Working with clients

With a new year brings as good a time as any to reflect. I’ve been thinking about how I go about working with clients and realised I had quite a few thoughts on the matter. These are all things I’ve learnt, read or been taught over the past couple of years. They’re also things I wish I’d known when I started out.

Be thankful for the clients you have

There are thousands of talented agencies, freelancers, and contractors out there yet the clients you have chose you. They’re paying you their hard-earned cash. Never take that for granted. Do the best work you possibly can for them.

Look after your most valued clients

Give them a call to see how they’re doing even if you’re not engaged in an active project. Make suggestions about how they can improve their website, or email campaigns, or social media usage. Send them a Christmas present. If you look after them, they’ll look after you.

Take responsibility

If a project goes badly, it’s your fault. If a client wants to ruin your beautiful design by changing the background colour to purple and text to orange, it’s your fault. If a project runs over by 6 months, it’s your fault.

It’s your job to filter out the bad clients. Don’t ignore those red flags. For the clients you do take on, it’s your responsibility to communicate what everyone is expected to do during the project.

Chances are your client has never commissioned a website before, and if they have, they might have only done it once or twice before. You’re the expert, so lead them through the project. And take some responsibility.

(Of course, it’s not always your fault. But it’s far too easy to blame someone else.)

Making mistakes is Ok, not learning from them is not Ok

Some projects will, inevitably, go wrong. That’s Ok. But making the same mistake twice is not Ok. Make a note of things that go wrong. How could you communicate more clearly next time? How could you improve your process?

Ask your team and even your client how you can improve. An end of project questionnaire is invaluable.

Be proud to put your name on it

Unless otherwise agreed, I always put a ‘Website by…’ on the websites that I build. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, it drives business. Secondly, it ensures I try my hardest to make something I’m proud of. After all, my name is going on it.

By adding your name on a website, you are associating it with you, your company and your reputation. That’s always in the back of my mind. When a client makes an unusual suggestion, or tries to do something that doesn’t feel right, I remember that my name is going on this. I then try and do the right thing.

The clients you’ve had in the past dictate the clients you’ll have in the future

I’m designing a new kitchen for my house. My dad, who has been designing interiors for years, has suggested numerous ideas of how we can make the most of the space we have. I find it incredibly hard to picture those ideas. I’m not an interior designer. It’s all new to me. It’s not until I see a picture that I realise that is what I want.

The vast majority of your clients will be in the same boat. They’re not experienced web designers so they don’t know what they want until they see it. That’s why your portfolio is key in attracting the clients that you want. If you build lots of fantastic websites for restaurants, chances are you’ll get leads from more restaurants.

Start the project on the right foot

It’s very hard to rescue a project that has taken a nose dive. The most important part of any project is before it begins. Get things right at the beginning and the project has a much higher chance of being successful.

Make sure the client knows what they need to do and when. Make sure they know what you’re doing and when. Make sure you understand the purpose behind the project. Make sure your process is discussed, your contract is signed, your deposit is taken. All these things set the tone of the project you are about to embark on.

The client is hiring you because you are the expert

You’re the designer (or developer, copywriter, etc.). The client isn’t. Make sure that’s clear from the outset. Your job is to find out the clients goals and objectives and then find solutions. Quite often the client will try and provide solutions (change that colour to pink!) but you’re the designer — that’s why they hired you in the first place.

Ask them why? How will this help towards their goals and objectives? Their personal tastes should come second to achieving the goal at hand.

The designer should always present their designs

The designer should be explaining decisions they made along the way (we’ve selected this colour because it evokes this response, which is key to our target audience — we’ve prioritised the content in this way because it better conveys the story we’re trying to tell). If someone else is presenting, they might not be able to explain those decisions and then it’s easy to get into personal tastes. Everything should serve a purpose.

It’s also important that the designer gauges the client reaction. If the designer isn’t present, it might seem like the client doesn’t like the design. Perhaps it’s just a small piece of the design they’re uneasy about. The designer needs to pick up these vibes.

Stop labelling the designers as ‘creatives’

This is a real pet peeve of mine. I’ve heard something to this affect many times: “Here’s the content, now go away and be creative”.

Being creative does not mean drawing pretty pictures. Everyone in your team is creative.

As Brad Frost so eloquently put it “Every single person on earth has creative capacity. Kindly slap anyone using “creative” as a way to describe a type of person.”

“I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.”
— Ken Robinson

Estimate how long you think something will take, then double it

I rarely estimate how long something will take correctly despite having a few years of experience. Things are rarely as simply as they seem. Make sure you add some contingency to your quote. If it takes less time than you quoted, charge your clients less.

Stop, celebrate and go down the pub

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in work that you forget to pause and celebrate the successes. Go down the pub with your clients or your team. Pat yourself on the back once in a while.

Working for clients is hard work

The web is getting more complicated. There are more devices and more browsers than ever. Having a voice, being found, and staying relevant is harder than ever. Clients are watching their bank accounts closer than ever. Working for clients is hard work. I do it because I love it.