Becoming a successful designer involves more than just great design work; you must maintain a great working relationship with each client you meet along the way. In order to make the most out of your time with clients, it is imperative that you understand certain factors that can greatly enhance the client/designer relationship. As they say, “a little bit goes a long way,” and it is no different than when it comes to the way you approach and treat your colleagues and customers.
Working with a client, whether it’s your first or hundredth, can be exciting, and with a little guidance, you can keep that excitement alive by focusing on the client/designer relationship before the actual design work. Today, I want to share five long-term strategies that keep clients happy with both you and your work.
Keep Them Involved
Keeping clients heavily involved in the project not only lightens your workload and prevents you from straying from client preferences, it also helps clients understand the intricacies and challenges of your design work. Having a very close look at the design process — complete with scrapped ideas that the client would never see otherwise — helps them appreciate your effort and understand all that goes into that last, perfect design.
Now not all of your clients will want to sit by your side or lend a hand, but there are those who enjoy being part of the process. If your client asks if there is anything they can do to help, don’t reflexively tell them “no.” You should see how involved they are willing to be and figure out what they can actually accomplish without compromising speed or quality. Some great ways to get your client involved include sketching, color scheme creation, and layout prototyping. Of course, if your client isn’t much of an artist, sketching might not be the best option but most people will be able to create color schemes with no problem. The quality of your client’s work isn’t nearly as important as their own process of understanding what they want from you.
Listen to Them. Really.
There are several things that can make you lose your client in a heartbeat and one of them is not listening. Let’s face it, no one likes being ignored, because it makes us seem like we don’t matter and what we have to say is trivial compared to everything else. When you design for a client, you need to listen actively and carefully to what they are saying, I mean really listen to what they are saying because if you don’t, you might miss something that could save you large amounts of time or boost the quality of your work tremendously.
Here’s what I mean by active, careful listening: We can discern certain things from the tone of voice used and, if you’re sitting face to face with your client, you can evaluate their body language and use it as even more information. If you don’t truly listen to your client, you may not catch certain things such as their sarcastic tone when they tell you that “electric yellow is the new black.” If you show up with a design sporting their least favorite elements, it’s not going to reflect well on your listening skills or your design work.
By listening to your client, you’re learning more than just their personal preferences. When your client speaks, chances are they are going to tell you about their business, their competition, and their brand. You may also hear about future plans for their business, most of which necessitate additional design work. Do you want to be at the top of their list for future design projects?
Keep in Contact
Sometimes we just get so wrapped up in our work that we forget to do the most basic of tasks: sleeping, eating, and getting back to people. Falling off the face of the planet happens, whether due to personal reasons or external factors. Unfortunately, if you’re in a position where you’re in the middle of dealing with a client this, can be a very bad thing, and you might find that your design work has vanished from your schedule when you finally return.
Recently, I started creating some visuals for a well-known UK-based singer whose producer went missing for several months. Despite repeated attempts, she couldn’t get a hold of him, in fact, I still don’t think she’s heard from him, and both parties have lost a lot of opportunities. The point is, keeping in contact with your client is extremely important; if you’re going away, you need to let your clients know beforehand so they aren’t left wondering if you are still their designer.
Now, don’t think that you have to accept 3AM calls unless it’s a dire emergency. (I can’t think of a design emergency that merits a 3AM phone call.) Providing your client with regular updates and checkups is beneficial, as it lets your client know how progress is coming along. You need to take the initiative on these updates; don’t wait for your clients to ask.
After a project is finished, everyone tends to go on about their business, both client and designer. Think about sending your client some tangible form of “thank you,” and if their project is to debut somewhere, think about sending them some form of a “good luck” message. You’d be surprised how far a few minutes of thought can effort can propel your design career.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you become Facebook friends and start planning social outings with your clients, but showing some personality to your client can and will most likely be beneficial to you in the long run. Being nothing but business and acting like a uptight CEO can make you come off mechanical and unapproachable, and it’s unexpected and jarring in the creative industry. Showing some energy and enthusiasm can go a long way, no matter what industry you work in. People respond positively to smiling faces and kind words. Being personable with your client doesn’t just have to stop at being friendly either.
Trying to find commonality with your client is a definite plus, especially if you’ll be working with them long term. Use those active listening skills to to find shared enthusiasm. Taking a break to talk about the “little things” is not only a great stress reliever, but it also allows you to gauge your client so that you will be fully prepared for when business talk picks up again.
I suggest taking your client discussions out of the office. Meeting over lunch or coffee is a great idea and a great change of scenery. It allows both you as the designer and your client to be at ease. (Plus, if you haven’t been able to snag yourself a bite to eat, now is your chance. Don’t talk with your mouth full!) Keep in mind that people remember those who are especially nice to them and those who are remarkably rude to them. I’m sure you know which end of the spectrum you belong on.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say “No”
More than likely, you have heard that “the customer is always right,” but contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t mean that you just have to take whatever the client dishes out to you, and in some cases both parties benefit from an honest “no.” A principled “no” with a defensible rationale will be far better for both you and your client than a knee-jerk, reactionary “yes” to all client ideas and demands. The client must understand the “why” behind the “no,” so make sure that your explanation is clear and mutually beneficial.
The last thing you want is to agree to an idea or business proposal that you can’t or shouldn’t do. Getting roped into a project you were too afraid to say “no” to can often lead to resentment, frustration, unhappy clients, unhappy designers, and substandard design work.
If you find yourself needing to say “no,” do so in a way that doesn’t come off a forceful. Explain why you are saying “no,” and offer alternatives or solutions to the problem at hand. If you’re dealing with a complicated client, you should check out my popular article Creating Good Designs from Bad Design Ideas: Three Client Types and How to Handle Them.
It really doesn’t take that much to enhance the relationship that you have with your client. But, it doesn’t take that much to damage it either, so be careful and deliberate with your clients. Treat your clients the way you’d want to be treated, and be the rock star designer that you’d want to work with as a client.
How do you maintain a happy working relationship with your clients? Do you do anything different than the suggested tips above? If you do please feel free to leave a comment and tell me about it.
Gabrielle is a freelance graphic designer, animator, photographer and filmmaker who has taken on various projects including creating logos for clients, animating commercials for film festivals, working as a character and background designer and animating music videos for an international music artist.