Assessing the true nature of compatibility

Design goals are achieved when the client/ consultancy relationship can blossom. As Raymond Turner suggests, five points can make or break a team

Design is one of the few resources that can provide a clear and practical link between the strategic discussions of the boardroom and the day-to-day activities of the business.

As such it is critical that any investment in design is focused on that link, and the success of this investment is dependent on one critical issue – the relationship between client and design consultancy. For this relationship to be fully productive, both client and consultancy must understand what factors contribute to a good relationship.

Having made many mistakes over the years in managing this relationship (both as a consultant and a client) I can confidently say that success depends on answering, positively at least, five simple questions.

Do both sides understand the brief?

Without a brief the consultancy has nowhere to start. But a brief is more than a starting point. Unless it also contains an explicit description of what is required as a final result the client should not be surprised if the consultancy does not deliver.

A consultancy must take on board the nuances of the brief, and it makes sense that before the brief is finalised, the selected consultancy is asked for its opinion of it. Most briefs benefit from this simple step – the relationship between client and consultancy becomes more integrated because they both ‘own’ the final document.

Can we work with each other?

It does not matter how expert the client is, or how creative the designer is, if the chemistry between the two is not right then the product of that relationship will not be successful. This is not to say that creative tension has no part to play in the way both sides work together. On the contrary. However, it is only constructive when that tension exists between people who fundamentally like working together. Here are a few signals to look for when assessing whether both sides are forming a successful relationship:

Are we being straightforward and honest with each other; do we have mutual trust?

Do we have an attitude of partnership, with both sides sharing the thinking, contributing to, and owning of, the final solution?

Do I adopt an inspiring and motivating stance towards my client and vice versa?

Are we both really engaged by the assignment?

If any one of these signals is not positive then you are not working as well together as you could be.

Are we clear about money?

It is said that money makes the world go round. This is no less true with the client/consultancy relationship than it is with any other business-based issue.

Of course both parties are often motivated by things other than monetary matters, but if the client is not clear about how much money it has to spend, what it expects for it, and when it expects to spend it, then it should not engage the consultancy.

Often the client is not clear about what the design work will cost, simply because it is not experienced enough with managing design. This is fine, so long as the client and its potential consultancy have a frank and honest discussion about what everything will cost (including the so-called hidden extras), and agree the limits before the start. And the same applies to what you are going to get, and when you are going to get it.

Get this discussion out of the way at the beginning and that is one possible cause of discontent dealt with.

Does it matter if the consultancy has ‘sector experience’?

‘Knowledge of my market, and experience in designing for it, is a good thing’. Often this is true; sometimes it is not. Either way the client must decide.

Consultancies build expertise by working for many clients in the same sector. This is why they might be employed. A client will feel good about a consultancy that doesn’t have to learn about the industry, or about the commonly used manufacturing or communication techniques.

On the other hand, a client may feel that a fresh eye from a consultancy, which is experienced in another industry, but where the learning is transferable, is more appropriate.

This is often the case when a client is trying to break the mould of tradition, when a lateral approach is the only way a break-through will occur, and when a quantum leap, rather than an incremental improvement, is required.

How will the relationship be managed?

A conscious effort must be made to manage the interface of the consultancy with the organisation, and this process must be fully understood by everyone involved in the work. In mapping out a management process, the following key issues must be addressed:

How will the work be done?

Who will be the key people from both organisations, and how will they interface with each other?

How will decisions be made and who will make them?

What time is being allocated for each stage of work?

What will signal the completion of one stage of work and the start of another?

What is the process for the submitting and approving of invoices?

What will happen if the client does not like the first proposals?

What happens if the client changes the scope of work?

For the sake of good logistical management, as well as for the encouragement of a good working relationship, being clear about the design management process is essential for both sides.

These five questions are simple to ask but surprisingly demanding to answer. However, time spent in addressing the issues underlying them will help to ensure that the client/ consultancy relationship is not only a successful one, but also a long standing one.

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