Whether you’re freelance or in a creative studio, your design clients are your lifeblood: here’s how to keep them happy – and coming back for more.

As the economic situation worsens, creatives in charge of studios are having their business survival skills put to the test. One of the most important of these is client handling: finding new clients and cementing long-standing relationships have never been more important in the design sector.

So how are current conditions affecting designers’ relationships with their clients? Many designers and agencies remain upbeat about the client situation, finding the positive angle in the challenges facing the industry.

However, nobody is claiming that the recession hasn’t changed the ways that designers and their clients relate to one another. Adam McKillop, a graphic and web designer with Nottingham-based design collective 13souls, www.13souls.com, says the recession means that clients are now acutely aware of their requirements and budget, making them “slightly more demanding.”

He continues: “Clients are thinking much harder before spending money, often supplying very structured budgets, enabling them to account for their spending more clearly.”

But McKillop feels this works in favour of creatives: “It can often make for a more impressive end result, as the entire creative process and team are being challenged just that little bit more than normal.”

He sees other benefits, too: “Due to these quite rigid [budgetary] requirements, clients are providing tighter, more thought-out briefs that make it easier for designers to give more accurate quotes, and to allocate time more efficiently.”

Mark Ellis – creative director of integrated agency Creative Cherry, www.creativecherry.com, is also upbeat. He says: “Clients understand they probably need us more than ever to help them get through the tougher times.”

And, he believes, it is smaller agencies who are best placed to usher companies through such testing times: “As a small agency, there’s potentially lots of work out there for us, as businesses downsize their agencies and look for better value for money.”

Pete Burrows, creative director of pBd, www.pb-d.co.uk, feels that the current climate offers designers the chance to educate clients on design values, and to offer more.

“If businesses cut their marketing budget as a knee-jerk response to being in a recession, it can have damaging consequences,” believes Burrows. He urges designers to show clients how they can “use recession to get their brand and unique selling point out to as many potential customers as possible, and be in a prime market position for when the recovery happens.”

He adds that right now there is “a great opportunity for designers to offer that extra something special – to make sure the client stays with them for the long term.”

But things are clearly tighter for designers. This begs the question: are there are fewer clients, or less work? Both, says McKillop: “There are fewer clients in some sectors due to people having to cut budgets and spending, which obviously makes for less work”.

He adds: “What I’ve found is that clients want and need to promote themselves more than ever, but they’re looking for more cost-effective ways of doing it – for instance, online, rather than print, and PR instead of advertising.”

Burrows points out that everyone is feeling the squeeze, which can also offer opportunities to designers: “Businesses are closing down but the ones that are surviving are marketing themselves even more aggressively.”

Tightening the belt

Ellis, too, is certain that “the clients and work are still out there, people are just being cagier about releasing budgets.” He points out that, as everybody’s feeling the squeeze, agencies are hungrier – “you’ve got to compete that bit more for the work that’s available.”

Ben Cook, founder and creative director of Radio Design, www.radiodesign.co.uk, is certain that designers with an established reputation and an existing client base will stay on top of the pile, but warns: “They’ll have to watch their backs; clients will be looking for better deals and corners to cut, so now would is a good time to show some flexibility with rates, while still providing the best possible service.”

But Cook warns that clients might also seek to exploit their stronger bargaining position: “I’ve recently had a few new-business calls from people asking for [low-cost] ‘credit crunch websites’.

"It’s frustrating, because you know you should really be taking on the work, but you can’t help wondering if there’s an element of exploitation going on in the current climate.”

McKillop, meanwhile, notes that with clients watching every penny, word of mouth – rather than pitching – is becoming the preferred means of hiring creatives for an increasing number of clients.

“Blank cheques for marketing are a thing of the past, and the word of mouth approach is much safer from a client point of view, as it offers [the client] some kind of recommendation and an insight into the people they may be working with,” he says.

Cook observes that word-of-mouth business depends on quality work, and says designers must not let this be compromised by falling budgets. “It’s the quality of the work that will generate more business for you. You may be working to a tighter budget, but a happy client and a successful job will guarantee repeat business and open new doors.”

Cook underlines the point with a recent example: “I was commissioned to animate a short movie for the National Graduate Development Programme, and the budget didn’t nearly meet the amount of hours involved, but I felt it was worth investing in, and went the extra mile. The results exceeded the client’s expectations and it went on to win the audiovisual category in the Recruitment Advertising Awards.”

But what of the creative balance of power in designer-client relationships? Is there a risk that the downturn will compromise this? Quite the opposite, feels Jonathan Quainton, founder and director of design, illustration and art direction agency Sawdust, www.madebysawdust.co.uk.

“Clients will no doubt want to tighten their purse strings, especially with print budgets,” says Quainton. “But this may give us that shake-up we need to find new and fresh ideas for producing exciting work.”

Ultimately, he adds, clients understand that businesses thrive on great marketing and design, and that if this is compromised “then so are their business aspirations”.

Sticky situations

Now more than ever, designers, illustrators and creative agencies have to be scanning the horizon for potential issues that could sap the studio of creativity or cash. This means that identifying problem areas on both sides of the designer-client relationship – and having a strategy to deal with these – is vitally important.

For illustrator Lara Harwood www.laraharwood.co.uk one alarm bell is when a client moves the goalposts. Her strategy is to ask to renegotiate the fee.

Another problem is the client with whom she can’t agree on an idea. “I take a deep breath and try again, and reason with the client, explaining why I think it will work better one way than another,” she says.

Quainton feels another issue can be longstanding client relationships, where ideas have become stale. “If this happens it may be time to move on, and an amicable split is probably best for both parties,” he advises.

For McKillop, poor communication is a big factor. “Never ignore clients’ calls or emails. If there’s a problem with a delivery date, they’d much rather know in advance.”

If a designer or agency has committed this cardinal sin then McKillop says mending fences involves “pulling out all the stops, and making the client feel secure, reassured and top of your list.”

Failing to manage expectations is another no-no – whether it’s a budget or a timeline. “Clients often don’t have a clue about agency processes,” says Ellis.

“So educating them as to the internal workings of an agency means they’ll have more of an appreciation of why things sometimes can’t be done ‘yesterday’. But if you’ve been in the wrong, be big enough to admit it. The client will appreciate your honesty and be much more willing to move on. If you didn’t do something properly, fix it, and then go beyond their expectations the next time.”

Ultimately, with clients it is communication that is always key, says Ellis. “It’s like any relationship – talk things over. If the relationship’s meant to be, love will see you through.”

How to keep client relationships on track…

Our handy guide provides pointers on the key aspects of designer-client relationships.

Win new business

  • Maintain relationships with existing clients, and track those who move on to other organizations, because they may seek your design services in their new role. In 2006, British Design Innovation (BDI) commissioned a survey to discover what clients thought of design practitioners. A huge 96 per cent of clients questioned stated that previous relationships are the key factor in identifying an appropriate agency for a job.
  • Target potential clients you believe would really benefit from your services. Research is the key here – a generic approach won’t cut it.
  • Personal recommendations tend to be at a high level, making networking a valuable source of new business. Wait until you’ve done a great job for a client, and ask them if there’s anyone they know for whom you might also be able to do a good job.
  • ”Don’t chase new business at the expense of your current client relationships,” advises Mark Ellis of Creative Cherry. “Proper client servicing is the best way to release new budget. Focus your marketing efforts on the clients you already have – if you’ve done good work for them in the past they’ll be much more receptive to your ideas than cold contacts.”

Understand pitching

  • Establish if those in control of the project are the company’s real decision makers – if not, there’s a risk that the project will not receive sign-off from their superiors.
  • Determine if the client is serious about hiring design expertise. If they’re launching a new service or product it’s likely they are. If they start talking in vague terms about a ‘new look’, get the hell out of there.
  • Establish whether the client is a good fit professionally and culturally for your portfolio? Pitches are a drain on time and money, with no promise of payment, so always assess a client’s potential long-term worth when assessing the merits of pitching.
  • Size things up: ask how many agencies are pitching, who they are, how you measure up against them and what the value of the work you’re pitching for is.
  • Increase your pitch success rate by studying the client’s business and that of their competitors, and go in armed with facts.

Keeping clients happy

  • If you have made a mistake, own up to it, clearly explain what has led to this point, and let them know what you are going to do to put it right. Keep the lines of communication open at all times.
  • Never miss deadlines. A client will leave if you can’t deliver on promises, no matter how great your work.
  • Don’t get complacent; just because things went well last time doesn’t mean they will this time. Keep pushing.
  • Be proactive and research your clients’ sectors so you’re as aware of what’s going on around them as they are, and react to change accordingly.
  • Be a world-class listener - listening is the best skill any designer can have. Make sure you understand their needs and desires before costing a project.

Strengthen existing relationships

  • Proactively re-pitch for existing clients’ business – don’t wait for the client to call a review. Use it as an opportunity to allow a different team of colleagues to present new ideas, and urge the client to treat it as a new business pitch. This will show the client you’re serious about wanting their business.

Know what clients want
In 2006, British Design Innovation surveyed client opinions of the UK design profession. Here’s what clients said they value most in their agencies:

  • Instinctive understanding of the brand
  • Innovative ideas
  • Clear understanding of the brief
  • Clear evidence of research
  • Realistic ideas deliverable within budget
  • Demonstration of case studies to show how previous work has added value to their client in a similar market
  • Integrity – the ability to tell clients what an agency’s weaknesses are, as well as its strengths
  • Transparent pricing
  • Passion for the business
  • Willingness to negotiate
  • A ‘route through to the idea’
  • Recognition of the importance of cost effectiveness
  • Ability to interpret difficult products
  • Creative solutions that are memorable and differentiating

Pre-empting client problems

  • Even in an economic downturn, bad clients are more trouble than they’re worth. If you’re unsure of a client’s credentials, study their recent accounts at Companies House to see who owns them, and to learn if they’re a loss-making outfit. There are also websites you can use to view a company’s turnover, such as Credit Safe UK www.creditsafeuk.com.
  • Ask new clients why they’re changing agency. If something went wrong – a lack of communication or a failure to manage expectations, for example – you can put strategies in place to prevent the same happening again.
  • Talk budget at an early stage, as demands can often be unrealistic. If a budget looks like it’ll never cover the deliverables at the outset you can pretty much guarantee you’ll not deliver it profitably. Constant haggling over price is a sure-fire way to strain relationships. “A few times recently we’ve been asked to ‘pitch’ for work and then it’s transpired that there was not actually a budget in place at all,” confirms Creative Cherry’s creative director, Mark Ellis.
  • Be aware that clients who have not worked with an agency before will need educating about the problem-solving nature of your work. Their inclination will be to give masses of direction, rather than trust you to use strategy and insight to meet their business needs.
  • Plan, plan and then plan some more. This will help you gain an acute understanding of your client’s needs, allowing projects to progress efficiently toward sign-off, thus increasing profitability.
  • Hold a team review after each project to learn from any mistakes, as well as from positive developments.

Five nightmare client types and how to handle them

Recession or no recession, some clients are easier to work with than others. We asked our interviewees what advice they have for handling awkward customers and client relationship of all descriptions.

“We have a large sign in our studio that says ‘Everyone’s a graphic designer’,” reveals Mark Ellis, creative director of Creative Cherry. “We often hold client meetings under it, and find it subliminally helps keep the client-agency relationship working pretty well.”

“The ‘nightmare client’ will come out of the woodwork every now and again – usually halfway into the project,” says Jonathan Quainton, of Sawdust.

“Sometimes they’re interfering, sometimes arrogant but usually overly opinionated. One thing you can guarantee is that they’ve always upset the applecart wherever they’ve been, and you shouldn’t take anything personally.

"Keep your head and remain efficient; it’s the best way to highlight difficult clients’ mistakes.”

13 Soul’s Adam McKillop says: “I think it’s fine to stand your ground if you do it politely. Be as flexible as you possibly can, offer creative alternatives and options to aid the client, listen, and offer exactly what they need, rather than a general solution.”

“With an unclear brief, the best thing you can do is re-write it, interpret the client’s words and send it back in the hope you’ve cracked what they were trying to communicate in the first place,” suggests Quainton.

“If the brief is still unclear, it means either the job is not right for you or the client doesn’t really know what they want.”

“Developing a client questionnaire is essential, as it helps clients take a step back and think about things in a different way,” says Ellis. “This way you’ll be able to write your own brief, even if the client’s struggling with it.”

“It helps to give clients advance warning of who and when they will need to sign off work,” advises McKillop. “Make sure they understand the consequences of failing to sign off work on time, such as late delivery of print.”

“It’s always much easier to get a client to sign something off if you’re there in person to reassure them and talk them through the work,” says Ellis. “It’s easier than bouncing emails back and forth for days.”

“Always get a signed sign-off on a proof before commencing the next stage of the project,” says Pete Burrows, creative director of pBd. “I would also advise keeping an audit trail of the job, just in case there are issues later on.”

“The first and most important thing is always put your payment terms on invoices, and send your clients full terms and conditions,” says Burrows. “If you’re not big enough for an accounts department, get yourself a good online invoicing system,” suggests Ellis.

“Then you’ll have a much better handle on what’s owed and overdue, and as soon as it’s overdue, chase. Be polite but persistent. Staggered payments can also help.”

“Never make threats or be aggressive, otherwise the door will be firmly slammed in your face, and you’ll be left with nothing for your troubles,” says McKillop. “It pays to be honest and explain to the client that you need the money to keep a steady cash flow.”

For illustrators, who usually works one-to-one with clients, a personality clash can make life very awkward. “I can usually tell very quickly on the phone, or even in an email, what the chemistry is like and whether I’ll want to be working with the person,” says illustrator Lara Harwood.

“But I’m pretty flexible on taking on board client comments and ideas – it’s very important to listen to what they say.”

“As long as everyone knows where they stand then there are no surprises,” says Quainton. “I think sometimes a clash of ideas on projects between you and the client can produce unexpectedly exciting results, forcing you to get out of your comfort zone. Plus the client can be right sometimes.”

Creative Cherry is an integrated creative agency offering digital, branding, design, content and advertising services. Its clients are varied and come from all sectors – ranging from start-ups to worldwide organizations. Creative director Mark Ellis says: “We really believe that it’s the clients who are prepared to innovate during recession that will come out the other side stronger than ever and ahead of the competition.”

Above 13 Souls’ client base features clients in fashion, music, charities, and the public sector. Designer Adam McKillop believes that at a time when people are feeling less inclined to spend money on things, “marketing has to work twice as hard to encourage them to part with their hard-earned money, meaning creatives are having to be innovative in a more strategic sense.”

“It does seem to be quiet for me at the moment,” admits illustrator Lara Harwood, “but this gives me a chance to catch up on myself, and pursue other creative endeavours.”

Radio Design’s Building A Wall campaign for the National Graduate Development Programme picked up an award at the Recruitment Advertising Awards – and helped secure Radio Design more work from the client.

Sawdust specializes in graphic design, illustration and art direction, and caters mainly to music and fashion industry clients. Its client base consists of both large and small companies.

Image: Elliot Thoburn, www.elliotthoburn.co.uk