Let’s teach our clients to invest in design

4D Products’ James Bell shares his experience of working with a variety of clients, from one-man bands to multinational organisations

Regardless of their size and experience, the most important factor in building a successful relationship with clients is the personal side of things. In my experience, people like dealing with people they like, trust and feel share the same objectives.

Whether you’re working with an individual who has used their own cash to develop their idea or a board of directors from a large company, your client needs to feel they trust you to be diligent and provide value for money. This is even more so in the current economic climate.

Product design, in particular, is a very personal service. You are not selling a physical product or a proven output, but your ability to create something that maybe doesn’t exist. You have to demonstrate your capability, give confidence and assure people that you have the ability to see it through.

Funding product development and innovation is a tough call for many clients. With the greatest respect, novice clients sometimes don’t appreciate the effort or value attached to the design process. More experienced clients appreciate that allowing time for a process and facilitating it with time, money and resources will no doubt produce something of value – as long as you specify what you are looking to develop in the first place.

A specification is key to engaging with clients, as is managing expectations. Even the most experienced clients can get excited during the development process and request extras, maybe not grasping the implications of introducing, developing, testing and realising the new features.

Product designers have a duty to give clients the best service possible and be flexible, innovative and commercial, and they have a duty to themselves to push themselves forward, continue to innovate and add value to their own business. There is also a duty to educate clients that investing in design is worthwhile.

In my experience, retaining clients is currently easier than winning new ones. With one of our clients, after what seemed like a lifetime of chasing, we eventually got the opportunity to submit a proposal for a project. After several months of deliberation and negotiation, it tentatively embarked on a project.

The project ran like clockwork, with the initial investigation and conceptual stages producing fascinating results and time to develop and engineer these ideas properly. The result is a product that the client is really excited about. It feels it has worked hand in hand on its development. Initial feedback from the market couldn’t be better.

As a result, we are discussing several more jobs together. The client has confidence, sees the value and understands the process to a greater extent. We are more respected and better resourced to continue the work and help it reach its ambitions.

Internal design and engineering teams are interesting clients in their own rights. Some employees welcome input from external consultants, some react in the opposite way and, I can only conclude, feel threatened by another designer effectively taking work from them. It is a consultant’s job to convert negativity into positivity, get people on their side, prove they are capable and can make their life easier, and, ultimately, pull together to deliver a better solution to build the value of the organisation.

Increasingly, we find that clients are prepared to share equity and/or pay a royalty later on if we design their product for free or for a reduced fee. Several scenarios have gone something like, ’We’ve spent all our budget on IP and can’t afford to pay for the design.’ Our response to this is, if you can’t afford to design it, you certainly can’t afford to manufacture and promote it.

I recall a project where a client had obtained a patent on its design. It had spent years perfecting what it thought was the best offering possible. All was good and it was going to be rich. We were tasked with producing manufacturing data for mass production from its handmade models. At an initial meeting, the client demonstrated the product to show what it was and how it worked.

’What about if you do it this way?’ we said. ’Oh no, we can’t do it that way, that’s not covered by our patent’, was the reply. ’But won’t your competitors do that, which will result in a product that is easier to use and cheaper to manufacture?’ we countered. Silence.

The resulting conversation lead to a redesign of the entire system, another patent and a well-sewn-up product that is now in manufacture. Again, education about the design process is key to ensuring that you are developing, protecting and manufacturing the best product you can.
Was it my duty to upset my client for a bit, and then develop a better solution, or to keep my mouth shut, go with it and then find out that he’s out of business?

It’s not just about design, politics and budget, it’s about a relationship of trust, straight-talking and delivering what you say. Hopefully, you’ll do this time and time again, and stay in business to share your experiences.

What I know about clients

  • It is vital that they can trust you to be diligent and provide value for money – and, indeed, that they like you
  • It’s easier to retain old clients than to win new ones
  • Internal design teams can feel threatened by your presence, so you need to convert negativity to positivity
  • Designing the first work for free or for a reduced fee is a good way of getting clients to reward you amply later on
  • A client/consultancy relationship is built on respect

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