Servicing your client roster involves root & branch attention to detail because unhappy clients quickly end up as someone else’s clients.


No one said that the design business was easy. To thrive, not only do you have to sweat blood in order to find clients, but you’ve then got to shed a bucketload more claret in order to keep them happy.

One thing on your side, though, is that all clients want the same things, meaning that if you can build one successful, long-lasting client relationship then there’s nothing to stop you repeating this process over and over. Here, we outline a number of fundamental points to consider when puzzling over what clients want.

OVER DELIVER

Whatever people expect, give them a little more. Clients have long memories, and over-delivering will guarantee that they’re left with a lasting, favourable impression. This is the surest way to win repeat business as well as new, word-of- mouth clients.

But putting this into practice is no simple matter, because first you have to manage client expectation from pitch to delivery, on every aspect of the project creativity, pricing and timescale. If you fail to manage expectation in any of these areas then you run the risk of over-promising and under-delivering Route One to a failed business.

GUT REACTION

If you have a gut feeling that a client might be more trouble than they’re worth, then listen to your gastro-intestinal instincts. If a client has wildly unrealistic expectations of the time and cost of a project then they’re likely to make unreasonable demands of your time and resources.

If this is the case, you need to call upon first-class client-management skills to keep things on track. If at the pitch the client sends its creative and marketing directors but post pitch leaves the project in the care of a pair of juniors, then you have to wonder if they’re experienced enough to communicate effectively, and whether they have the authority to sign off work once the project is under way.

It could be a world of pain. In this situation, you should set clear ground rules, such as insisting important decisions are made MD-to-MD. But however well you handle them, problem clients will always impact on your time and resources, and this will affect your ability to keep the rest of your client roster happy. Better to respectfully decline such custom than imperil accounts that you value.

TWO EARS, ONE MOUTH

There are two fundamental truths about commercial design. First, clients are paying for your expertise as a visual communicator, and the most important part of any form of communication is listening.

Secondly, design is about solving clients’ creative problems, not about evangelizing one-size-fits-all design theories. If you don’t listen to clients you cannot expect to understand their needs, meaning your proposed solution is more likely to leave them hopping mad than jumping for joy.

At the briefing stage, speak only if asked a question, and let the client talk themselves out before asking any of your own. It’s crucial that everyone on your side takes plenty of notes, so that your questions are based on the needs of the client as captured in these notes.

Notes also serve to keep you on-message as the project evolves. You might believe yourself able to remember what a client wants, but notes make it far more difficult to stray from the brief. Distil these notes into a typed document, and further boil this down into bullet points that can be used during brainstorming sessions. That way, you’ll be discussing what the client wants, and not what you feel that they should want.

NAIL THE BRIEF

You have to ask the right questions in order to understand a brief. If the brief is over-long and blurry then seek brevity and focus, and don’t stop until happy that you have both. Don’t worry about offending the client; the reason they came to you in the first instance is for your expertise, so they’ll expect questions that are searching and incisive.

A client who is unhappy with the work you deliver will not take kindly to you blaming the brief. Also, remember that briefs evolve, and that it’s important to liaise regularly with the client, so that both parties are happy with what is being worked on. Insist on staged sign-offs as work progresses.

SERVICE THE CLIENT

Every account needs an account director and a project manager. Between them they should guarantee that a client never has to call and ask how work is progressing. Even if you’re a two-person team, divide these roles between you for each project.

Frequent and clear communication between these roles from the outset will prevent you from underestimating how long a job will take, how much it will cost, and will also help keep you ‘on message’. Clients generally do not welcome surprises, particularly those that hurt their pockets and schedules. Establish protocols for client communications; develop standardized tools such as memo formats, email bulletins and status reports.

A mismanaged account will erode the client’s trust in you, because if you cannot communicate effectively as a team, they’ll wonder whether you can communicate to their customers.

ANTICIPATE CLIENT NEEDS

You needn’t be Mystic Meg to know what a client is likely to want before they ask for it; if you understand your client then this should happen organically. Clients will recognize proactiveness as a hallmark of quality creative thinking. Conversely, they are unlikely to be impressed if they have to make all the running.

MONEY MATTERS

Design is business, and business is money. Yes, clients want your expertise, but they also want value for money, so pricing your services intelligently and transparently is key. Draft a clear, responsive cost proposal that is based solely on client needs, encompassing only things that they have requested.

This will keep costs to a minimum. But seek to impress the client, too, by offering value-added services you can provide them gratis. Maybe you could offer a credit towards a project down the road, or offer to bring the project deadline forward.

EARN THEIR RESPECT

The best client-designer relationships are underpinned by respect, something that is hard to win but easy to lose. Earning respect involves marrying all of the advice in this feature with quality work.

Once you have a client’s respect, then you will earn their trust and keeping that trust means never breaking a promise. A trusting client is one to be cherished above all others, as they’ll let you get on with what you do best design.

CHEMISTRY LESSONS

People work together most effectively when there is affinity, and many designers are lucky enough to be able to name long-standing clients as among their closest friends. Sometimes, though, people simply don’t get along, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

Character clashes not only reduce your ability to communicate effectively with the client, but make demands of your time, as the problem relationship needs managing. Head off such trouble by rejigging your project teams so that everyone gets along.

FLEXIBLE FRIEND

One of the worst things you can say to a client is, “We don’t work that way here. You might have your systems and work practices, but the client will have theirs, too. If they prefer to meet in person rather than use conference calls then say, ‘Sure thing’.

If they want to be invoiced every week (when your practice is to issue one every month) then say ‘No problem. Remember, their livelihood is in your hands. If you screw up you’ll only lose an account, but they stand to lose a whole heap more marketshare, credibility, their business, even. They have every right to expect their needs to be met in a way that suits them, not you.

EXPERIENCE COUNTS

Clients expect and demand expertise. If your team is an overheads-friendly collection of graduates and lightweights, you are not in a position to deliver expertise unless, that is, you’re after junk clients. The rule of thumb is that the sophistication of the team should match that of the client.

A FAMILIAR FACE…

High staff turnover means time and resources get channelled into recruitment rather than your core business, and it’s also unsettling for clients, new and old. Changes in personnel mid-project can spook new clients, while return clients prefer to be greeted by familiar faces. Keep your team motivated and happy and you’ll reap the rewards, internally and externally.

illustration www.istockphoto.com