Respect for clients is best way to nurture growth, says Ardill

Designers must quell their desire to ‘always be right’ and start focusing on existing clients rather than seeking new business if they want to nurture long-term growth, according to Ralph Ardill, chief executive of The Brand Experience Consultancy.

Branding groups in particular were singled out as having ‘an unhealthy disrespect’ for clients, at the Designers’ Breakfast at which Ardill presided last week. ‘Client-designer relationships break down when designers are abusive, defensive, critical, right, selfish, superior and controlling,’ said Ardill.

He added, ‘Calling the client’s baby ugly and the client stupid in the interests of being a panoramic thinker actually equates to being abusive.

‘Designers need to rein in their obsession with being right, and with the creative output being all their idea. This attitude is particularly prevalent in corporate branding.’

However, Ardill’s remarks provoked disagreement from Mike Abrahams, founder of branding consultancy Abrahams.

‘As a designer, you do sometimes have to employ brutal honesty,’ said Abrahams. ‘Like many designers, I have a tendency to think I’m right, because I often am. It is our job to be right about design.’ Nevertheless, he conceded that, ‘You should say it as nicely as you can.’

Ardill suggested that poor client relationships could benefit from recategorising the client as a customer.

‘Designers are rarely clients, but they are often customers. It is a concept that everyone can understand, as we all know when we are getting bad service,’ said Ardill.

‘We talk about customer insights all the time with our clients, but we don’t do the same when thinking about our clients,’ he added.

Michael Wolff and Company founder Michael Wolff supports Ardill’s standpoint. ‘The problem with the words client and consultant is that they conjure up prejudices of one sort or another, getting in the way of talking to the person,’ he says.

However, Tatham Design director Amanda Tatham said at the breakfast meeting that, ‘Sometimes, you just don’t get on with someone, no matter how hard you try. There is one client who I find difficult, so I tend to send my partner to work with them, and that seems to work well.’

Some design groups’ ‘masculine’ culture of ‘hunting’ for new business also came under fire from Ardill.

He said, ‘I find it bizarre that design groups will give massive bonuses to new business managers, when you usually get your lowest fee from a first job. The real money is coming in through those who are maintaining good relationships with old clients, so reward them.’

Ardill’s ideas, despite being intended to help design groups weather the recession by nurturing long-term client relationships, still met some resistance from Clifford Boobyer, creative director at branding group Firedog.

‘Clients are chopping relationships at the moment, no matter how hard-working you are and how well you are nurturing your relationships with them,’ said Boobyer.

Relationship counselling

• By 2010, the average length of relationships between design consultancies and clients is predicted to be four years, down from 5.3 years in 1997 and 7.2 years in 1984

• 70% of roster reviews could be avoided

• 31% of consultancy/client relationships are underperforming

• There is a 60% rate of success selling to current clients, 5-10% success selling to new clients and 40% selling to lapsed clients

Sources: HBR, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Andersen Consulting

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