In a recent conversation, the notion of the best clients came up (all of ours, of course!) and how we may feel “lucky” when we have them. The best clients are the ones that trust our expertise and seek our input on ideas, but aren’t afraid to poke holes when needed. They collaborate on ideas without pushing their needs over those of their users. They also make time when needed. Robby even wrote an article laying out criteria for being a great client.
But I’d argue that sometimes luck has nothing to do with having a great client. Rather, it’s how you enable them to be great. And as a designer, that’s an important part of my role in a project.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned when working with various clients over the years.
Learn what motivates the client
In any situation, it helps to understand the lens with which your client is working. What is their perspective on the project and what are their motivations for success? A past failed project might motivate a client to be extra cautious (and skeptical). Another stakeholder, perhaps an especially vocal one, might be pushing extra scope onto your client and therefore onto you. A new position might motivate the client to really impress and go above and beyond (and sometimes overboard).
Learning what is pushing your client will help you to understand and navigate around potential areas of concern. I talk about this a bit in an article about getting to know your clients.
Connect with the decision-maker(s)
Some clients have one decision-maker, some have multiple. For ease of discussion, it’s ideal for just one person to have ownership and authority. But sometimes that’s not possible.
That’s ok! Just make sure that as you design, you present your ideas to all decision-makers in the room. A mistake we’ve made in the past is presenting to one person on the client team, who then had to pass the message to the decision-maker.
While the message might be clear, you face the potential of losing your position as the expert. You aren’t there to defend, explain, or hear their input; therefore, you’re not who the client goes to for input.
When there are multiple decision-makers, or a decision-maker that is not as readily available, it can be difficult. Make it a priority that if the buck stops with one person (or persons), that that person be in the meeting when new ideas are being presented. That way, if there’s a discussion or a question, you are there to answer, and you are there to build that reputation as the expert they hired.
Be a Guide
Don’t always assume that a client has worked with a designer or an agency in the past. Even if they have, your approach is most likely different, anyway. They might not know what to expect out of you. They may not know the type of feedback you need as you pitch your ideas.
Set them up for success by guiding them through your process. Set your expectations for them, and let them know what they can expect from you. Walk them through your process, talk about what you plan to do, and explain what you’re working on. Give them examples if it helps explain your approach, ideas, or expectations of them.
Steer Away from Subjective Feedback
Design, even for the web, can seem like art. From that lens, design pitches can trigger an emotional or personal reaction. This leads to subjective feedback being given.
“I don’t like that color.”
“That feels too soft to me.”
“I don’t like that.”
Here’s the catch: web design shouldn’t be seen as an art form, at least not first and foremost. It should be centered around function. It should serve a purpose. It should meet a need. From that lens, you can set the discussion up by asking yourself and your client, “how does this meet the needs of its target audience? How does the design meet the objectives we’ve agreed upon?” This should steer the conversation from how “I feel” to whether it achieves what “they need.”
Help them stay focused
“This doesn’t pertain to this design but…” or “another thing we wanted to do is…”
It’s natural for ideas to pop into your head as you work, and it’s natural for the same to happen with your clients. The great thing about design is that it opens the door to possibilities.
This is where expectations can be challenged. Some ideas might be great, but out of scope. Don’t set yourself and the client up for disappointment. And don’t get sidetracked with new functionality or a new user experience that hasn’t gone through your “does this meet the goals” vetting.
This has happened to me more than I care to admit. It’s easy to get excited about a new idea. The momentum behind it can be infectious. But step back, and assess how it fits in with what you are doing. If it doesn’t fit yet, add it as something to think through when you are able. If it doesn’t fit at all, add it to a parking lot of ideas.
Be honest and open, but also be firm with the focus. By doing that, you keep the conversation on the task at hand, and don’t run the risk of losing sight of what you’re trying to do. Your project team will thank you as well, as scope creep is no one’s friend.
Lastly, Don’t Forget to Pass on the Knowledge
You’ll get a lot of background in the very beginning of design strategy. You’ll learn how decisions were made in the company. You’ll get told why green was chosen over orange as a brand color. You’ll hear how the process is one way, except for when it isn’t.
There’s an opportunity to push clients to think outside of the “this is the way it is” mentality. But, there are some functions, ideas, and ways of being that remain the same, and should. Just as you would note all key characteristics of a user to understand how to solve their problem, you should note the key characteristics and information about a client, and pass that knowledge onto the team working alongside you. This information is sure to help your team find the right solutions, just as it helped you.
This also creates a linear conversation, and helps clients avoid feeling like a broken record (or having to say “I thought we already discussed this”). That type of shared communication helps with efficiency and expediency.
Luck vs. Influence
Some people are lucky. Some aren’t. But don’t assume you can’t help your clients be the successful client they want, and you need them, to be. Sometimes, it just takes a little help from our friends.