Keeping Clients (and you) Happy

In theory making your clients happy and keeping them that way shouldn’t be all that difficult. After all, the whole point of being a designer is having an innate ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. Empathy, emotional intelligence, perceptiveness – aren’t these the defining skills of the designer?

Can it really be so difficult to maintain healthy, loyal relationships with like-minded clients who share your vision of what great design is and should be? The answer is yes and no. Keeping your clients in a constant state of joy, without feeling you are compromising yourself, does involve throwing a lot of balls in the air and developing the necessary skills to keep them there. But it is possible.

Most issues around relationship management are rooted in common sense (and where possible avoiding the term ‘relationship management’). Human relationships are just that. Human. Two people who share some common ground are more likely to be united in their commitment to succeed. Yes, we are all individuals. We are all different. But our differences are small. So small in fact that they should never prevent us from finding commonality, relating to one another’s pressures or most important of all, being honest.

So, here they are. Some top tips that help designers and clients coexist in a white fluffy cloud of mutual adoration, if not forever, then for a very long time indeed. Any clients or designers out there who wish to add their own thoughts to the list, please do. We’d love to keep this list growing.

Ask for the money

Agreeing a fee before work begins is everything to do with setting the foundations for a smooth future. That fee needs to be sufficiently large enough for you to resource the best job you can and small enough for clients to feel they are getting great value for money. You are offering them a service they can’t do themselves. In other words the hard stuff. Resolving the hard stuff is a valuable skill. Put a price on it that works for you both. If you can’t do that, then perhaps this isn’t the right client or the right project for you.

Work it out

When you meet a client for the first time, it’s essential to uncover the true nature of what needs to be done. Your client’s ideas may not necessarily coincide with yours. But that’s okay. That’s why they’ve come to you. You can give them guidance and expertise. To do it, you need to discover the fundamental issues at hand, then articulate them in an outline brief. Committing things to print is always a good idea. It clarifies thinking, forces others to consider the impact of what you’re doing and essentially keeps everyone honest. The moment a goal post changes position is the moment you call over the referee. Discuss the knock on effects on deadlines and finances. No matter how uncomfortable at the time, it’s the only way to avoid tears and tantrums at full time.

Manage Expectation (That Goes For The Both Of You)

Like most clichés, this one is borne out of truth. It’s worth mentioning because so many clients become frustrated when they feel their work is either no longer a priority, that you didn’t knock it out of the park first time around or they didn’t know that all those iterations would cost so much, and by the way, what do you mean they don’t own the intellectual property. These little annoyances can build into one huge big “I’m off” all too quickly. Luckily they can easily be avoided in one swift move – frequent and open communication. Don’t forget you know everything (or almost) everything about your particular field of design. Your client will know a fantastic amount about the sector in which they operate but they might not know a darn thing about the design process, the potential for real and valuable change, never mind the subtle nuances of European IP law. Why would you expect they might?

Know How You Fit In To The Bigger Picture

Educating clients is part of the job. But there is also a responsibility to educate yourself. Immersing yourself albeit for a short while in an industry, sector or organisation can be fun. Doing great work often means investing time and effort in understanding the context of the project you’ve agreed to undertake. This can be daunting too since you’re more likely to appreciate the consequences your client will face, should the design process falter. There’s nothing quite like the shared experience of staring down the barrel of a gun to forge a bond between two people. (Ref any Bond movie)

“Work Should Be More Fun Than Fun” Noel Coward"

Easy to say when you’re brilliant at everything, but Noel does have a point. What you do should be enjoyable. If it isn’t, everyone around you, clients included, will sense that you’d much rather be somewhere else. Not good for morale, even worse for creativity.

Pull A Rabbit Out Of A Hat (Now And Again)

‘Going the extra mile’ seems to be the phrase d’aujourd hui. Everyone says they’re prepared to do it. But are they? Really? Work happens at such a frenetic pace these days, it’s hard to imagine being any more productive, any more creative. But sometimes, just sometimes, a client will present a wonderful opportunity for you to show just how much you value them. Everyone wants to feel special, clients of designers in particular.

Make ‘Em Look Good

Be prepared to bury your ego. Yes, the idea may have been yours. The execution conceived and directed by you, the success of the entire project may have lived or died on your genius alone. But. And it’s a big but. It was done with your client’s money. They bank rolled it and let’s not forget they had the great foresight to ask you to do it. So credit where credit’s due. Your brilliance really shines on them.

Awkward Clients Are Sometimes The Best Kind

The most demanding, exacting, nit picky clients can actually compel you to do your best work. The types who push for better, generally make for the best design managers. And the best design managers usually commission the best (read award winning) designers. Go ahead, embrace the nitpicking. Run with it. You never know where it might lead.

If you don’t know, ask

It’s a seductive little number, but compensating for the gaps in your own knowledge by rattling out mystifying jargon to a client is almost never a good idea. At best you’ll look a like the worst kind of stereotype and a bit of a prat. At worst you’ll be exposed as a complete fraud and any trust that existed before will have disintegrated faster that it takes to say leverage, synergy or paradigm shift. If you don’t know, just ask. Less embarrassing in the long run.

Nothing Lasts Forever

So sang Ian McCulloch. Things change, people move on, business strategies evolve. Sometimes the grass appears a brighter shade of green on the other side of the street. Good relationships might not last forever but if you get the balance right, there will be time to do some extraordinarily good work – that both of you can feel proud of. And it is all about common sense. Be enthusiastic, be ready to listen and learn, apply your knowledge, stand up for what you know to be true, remain honest, share what you know, keep your mind open to alternatives and above all, make every piece of work count.

This article was originally written for the Northern Ireland Design Alliance

Happy clients illustration