Good Designers, Good Clients

I love working in client services. When I say this to people, their reaction is either shock, or sympathy from those who think I’m completely deluded.

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In the web community, it often seems like client work is what people do when they need money to fund the projects they really care about. I might be considered an oddball for not aspiring to work in a hip startup or create a product out of a side project. Client work has a reputation for being stressful, with clients being difficult and demanding. But for me, client work is helping people realize their meaningful projects. It doesn’t have to be enormously stressful—and it’s incredibly worthwhile.

Clients from hell?#section2

Every day I see people on Twitter and Facebook complaining about clients or linking to stories on Clients From Hell. We’ve all been tempted to vent about clients being ignorant, distrusting, and generally unpleasant. Chatting with another designer about client work last week, I started to say “somehow I never get these awful clients that other people talk about.” For a long time I’ve felt like the lucky one—my clients were all smart, kind, and open to ideas. What a fluke! But then I realized that it might not be that great clients just seem to find me. At least a little bit of those successful relationships must be down to me.

Of course, I’m fortunate that my clients are good people in the first place. When I’m looking at potential projects, the clients who stand out are those who speak passionately about their project, and genuinely care about the outcome. I’ve now learned how much more smoothly a project will run when the clients are truly engaged.

I’ve also changed my perception of clients’ behavior. Where I might have previously derided a client for being ignorant, I now see where there’s a need for education. Where I previously complained about distrust, I now see a desire for openness.

Communication#section3

As a designer, fifty percent of your work is communication. Probably even more. If you don’t enjoy communicating with your clients, then you’ll really struggle to succeed in client services. If you think that working freelance and remotely means you’ll be left to work for days without disruption, you’re not just wrong, but you’re going about client services in the wrong way.

  • A designer needs to be able to describe how something might work. Being able to communicate your ideas verbally or in writing, as well as visually, will prevent you from having to create mockups for every tiny detail in a project.
  • A designer needs to be able to explain the particulars of their design decisions. This prevents the endless iterations where a client is using you as a production tool for their design eye. You are the expert and it’s your job to explain why you’re right.
  • A designer needs to be able to take charge. You can’t expect a client to give you a list of tasks and the desired completion dates. Waiting for instructions from a client will leave them frustrated and impatient as they’re expecting you to lead the project. A designer needs to continually assess the level of interaction required to make a project run smoothly.
  • A designer must have confidence and pride in their work, even if it’s unfinished or unpolished. Sharing work with a client early and often means feedback is frequent and pertinent. This prevents the huge risk in creating a mountain of deliverables for the “big reveal,” and allows the client to focus on the feedback you need to continue.

Blaming the client#section4

When you’re starting out in the world of freelancing you’re likely to be uneasy with the idea of getting something wrong in front of your clients. You feel driven to strive for perfection before showing your work to another living soul. Hearing feedback that you haven’t reached that perfection can be frustrating. It’s far too easy to become defensive and blame the client for not providing the direction you need to do your best work.

Helping clients become good clients#section5

It’s unlikely that a client hired you because they knew how to do the work for themselves. Clients don’t necessarily come to you armed with the knowledge of how to be good clients. Maybe the client has never even worked with a designer before. You’re there to guide them.

Helping yourself become a good designer#section6

As I grow as a designer, and a freelance professional, I’ve come to realize that my process is a work in progress. I’m always learning how to communicate better. I was pretty bad when I started freelancing. Five years later I’m better, but nowhere near perfect.

Client work shouldn’t be difficult, but it does require a lot of effort. That effort should pay off. When I invest time in communicating with my clients, our working relationships strengthen and the work we create together is better as a result.

About the Author

Laura Kalbag

Laura Kalbag is a designer working on Ind.ie. She was freelance for five years and still holds client work dear. She can be found via her personal site, Twitter, and out on long walks with her big fluffy dog.

23 Reader Comments

  1. You have some really good points here. Definitely, i think, most of us can improve on massively. But Ive been in situations where i believe my communication skills have been very good, and all too often, the client is just a massive ball ache.

    I totally agree putting the effort in pays off, but i also know with some of the clients I’ve had to work with that are perhaps down the other end of the scale in terms of their budget, sometimes simply don’t want to / are unable to listen. But, people are people. And personally i love what i do too much to stop from the odd bad client.

  2. Great article Laura, I completely agree with your points. Communication is definitely key in bridging the gap between what a client wants/needs and expects.

  3. I dont see them either Laura….I have said for a long time that Clients From Hell is fake and just a bunch of made up stories. I seriously doubt even 5% of the stories there are true.

  4. Great article Laura. As you say, much of the work in avoiding a ‘bad’ client happens before you start working together: By taking the time to research, meet them and ensure they are a good fit for you and you for them.

  5. Have you never experienced the following cases?

    1. Office politics are in play and others within the company you are working with internally sabotage a project (normally because their role is being altered/usurped by the changes)

    2. The original client who initiated / believed in the project is replaced with someone who does not. This can often be because they want to use their own people and so they intentionally sabotage the project.

  6. Great article, Laura. I love working in client services, too, even if it’s not the path many people take. Finding the right clients, being able to communicate effectively with them, and leading the project are all on us, completely right.

    It’s always a team effort, and knowing what role we should be playing is a huge part of that. Rock on.

  7. I’d definitely like to hear a little more about the times when it does go wrong in situations like the ones outlined by Tesmond (#5) because in my experience working on bigger, longer term projects, it seldom goes swimmingly the whole time no matter what your level of customer service skill is.

  8. “Laura Kalbag is a freelance designer working with small and meaningful clients” .. seriously? As opposed to what, meaningless ones??

    I find the whole article patronising and borderline insulting. I guess you are savvy enough to not complain openly about clients thus ruining your chance of landing more work and damaging your online public persona. Stick in the industry for another 10 – 20 years or so and see if your attitude changes somewhat.

  9. I work at university. Our “clients” are mostly our faculty. We find they are receptive to what we want to do most of the time. There really aren’t “bad clients” so much as there are:
    1. Heavy users of our services. People who demand a lot from us.
    2. People who won’t engage. They come to us for a new site, but then don’t have time to follow up when we ask for the needed content and images.

    When you get to choose who you take on as clients, there shouldn’t be bad clients. In our case, we typically can’t “no” to most “normal” sites.

    (why does ALA want my friends list?)

  10. I’m not going to dwell on the instances where I’ve been peeved by bad clients; that would be counterproductive to the spirit of this article. I like how Laura hasn’t externalized the blame for her client relations like so many in the web field. It’s important to remember that egos are on the line on both sides of the client – web professional divide. Technical brilliance or design chops don’t make you a better person or necessarily a better communicator. Sure, there are instances where clients act in bad faith or try to use you as a “production tool for their design eye,” especially if you’re working for other creative professionals, but I would have to agree with Laura that educating, being open with the process, and trying not to take on meaningless projects just to pay the bills are ways to ensure happy client relations. That’s just common sense, and it begets good clients.

  11. Really have to disagree with Ian’s comment on bad clients being the ones who don’t pay. I had one guy who paid, and then promptly made my life heck for months….even tried SWATing me at one point.

    Regarding the article though…honestly, its a little overoptimistic. Some of us freelancers have horrible, HORRIBLE luck with clients. Does not matter how much you go over the project, how communicative you are….they don’t care, they are out to rip you off.

    For instance, I have a client who I’m dealing with right now. He waited until I finished the project…and as soon as I confirmed everything was working perfectly, and that he’d received the files….he called me a sucker and filed a chargeback.

    Its the luck of the draw, and while I am very glad to hear that the article writer has had very good luck…some of us are on the complete opposite side.

  12. @tesmond @James Young 1

    I can’t say I’ve experienced anything I’d call sabotage, but there’s definitely been awkwardness sometimes. I’m not saying it’s a solution that will always work, but I’ve tried to squash the awkwardness by finding a way to show I’m not there to threaten their jobs, I’m there to help.

    @realist

    ‘Meaningful’ may not be the best word for what I’m trying to say there. It’s my way of trying to emphasise that the projects I work on are often small, but not menial.

    I’ve definitely been un-savvy enough to complain about clients publicly when I was starting out. And I promise I’m not just saying that I love client work when I hate it. Doing that might make me savvy, but it’d also make me miserable.

    @Jeannine Thompson

    That sounds awful. I hope you’ve got a good contract so you can get your money back. I don’t know how it works where your business is based, but I’d definitely get legal advice.

  13. Great post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed! Extremely useful info specifically the last part 🙂 I care for such information much. I was seeking this particular info for a long time. Thank you and good luck.

  14. Brilliant article. It’s easy for us as designers to assume that clients understand what we do for them and also that they get design in the same way we do – most of the time they don’t. So as you say, education is the key rather than complaining they are bad clients.

    The biggest issue I would say though, is clients who aren’t 100% engaged in the project and don’t seem to have the enthusiasm that I as a designer might have in seeing it through to a successful and effective conclusion. Those clients also tend to see a new website design for example as the end result, the end game – I have to tell them that launching a new website or giving an existing one a facelift is just part of the story. They have to consider what comes next, the marketing, the promotion the customer services, the quality product and the passion for what they do, what they sell and the customers they’re selling to.

    Look forward to hearing more of your wisdom on ALA soon! Thanks.

  15. A good read, yes agree on some of your points. Designers responsibility to clearly communicate the service and end product they will provide as well as listening and to their best ability understanding/clarify what the client is wanting/needing.

  16. Great article.
    I worked in a place with a man who I called a “do-er”. He would do whatever the client told him to do, so that he didn’t loose him, and his money. I do understand he was not a freelancer and he needed to keep returning clients to keep business going, but not giving any creative feedback or not being able to state his ideas and share his (over 20 years) knowledge was almost irritating. I pointed it out, and he said “If you tell a client he is wrong, he will not like it and not return”.

    Well, I did. I was put to work with two of the businesses clients. Two totally different projects, and both times I made the client aware of design problems, ideas, included them in the process. When thy had an idea, I showed them how it will not work and tried to find a way that the idea could be interpreted in a way that it would work.
    These clients were amazing, patient, happy and pleased with the outcomes.
    Afterwards I learnt that one of them is usually very mean to people. Yet, to me he was awfully pleasant.

    Thank you for the article, and making me feel I am doing something right.

  17. Great post. I think about the client is how we lead them to get the better of the project, without stress or turn it bored. This relationship is a loop of hit and mistakes along our designers life. Thanks for your article and for share a new perspective for us 🙂

  18. Insightful article. Most of my clients are fantastic to work with and I have a great system in place for communicating with them, however once in a while I’ll run in to a client who is an absolute nightmare. These type of clients are just awful, luckily they’re rare but some people are destined to be clients from hell regardless of what happens.

    Education is key and helping clients understand the project and your process better is essential for a good client relationship.

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