Paul Boag gave a great talk about working with (not dealing with) clients at Future Insights Live 2012 that I wish I could’ve heard years ago. His insights were so good that I had to share them. I hope the web design community can rally behind some of these ideas. Even though I now work for one client, switchcam.com, I still found his advice useful and I plan to begin changing my attitude towards my inter-office communication.
Just because they don’t understand the web, doesn’t make them stupid
Respect between your client and yourself should be a two-way street, but oftentimes a strained relationship will cause your client to seemingly lose respect for your skills and resort to micromanaging, or you will lose respect for their knowledge outside of the web and begin to hide your process or talk to the client like they’re stupid. So how can this be remedied? It’s important to remember that You and the client have the same objective ultimately.
Communicate confidently, not arrogantly
Showing your client that you know what you’re doing, helps to build their trust and respect. If you read my notes on Mike Kus’ talk, you saw that even great designers like Mike and Paul will doubt their abilities, but do your best to hide your doubt and rely on your experience when talking with clients. If you’re an American, be cautious not to be too confident and wander into the arena of arrogance. If not, you can probably stand to show a bit more confidence.
Show them you’re an expert by association
As you’re talking, reference experts in your field to make your point. This is a great communication tool for negotiating (read: arguing) with anyone. Refer to established user studies by Google, or Steve Krug and it will take the burden of proof off of yourself and show the client you’ve done your homework and they should respect your understanding of the field.
Be willing to challenge their assumptions – and challenge through questions
It’s easy for us to fall to the clients requests for color changes and font tweaks when we have no better argument that “I don’t want to do that,” but through questioning a request, not only will a bad idea often reveal itself to the speaker, their motivations for the request will also come up. Ask them politely why they want to change a typeface, and you may find out that your initial understanding of their brand was not sufficient. Then, rather than being diminished to a “Photoshop operator” doomed to do their bidding, you’re prepared to make better decisions about their site and apply your wealth of font knowledge to their needs.
Turn the relationship into one of peers
Paul’s advice here was “take your client to the pub.” My experience has shown me that the better you know your client, the more you enjoy working together. Your client is also much more likely to be forgiving when you have a good relationship
Use process and past projects to establish expertise
Show your client very transparently what you’re going to do and you’ve done before. From gathering info, to mood board, to style tiles, to mockups, to deliverables. The better they understand the process the less likely they’ll be to get surprised and as a result, frustrated. This extra communication may take more time, so I would advise budgeting for the extra time if you haven’t been doing this.
Clearly defined roles
Educate your client on their role in this process. You want them to not only feel important and empowered, but also to understand how crucial their communication is, and where your boundaries lie. Let the client know that their role is to identify problems, yours is to provide solutions
In my opinion, client communication is the must under-emphasized area of client design. Other than Boagworld, I know of no one else singing the praises of how they communicate with their clients. It’s not glamorous, and for most of us, it’s not how we want to spend our time. As a freelancer I much preferred talking to Photoshop over talking to a client.
- Try and avoid surprises – if we’re surprised, then we try to take control. The same applies to clients. The moment they fear that surprises are going to start cropping up, you will find them starting to micromanage.
- Builds relationship – as stated above, the better your relationship, the more a client will bear with you
- Don’t rely on electronic communication – Pick up the phone, and then reinforce what was said in email. This is one of our greatest faults as “techies.” We’d much rather use twitter or email, but so much more can be communicated – and understood – through your voice.
- Be regular and communicate often, even if you have nothing to say – at bare minimum, once/week. Communicating regularly gives you the opportunity to warn your client if there is the smallest chance that you could miss a deadline. That way they are not surprised if you miss it, and when you do make the deadline, their expectations are exceeded!
- Be open and honest
Education, Education, Education
- Educate yourself about your client, their users, their needs, their business – it’ll help you avoid misunderstandings.
- Interview the stakeholders. You’ll be less likely to get complaints later on, and more importantly, you’ll find out who the real decision makers are.
- When they do have a good idea, implement it, or write it for phase 2 if it’s out of scope.
- Educate your clients so they understand what you’re doing and why by showing them sites you like, mood boards, case studies, etc.
- Expose your process, so they feel involved.
Improvements for presentation
Never ask the client what they think
I love this quote. Instead, ask structured questions (planting the right way of thinking). ”Is the design inline with the aesthetics outlined in the mood board?” “Does this meet the [business objective] you mentioned in our first meeting?”
Don’t limit iterations.
Limiting iterations places value on them, and therefore forces them to agonize over each one and begin to micromanage
Send a screencast as the deliverable
I’ve saved the juiciest piece of advice for last – and this is absolutely brilliant. Paul sends a screencast as the deliverable as opposed to a flat asset. This not only educates the client on why decisions were made and how the site meets their goals, but also educates anyone who the client may solicit feedback from – thereby nullifying the “my daughter doesn’t like it” argument. It also prevents cross-browser complications early on.