Equality is the key to a successful marriage

Keith Dear believes strategic partnerships provide an effective, holistic response to the needs of clients, but they also need to be managed carefully to succeed

Strategic partnerships are often created for collaborations between two or more specialist companies for the duration of a particular project. Many companies set out with good intentions when they form such partnerships, but careful management is needed if marriages of this nature are to succeed in the way both parties intended.

As design businesses grow and client demands for particular specialisations increase, small to medium-sized design groups need to grow organically or consider strategic partnerships with specialist companies. A typical example is when a consultancy is asked to produce a website that requires not only excellent and compelling design, but a range of back-end services that it is unable to provide. Forming partnerships will allow consultancies to provide a convincing and total offer without creating an onerous in-house overhead. But what issues are key to making this work, both for the consultancy and the client?

Strategic partnerships demand a degree of generosity between the participants. The cultures of design and technology groups are very different and terminology and the meaning of common terms vary significantly. Their workflow processes will start and finish at different points in the development cycle, and the value and importance placed on the quality of design, versus the complexity of programming, is unlikely to be totally appreciated by both parties. Misunderstanding, opposing views of client expectations, and misinterpretation of objectives and goals are pitfalls to be overcome.

To succeed as partners, both parties must act as equals. There must be mutual trust and respect, which must manifest itself in communications between the staff within each group, and externally with the client. There must be equality in ability and presence. Both must be allowed to develop a relationship with the client and should be given a voice in the development of solutions.

Conflicts between design and the ability to interpret and deliver technical solutions can also be avoided through good communication, as well as effective planning. Who does what and when can easily be an issue. Internally, account managers need to be sympathetic to each other’s needs, while also displaying a common purpose and goals to clients.

When people from diverse businesses first begin to work together, people on both sides can experience a degree of insecurity. As a natural defence, jargon is often used, but the partners must think strategically and communicate their expertise in a way that is understandable. Both parties must talk in terms of strategy and user benefit and each must understand the other’s role and responsibility within a project. But neither should become embroiled in the detail of the other’s processes.

Clients often expect their design consultancy to produce Web-based solutions without appreciating the technical requirements involved. Consultancies may not realise the full extent of their client’s expectations resulting in inadequate budget planning. A project can suddenly grow in size and cost with little, if any, financial recourse to the client. Once started on this path, few consultancies stop and suggest to their client that they should revise the original plan and start again. By establishing the partnership at the outset, this pitfall can be avoided.

Designing websites is not just about compelling graphic design and the management of the brand. It is also about the visitor experience so that, for instance, the site meets a number of varied internal access paths and routines which fulfil their needs and objectives.

There is a danger of focusing on graphic design issues without appreciating the technical implications. Making an initial graphic design fit around the technical requirements of the site is never easy and often unachievable. Joint planning and strategic development is critical to ensure that both partners make best use of their skills and resources. Design or technical changes made midway through projects incur additional cost, which is rarely recoverable from the client. The motto for success and good cost management should be ‘do it once, do it right’.

The need for both the design and technical parties to understand and fully appreciate client expectations cannot be over-emphasised. In using fast, emerging technologies, few people are fully aware of the detail, but often feel that they know enough to discuss the subject. The understatement of expectations is equally as problematic as the overstatement. In defining website requirements, few people know what they want until they get it, by which time it is too late.

Knowing what is possible, practical and appropriate to the client and what is deliverable and workable, as well as redundant, is as important as designing and delivering the end result. For these reasons, management and delivery of client expectations can seriously jeopardise both the project and long-term relationships.

Strategic partnerships can, and do, work. Finding and selecting the right partner is critical. Being able to provide specialist know-how is important, but, for the marriage to work, this is not enough. Quality senior management is the glue that sticks it all together.

Latest articles