Clients should play by the rules

They might pay their design consultancies’ fees, but the client’s life can be much smoother if they follow simple rules

At the moment, there are quite a few vacancies for mind readers in the design industry. People with the power to see inside the minds of their consultancy, or their client, are in big demand. Sadly, there are few psychics doing the rounds these days. But that shouldn’t stop you from putting yourself in someone else’s shoes now and again.

The relationship between a design consultancy and a client is a delicate affair; mutual understanding is crucial if the relationship is to function well. A design group is a service business and, as such, the people who work there usually take great pains to learn about their clients’ businesses, or aspects of them anyway. All too frequently, though, it simply doesn’t happen the other way around.

Client organisations could do much more to learn about the consultancies they work with. How many clients are aware of the way in which design consultancies weigh up potential clients, and how they measure their desirability as partners? Design groups assess clients against four simple criteria:

• Is the client profitable?

• Do they treat us as ‘partner’, or just as ‘suppliers’?

• Do they treat our staff well?

• Do they share our values?

Absorbing and reflecting on how you are perceived by your consultancy will pay huge dividends and might just begin to smooth out one or two kinks in your working relationship.

Considering the relationship from the other party’s perspective can be enormously beneficial. Clients should – whenever possible – make the brief to the consultancy clear, unequivocal and not subject to later rethinking. They should also strive to give the group any information it asks for about its business, particularly research.

A client should expect a consultancy to challenge its thinking. Worry if it doesn’t, that’s its job. Decide quickly whether its work is strategically sound and ensure it is not just ‘right’, but ‘bright’.

Consultancies should be given enough time to do a proper job; don’t expect miracles without sufficient lead times. But then again, expect a thorough response.

It’s very good practice for clients to insist that whoever presents the pitch actually works on the project. But you also need to have realistic expectations. Don’t let the consultancy get carried away and over-promise, as they might be prone to do. Be rational and make sure you’re not stopping the designers from being rational.

Always tell a consultancy if they fall short and give them a clear opportunity to put matters right. Furthermore, try to use creative research as an aid to judgement, not instead of it.

It might sound bizarre, but as a client you should make it your prerogative to ensure your consultancy can make a profit on your business. Successful design groups need profit, just as you do. If you trust them and they do a good job give them more work, don’t keep going out to pitch. You don’t want to acquire a promiscuous reputation within the industry.

You can’t read minds, so make sure you build a relationship. People do business not with companies, but with people – we are all human beings.

It can be truly exasperating for a creative consultancy to watch their clients switch on the ‘right’ side of the brain. Don’t try to redesign the work yourself. It is extremely unlikely that you have the necessary craft skills.

Also be honest about your budget. Don’t expect champagne if you only have beer money. Ensure you have a fully understood, formalised approval system. Don’t field people from your organisation who can say ‘no’, but can’t say ‘yes’.

Remember, good creative work has an emotional appeal beyond the functional – is this what is being delivered? Decide what you want: mould-breaking ideas, or simply an updated look? Make sure that the consultancy understands this too.

Insist on progress, or job status reports. It’s a good discipline to keep decision-making on schedule. Always give reasoned feedback. Responses such as ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ are not objective and of little use to the creative process. Try to provide context for your arguments and always relate things back to the brief.

Consultancies respond to a bit of gentle pressure, so push when you think it is appropriate. But push, don’t shove. Always keep the consultancy up to speed with relevant changes at your organisation as well, be they organisational, market-based, product-based or to do with personnel. And don’t be slow in responding to requests or returning calls. Treat the relationship with respect.

Clients should also consider light praise now and again. When a consultancy does a good job it deserves it, and clients who do this foster greater motivation and commitment from the consultancy.

So while you are developing your mind-reading skills and waiting for your membership of the Magic Circle to arrive, have a think about some of the basic things you can do to improve the client-consultancy relationship. You may not even need to buy a wand.

Jim Surguy is managing director of Results Business Consulting

The client oath

• I promise never to complain that my expectations have been falsely roused by the consultancy over-promising.

• I promise not to mentally compare the exotic cars driven by the consultancy directors with my own five-year-old Ford.

• I promise to be completely understanding when my meetings are changed because of an important new business presentation the consultancy has to make.

• I promise to keep my cool when the consultancy shows me work that is ‘imaginative’, but completely off-brief, as I know creative freedom is important.

• I promise to keep smiling (through gritted teeth) when the work unexpectedly goes over budget. Again.

• I promise I will be the soul of politeness when I delicately point out that the design work doesn’t relate at all to the rest of my communications materials.

• I promise not to keep them waiting and never to be late for meetings (assuming that they would be happy to reciprocate).

• I promise not to suspect that their creative department is obsessed with Design Week and D&AD awards, as they keep producing work with great novelty.

• I promise not to query any of the consultancy’s invoices, particularly those belonging to other clients that have been put in the wrong envelope.

• I promise not to mention in meetings that I often get approached by other interesting-looking design consultancies.

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