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How to Stop the Suffering and Actually Talk to Your Clients

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 01/10/2018 | 4 Minute Read

By: Elena Galitsky

How I learned to talk to my clients.

Working at a design studio is an interesting and complicated business, because our job is to make products together with our clients. Though this partnership comes with many challenges, the good news is: it’s worth it. The client-designer dynamic can generate solutions that are creative yet viable, but only if the two parties find an effective way to work together.

There’s no universal advice for achieving this harmony. It’s a combination of understanding and persuasion, knowing when to concede and when to insist. What’s important is that you have a common goal—you both want a great product. Working together should not be a compromise, but rather a symbiosis. Together you can achieve more.

First let’s talk about those all-too-familiar situations where communication has broken down between the client and the designer, and it seems impossible to come to an agreement.

  • Viewing design as art
    The client cannot pin down what he or she wants and is waiting for some little feeling before committing to a design.
    Design, unlike art, should always serve a particular function. Good design can be evaluated according to certain clear criteria which are defined before you begin.

  • A game of telephone
    When you don’t get the chance to work with the decision-maker.
    When you don’t deal directly with the main decision-maker, you can often expect endless edits. You or the team will eventually lose enthusiasm and the product will suffer, so try to do everything you can to connect to the decision-maker directly.

  • Caught in the crossfire  
    There are a few decision-makers on the client’s side, who all have differing views on the project.
    There’s not much you can do to change their attitudes, but try to explain that it’s only after reaching an agreement on the client’s side that you can work effectively on the project.

  • Manual mode
    The client doesn’t tell you what they need, but rather what you should do.
    It’s good when a client says “I want this message to be prominent”. It’s not so good when they say “make it big, color it red, move it up”. You were hired to understand the core needs of the client, not to take direct instructions on design elements.

  • Treating the symptoms, not their cause
    It’s like when your house is on fire, but you suddenly decide to fix a broken window.
    When the client fails to understand the real problem with their project and instead asks you to change something fairly inconsequential, you sometimes simply have to turn it down if they’re unwilling to fix the main problem.

  • I’ll get to it later
    When the client doesn’t pay attention to the project until the delivery date.
    Any fairly big project should have certain checkpoints, so you need to sit down with the client to make sure you are on the same page.

Things to Discuss Beforehand

The client always imagines the working process unfolding in a certain way. When things don’t go as he or she expected, it can be disappointing.

Negotiating and establishing your approach before starting the project shows that you are a professional and prevents your motives from coming into question. It is hard to invent or negotiate the rules of the game on the go, so make sure to discuss these things before you begin.

Define the task

Don’t expect the client to explicitly define the task for you. It should be well documented and very clear, stipulating the services you are responsible for, as well as those that you are not. Also remember to list the final deliverables. If the project is broken down into milestones, list the deliverables under each milestone.

Follow the North Star

What I call The North Star is a list of criteria that will help you evaluate the results. Once all these criteria are fulfilled, you can consider the outcome a success.

When you have defined the criteria, talk them through with the client, making sure they understand and agree, then put it all in writing.

Note: The criteria don’t need to be purely logical, but try to make them as unambiguous as you can.

Make sure that you and the whole team acknowledge the decision-maker

It’s not always possible to work directly with the decision-maker, but it is useful to make clear to everybody in the team who this person is. This helps the middleman or other people involved in the process understand their roles and avoid making any major decisions themselves.

Make sure the client is involved

To make sure the client fully acknowledges what you are doing, break the project into checkpoints. For each checkpoint, sit down with the client and walk them through all the decisions and ideas that you have implemented. After that, give the client a couple of days to look through the work on their own, then confirm whether you’ve got the final go-ahead.

And last but not least

It’s too simplistic to say that the client is always right. But it is your job as a professional to try to pre-empt and prevent all possible misunderstandings, or at least to fix them when they arise.

Elena Galitsky
Elena Galitsky is a co-founder and the head of design at Báchoo, which is a young award-winning team specialized in Web and application design. They have accomplished over 60 projects and won several awards for best mobile app design, best visual design, best productivity app. Báchoo is after new technologies, among their recent projects are e-health apps, blockchain-based certification, online education platforms.

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