5 Easy Ways to Keep Design Clients Happy

Gabrielle Gosha

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.

Be Personable

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.

Conclusion

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.

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  • http://lienhard.net Steven Lienhard

    I think interacting effectively with the client is perhaps the most challenging part of managing your own web design business.

    I think the ‘Keeping them involved’ part is especially interesting. I don’t do that enough and I’ve taken to heart what you’ve said here.

    Definitely going to refer back to this article time and time again.

    Thanks.

    • http://digifaceproject.wordpress.com Gabrielle

      Glad you liked the article. I agree with you though, I think some times the interacting becomes a challenge when trying to keep the client involved as I know some designers would prefer to just get the job done as quick as possible while the client feels the same way so the “involvement” part never really happens.

    • Melissa

      I think you’re right – the client relationship and client management is the most challenging (difficult, frustrating) part of design. And it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of designers, who are visual, creative people first, not necessarily social. However, an experiment I am trying is to give the clients lots of praise and credit for any good ideas and really play those up when I present iterations. I have noticed how much more amenable they are to me trying to cut out dead wood or bad directions then. Doesn’t always work – just a thought. I struggle with this a lot as I’m not a socially adept person but I love it when we can work together to make something that works and isn’t ugly!

      • http://digifaceproject.wordpress.com Gabrielle

        I absolutely agree with you Melissa as I just happen to be one of those people who are visually creative and not that socially adept, have been like that all my life, so yes it is a difficult and frustrating task at times. There is no guarantee these steps will make your relationships with your clients better but it can’t hurt to try especially for us “socially awkward” individuals. When things work well with a client it is always a nice thing I am coming to find out as I am currently working with someone who is surprisingly on the same wavelength with me, but then again she comes from an artistic background.

  • http://www.alnisadesignsandcompany.com Alnisa Designs & Co

    I never thought to let the client be involved, I mean beyond submitting assets and prompt feedback.
    “…but most people will be able to create color schemes with no problem.” This is actually a good idea because most people can definitely nail down a color palette without too much trouble. I usually ask them to give me a primary color that they cant live without and then work with a complimentary color palette from there.

    • http://digifaceproject.wordpress.com Gabrielle

      Having them give you a primary color they can’t live without is a great idea too. Just add that to letting them create color schemes and you’re on to something!

  • http://www.designtheplanet.com Kat Casebolt

    Gabrielle, these are great suggestions and ones we put into action everyday here at Design the Planet.

    We’ve developed a client process we like to call “radical hospitality”: starting from the moment someone walks into our office for the first time, a prospective client has our full attention. If they are waiting for more than a few minutes, they are given an iPad to peruse our portfolio or the Internet. Then, they are asked if they’d like an espresso or a sparkling water. (Some of our clients even stop by now just to get a cup of coffee!) Next is the “meet the team tour”, where they are introduced to everyone at the Planet, from the office manager to the interns. Then, they are taken to the client lounge, at which point they are given an in-depth interview where listening is what we do best. We use a questionnaire to guide the process so we are sure that we are hearing exactly what they are looking for before we go into the proposal stage. The goal is to listen to their wants and needs and use them in the proposal so they know we are hear to provide their utmost satisfaction in the final product.

    Because we only accept clients who are passionate and engaged in their project, it’s easy to keep them involved. Once a contract is signed, clients are apprised at every step of the process. When a new website or logo is launched or approved, we blow a horn in the office to let the team know that we’ve hit another benchmark, and the client receives a personal phone call and a card in the mail congratulating them on their new identity,along with an anniversary card from the team every year.

    During the design and implementation process, clients are contacted at least once a week to let them know how their project is going, but more importantly, to see if they have any questions or concerns about how things are moving along. This helps us to know that we are on the same page as our client every step of the way.

    Saying no to a client is always a challenge, but we believe that it is sometimes not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do. After 14 years in the industry, we’ve learned the hard way that the client is not always right. The delicate “art” of saying no is being able to tell them in a reasonable, informative way that makes sense and promotes understanding. If we’ve already earned their trust by building good relationship, we know they will value our professional opinion.

    Since implementing our stand on radical hospitality, we are a happier, more productive team, and our clients feel confident that they are in the best of hands.

    • http://digifaceproject.wordpress.com Gabrielle

      Wow Kat this is amazing. I really like the idea of supplying them with an iPad while they are waiting and introducing them to the entire team. It’s wonderful to know that there are people who make exceptional efforts to work with their client(s). It’s work ethics like these that make both parties happy in the long run. Thanks so much for sharing how Design the Planet operates in regards to their clients.

  • http://www.rocket55.com Rocket 55

    This article is helpful and very accurate. Simply picking up the phone and calling to ‘check in’ with your clients not only lets them know that you are thinking about them, but that they deserve more of your time than just an automated email. It also makes you more relevant to your client contact because you become an actual person over the phone rather than another email address in their contacts.