‘They’re an awful client.’ How often do we hear that phrase in our business? In my 15 years in the design sector, I’ve heard it many times. We’ve all known clients who won’t agree to our recommendations, who won’t sign off our fees, who don’t return calls, who demand ridiculous deadlines and who don’t give thanks when it’s due. And yet, with the current downturn in our sector, it’s vital to keep the clients we have – they are the best source of incremental business.
So, what makes a bad client? Equally, what makes a good client? Can we encourage ‘bad clients’ to become ‘good clients’? Indeed, how can we encourage profitable partnerships rather than buyer/ supplier relationships?
First, it’s worth putting the ‘bad client’ issue in perspective. Most of the time we’re dealing with clients in a business-to-business relationship. We’re not facing unpredictable consumers, abusive because their train is late, product faulty or meal tasteless. We have control over what we deliver. Most people we deal with are reasonable, rational, intelligent people.
Maybe things aren’t that bad? Indeed, it often isn’t the client that’s ‘bad’ at all. The biggest mistakes often happen before the project starts – and the design consultancy makes them at the selling stage.
Relationships go awry when client and consultancy expectations are mis-matched. Over-promising at the presentation and proposal stage is easy to do, but can be fatal. You want the business, you’re usually in a competitive situation and you want to appear keen and enthusiastic – to say ‘yes’ to everything.
This problem can be magnified by the fact that in some of the larger consultancies the people doing the selling and proposal are different to those who will actually manage and do the work – plenty of room for confusion there then.
The answer is to be honest at the outset. Explain how you work, what your values are, what your people’s strengths are (of course you have to have a clear idea of what these are in the first place) and what the consultancy really excels at. It means being brave and confident.
If great creativity is your mantra, and you don’t compromise on the quality of your work, let the client know that. They can then make an informed decision before the project starts: they know what to expect. Likewise, be honest about what you don’t have experience of doing. The prospect may still choose your group, and if they do they’ll know what to expect.
Assuming you’ve been honest, clear and confident about your offer, how can you ensure that you satisfy the client or, at least, increase the chances of doing so? Well, obviously delivering what you’ve said, when you’ve said, for the price you promised helps.
But there are plenty of other ‘obvious’ things to do that often aren’t done. Keeping the client updated regularly about progress and giving nice surprises (rather than nasty ones) such as over-delivering occasionally. Spend some time with your clients that isn’t work-related, show an interest in them as human beings. Ask wider questions about their business (often the entry point for developing incremental business).
The client side
What makes a great client? Here are the top ten tenets of a great client. A great client:
Listens and respects you for your skills and knowledge;
Understands the value of what you do. It understands that unique ideas are one of the few areas where they can compete today, and you can give it those ideas;
Trusts you (if it doesn’t, why did it choose you in the first place?);
Pushes you when you need pushing. We all have our off days, sometimes we need encouragement and a little prodding;
Contributes to the thinking. It contributes ideas of its own, but it doesn’t insist that it’s only its ideas that go forward;
Gives objective, reasoned feedback. It doesn’t say ‘like’, ‘don’t like’, but instead understands the importance of considering the work carefully and judging it against the brief;
Responds to calls and requests in a timely fashion, pays its bills on time and updates you with relevant changes and developments in its market and organisation;
Signals any problems or issues it has with the relationship quickly, and confronts those issues with you in an objective manner, allowing you time to correct things (of course, if you don’t respond, then it has a right to be angry);
Realises it is in a relationship with you; it encourages informality and fun. It takes the project seriously, but not too seriously;
Champions the creative solution once you’ve agreed it with the team. It is as passionate about the idea as you are. It will proselytise the idea with its colleagues.
Actually, most clients have many of these traits, though few have all, just as the ‘perfect’ consultancy doesn’t exist. The key is for both parties to recognise their respective strengths and weaknesses and work on these together.
There probably are some truly awful clients out there, but they are few and far between. Most clients are in a similar position to us; seeking to do things better against a background of increasing competition, tighter financial pressures and less time to do more tasks. One of our responsibilities is to help them become ‘better clients’.