendations and positive testimonials. Keep these tips in mind from the very first meeting with your clients, and you will notice a huge difference in the design process, the cooperation, and the relationship.