I love design. I love its power to move people, to inform them, to encourage them to change their behaviour and to do things, to create better environments and entertain.
But so often I have seen great design actually let down by designers themselves and their account teams. You can deliver the best design solutions, business results and deliver new leads – but you can still fail to keep a client.
Great solutions, results, positive research, metrics and the ability to validate them are important but often designers and account teams are confused and unsettled when clients still haven’t bought into them as a team, even if those results are great.
And many people believe that it’s down to engaging personalities, that people buy people, and that however good your design solutions and service is, it’s actually ultimately down to the relationship.
All of this is partly true and a combination of each facet is important. But you can have a great relationship, respond to all instructions and then still lose the client.
So what makes a great client relationship? What makes them respect you? Get the respect by using ‘design intelligence’ – right from the start
Are you a counselor?
Building a truly great client relationship is much more complex. It’s about creating a shared vision based on mutual respect and understanding. And much of that becomes established without even ‘selling’. In fact, selling can get in the way. Many of us will recognise that feeling of an early client meeting having gone well, when in fact, you haven’t really said anything at all. All you’ve done is spent time listening, questioning, leading on salient points, listening again, and then closing on actions. It’s like being a counselor.
In order to build this shared vision, you have to understand, but you also have to convince the client to tell you the truth. Often the skill is getting them to realise that their ‘truth’ is not actually reality, and also being objective about your ‘truths’. That doesn’t necessarily mean disabusing clients directly but, by the careful use of questioning, they discover it for themselves. You have merely been the catalyst in their journey of discovery. A counselor.
Taking the lead
Clients don’t just want order takers, they need people who will listen, question and have a view. Most importantly, they need experts who aren’t afraid to tell them what they need to hear, when they need to hear it. Sometimes there is disagreement, but you will always be respected if your view is objective, based on an interpretation of facts, driven by experience and expertise. It is about having the confidence in applying your ‘design intelligence’. Not in an arrogant way but in a consultative way.
Importantly, establishing at the very beginning what success looks like is something that can be difficult to do, especially if a client has unrealistic expectations. However, managing those expectations to ensure achievable results is really central.
Sometimes clients will want to force you to agree to routes, processes and subsequent results that rely on elements that are only within their control, not yours. This will only work as long as you’re able to include those elements into the overall progress reporting, so that you can both identify if the wider client team is delivering what it’s supposed to, when it is supposed to. There’s no point in having a project fail with all of the usual consequences, if actually it was because they weren’t doing something they should have been, when they should have been.
When it goes wrong
Things do go wrong, there’s a mistake, something ‘falls over’. Strangely, even with the fiercest of clients, as long as the project and relationship have been set up correctly from the outset, and as long as you’re honest in telling them before they find out (that’s crucial), they will invariably work with you in order to resolve it together. The fact is that in most cases, clients just don’t appreciate being taken by surprise, and want to know that you’re taking responsibility and that you have a plan.
Of course, there are still times when you just can’t win – but there are ways of mitigating against this. But it always pays to be stronger, bolder and build respect right from the start, rather than having to change the ‘personality’ of the relationship later on, often when it’s too late.
Roger Proctor MBE
MD at Proctor + Stevenson