The Importance of Being Proactive with Design Clients

Respect pinned on noticeboardIn all honesty, working with clients can be one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. There is nothing better than delivering an excellent site, and watching the stats go up because of improved usability, design, speed, or responsiveness.

Unfortunately, clients can also be the most challenging aspect of my job. I’ve written extensively about designer-client relationships in the past, and discussed how to nurture certain client personalities (like the indifferent client) and why it is so important to include clients in the design process.

This week, I will discuss how to deal with clients who are especially difficult.

What Qualifies as “Difficult”?

I define a difficult client as someone who “doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know.” In this case, I am talking about clients who do not understand the standards or procedures of web design or the industry itself.

Of course, most of my clients don’t understand the ways of my craft. After all, if they did- they wouldn’t need me! However, the trouble starts when a client refuses to understand that they do not understand. Problems arise when clients are passionate about issues that a designer advises against. For example, let’s say you have a client who suggests a change to your design with no purpose other than preference. Typically, if the change is minor, it isn’t really a huge deal. We can always find out more about our target audience’s preference through usability testing. However, what if the change is something that will negatively affect the user’s experience? A good designer will offer advice and attempt to make the client understand why the change is not for the best. When, after giving advice and example, the client remains adamant about the change, than we have a client who “doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know.”

So when it gets to that point, what’s a designer to do? Keep on reading to find out my method.

Being Proactive Rather than Reactive

When I was in college, I had a professor who discussed how most problems arise because we approach issues from a reactive standpoint, rather than proactive.

Since we are already on the topic of college, let’s use a school-related example:

It’s the night before your final exam. You’ve just pulled an all-nighter studying for that killer statistics test. You crawl to class groggy, jittery from the espresso you just drank, and more than a little stressed. In short, you’re in a pretty miserable state.

I’m pretty sure just about everyone has experienced this to some degree in the past. Perhaps not with a final exam, but maybe a presentation or a work deadline.

There is definitely a problem here. And I’ve got news for you folks; the problem is not the final exam. The problem is not even the all-nighter. The problem, in this example, is that for the past semester, you haven’t been proactive in studying for that final statistics exam. Rather than keeping up with the homework, asking the right questions, showing up to every class, and getting tutored, you’ve placed your priorities elsewhere. Because you weren’t proactive, your only option now is to react to the upcoming final exam at the last moment.

The proactive/reactive rule rings true for clients as well, there are certain steps that we can take to prevent that all-nighter stress before it even strikes.

Choosing The Right Clients

Luckily, I was born in the age of technology. When I was in college, I had the ability to visit sites like RateMyProfessors.com and research which teachers’ methods would best fit my learning style. With many professors active on social media as well, it is easy to find the best ones for you.

Of course, there isn’t exactly a RateMyClient.com, but you can take steps to review your client before taking them on. Do your research. Speak with them on the phone or face-to-face, if possible. Get an understanding of their needs, their company, etc. These initial phone calls are about making sure the client is a good fit for you, as well as finding out whether you’re a good designer for them. If you do determine that the prospect could be a great long-term client, take notes of any possible obstacles, like language barriers or lack of technical understanding.

Rally The Troops

Possibly even more important than choosing the right clients, is making the right decisions about your team. They are the ones with you in the trenches. You need to be able to trust them and their decisions. When something goes awry, they are the ones who stand behind you. Don’t undervalue them- you’ll never understand how important they are to your project until you really need them.

You Only Get One First Impression

Once you’ve found a good match, it is time to truly get down to business. The first steps of the process after the contract is signed are absolutely crucial. It is during this stage that you must help your client understand your process and establish yourself as an authority. If you have a certain way of doing things, and your client doesn’t agree with it, hold your ground. If you bend in the beginning, you’ll find yourself bending throughout the entire project. Your client needs to view you with respect – as a partner – rather than a subordinate.

Ask Questions, and Encourage Them As Well

I happen to think that questions are very undervalued in today’s society. I think this is in large part because of our reliance on technology. Don’t get me wrong, I Google random thoughts and questions on a daily basis. However, there are some questions that I don’t think Google can answer. That’s right. I said it, you heard me Google! ;-)

But really, Google can’t give you personal insight into your client’s company, processes, and personality. To truly learn your client’s ins and outs, you’ll need to ask questions.

Sometimes, you’ll find yourself asking a client a question and getting an irrelevant response in return. Rephrase the question and ask again. You asked the initial question for a reason- it obviously needs to be answered. Press on until you have all the answers you need. If you don’t understand their answer, ask for clarification. It may be a bit time-consuming, but it is far better to ask questions now then to fix future mistakes that you could have prevented during this stage. Again, be proactive rather than reactive.

Make sure this type of communication isn’t only one-way. Your client should feel comfortable coming to you with questions and asking your advice.

Use Examples

In case you haven’t noticed the articles I write, I like to give plenty of examples to my readers. I am no different in my approach to my clients. One of the best ways to help someone understand a concept is to tell a story. Think about Aesop’s fables. Those short stories were meant to help explain morality – a very complicated, abstract concept – in a way that children can understand. We must do the same for our clients and our team. Give them examples, tell stories, and make sure they understand. Make sure they leave your presence with a firm understanding of the next step.

Track Time

I mentioned in one of my latest articles that I’ve begun tracking time for almost all my clients in a Google spreadsheet. I take notes on the time spent, what was accomplished, etc. While this can seem insignificant, it’s amazing how it’s helped me understand where all my time goes. If you have clients that seem to be swallowing up your time, track them to make sure you don’t go over budget.

Be Realistic

One of the biggest personality flaws I have is my inability to tell people “no.” You need help with a big project? I’m your girl! Want a new website? Let’s do it! Thinking about going responsive? I’m glad you called!

However, the problem here is that when I continually tell people yes, I find that I spread myself too thin. I accept deadlines that are nearly impossible, tasks that I may not likely finish, etc.

Since working at Optimum7, I think I have improved quite a bit on this, but I still have a long way to go. Growing up, my parents taught me that I could do anything, achieve any goal, and be anything I wanted to be. This is something I hold very near and dear to me of course, however I sometimes find myself misinterpreting the message. Yes, I can do anything and everything. But, I can’t do it all at the same time.

By knowing your limitations – usually, time – you can better communicate what can and cannot be done for your clients, and set appropriate expectations.

The Takeaway

Working with design clients will never truly be easy. It is human nature to challenge each other. But with a respectful and proactive approach, we can learn to better understand our clients’ personalities and ultimately tailor their experience to their needs.

Looking for a web designer who is willing to take the time to understand your company’s needs? Contact Optimum7 for a free consultation today.

August 28, 2013

Written by Bridget Farrell

Bridget Farrell is the designer, illustrator and artist in charge of creating and implementing clean, elegant web solutions for Optimum7 and their clients. Upon her graduation from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL, Bridget began to design professionally. Although she loves logo and print design, she feels that web design is where her true passion lies today. “I enjoy designing for the web because it’s truly the direction marketing is heading in. Most CEOs aren’t looking to order stationary for their companies; they want polished, well-developed websites- and this is where I come in.” Bridget has a constant thirst for knowledge and thrives on keeping current with all of the latest technology. She works with Photoshop, Illustrator, HTML, CSS, PHP, Javascript, MySQL, WordPress, Joomla and Volusion. A true nerd at heart, Bridget can often be found spending her nights and weekends reading, researching and occasionally practicing yoga.

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