Eric Karjaluoto

A Guide to Better Designer Client Relationships

TL;DR: Those who run design studios often struggle with their client relationships. They can change this by taking a client-first viewpoint.

I wrote this article for owners of design studios. That said, you can apply it to many other service-based businesses. It’s represents a lot of hard-won lessons learned through missteps. My hope is that these tips might help you from making the blunders I made.

For the record, I’ve written about client relations at some length. For example, there’s this article, this one, and this one. My intentions were good, and some of the advice in those posts is viable. Even so, there are flaws in my previous thinking on this topic.

Support fewer customers

Most design studios are stuck in acquisition mode. This isn’t out of greed. They’re just part of a screwed-up system that reduces design to to things—like websites, logos, and identity systems. These items have a fixed cost—and their creation often goes to the lowest bidder. So, studio owners chase one gig after the next, and live paycheck-to-paycheck. Once you’re on this rollercoaster, it’s awfully hard to get off.

We found success in servicing fewer customers over longer stretches. (It’s worked so well that we haven’t updated our website in 7 years—which is bad.) This approach evens out our cash flow . It also allows us to do our jobs better than if we were juggling dozens of clients. You might be different, but I can only keep so many strategies straight in my head at any given time.

They’ll make it up on volume…

Be of service

Even if you work for yourself, you do not work for yourself. Your role as a designer, or anything else for that matter, has little to do with your personal satisfaction1. Your role is to provide value to the person/company that hires you. You and I are here to serve.

When you recognize this, you see how narcissistic and silly much of the design industry is. We pursue design awards2, write self-congratulatory posts about our studios, and obsess over our portfolios3. Skip this shit. It’s superfluous. Instead, call your clients, ask how they’re doing, and be of service.

Reach for the stars

Know your place

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of designers. Most of them are decent people, and I enjoy them. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those I’ve met don’t understand their role. They learn the craft, but fail to understand the practice. A great many of them believe they are craftspeople or artists4. I say they’re more like therapists.

As a designer, you function as a surrogate. You help birth someone else’s baby. Even if it’s your idea… Even if it’s your execution… Even if it’s something you’ll always consider yours… You do not own what you design for your client. Listen to their story, reflect on their challenges, and guide them to a solution that’s theirs.

Ofnike and Ofpepsi reluctantly accept their station in life

Manage expectations

In the race to secure new work, you might feel compelled to oversell. You share an idea that you’re enthusiastic about, and they grow starry-eyed. Or, worse yet, they come to you with some nutty plan5. In either event, you sell them more than anyone could deliver, and figure you’ll deal with actuality further down the road.

Do not do this. Allow me to repeat: Do not do this.

You are measured by the way you behave in situations like these. It’s easy to get new business when you promise more than you can deliver. It’s also easy to lose long-term clients (and ruin your studio’s reputation) this way. Even great design fails sometimes. And, few of us are as good as we’d like to admit.

So, take the time at the outset to talk about what they can expect from what you’re collaborating on. Explain how it could go wrong, which parts make you nervous, and possible contingency plans. You might also like to remind them that even if it works as planned, it might not bear fruit for a good while.

You might lose the contract, by taking this approach. But, there’s a good chance that you’ll earn their trust. Even more important: In being forthcoming, you’ll sleep better at night.

Great expectations

Identify the real problem

Design clients sometimes think a design asset will change their company’s fate. This is almost never the case. A new website (no matter how good it is) will not turn around a flawed marketing strategy. It may be a necessary part of a larger strategy; but, the strategy is the important part.

Designers love to talk about problem solving—but are selective about the problems they want to solve. Could be that your client won’t benefit from any of the things you typically produce. If you’re a real problem solver, you’ll acknowledge this, and help them identify the real issue they’re facing. (If you can do this, you won’t have any trouble retaining clients.)

Know thy audience

Get on their team

To build a long-lasting relationship with a client, you cannot act as a common supplier. Instead, you must integrate yourself with their team. This allows you to afford the most value. You’ll gain a fuller sense for their problems. You’ll also access discussions and insights you wouldn’t otherwise be privy too.

Rank their needs over yours. Respect what came before6. Suggest new opportunities. Use their products. Share insights and observations that go beyond the scope of the project. Help them find good partners. Suggest cost saving approaches. Recommend putting jobs aside that do not move the needle.

Terms like “team player” get thrown around casually. Acting as such is less common. I want you to be that exception. Sure, you run your own company. Still, being integral to their team correlates with your studio’s prosperity.

Always be closing

Practice humility

Being an expert is hazardous. This relates to how we treat the term: Like a fixed state of complete knowledge. Problem is, you can’t know everything. Say you’re an expert, though, and people might expect you to. So, learn these three amazing words: “I don’t know.”

Sure, you have expertise. This expertise limited though. You work in one vocation—and this is in a handful of verticals. This doesn’t prevent you from working in other areas. However, it does require you to admit to what you don’t yet know. You’ll gain your client’s trust by being this forthcoming—and, you might be able to learn most efficiently, by learning together.

Phil wasn’t sure what he did, but gosh darn it, he was going to be the best.

Communicate

In working with design clients, more—and more frequent—communication is almost always a good idea. Don’t run off with the project brief and return with a finished product. (I know it’s tempting to do this, but it causes heartache—and can bankrupt your studio.)

You are part of their team. This requires you to come up with solutions together. Work out a brief, and get their feedback. Probe for critical feedback (the earlier you get this, the easier it is to accommodate). Provide a plan, and get more feedback process.

Do this with loose sketches. Share a couple of early samples, before building out the whole system. When you allow your client a significant place in the process, they take ownership of the project. This lessens the chance of needing to start over when you present the finished work7.

Exceptions

Suggest

As a design professional you might consider yourself above certain matters. You studied design at a respected college. You’ve completed many projects like this. You have read every book on typography imaginable. And these bozos want to use Comic Sans8. Blech! Clients… who needs ’em?

Your frustration is understandable. If you succumb to it, though, you start a fight you can’t win. Do you know why? Money. They are the client. This is their brand. They are paying you money, so, you do what they say. This is fair. In fact, it’s how most business works. It doesn’t mean you need to roll over, though.

While you might not get the final say in all matters, your client hired you for a reason: to provide guidance. So, guide them. This doesn’t mean making demands. It involves providing a solution, hearing their feedback, and suggesting alternatives. If they want to see it another way, do it that way9.

Explain your reasoning. Discuss the pros and cons of varying options. Note why you have concerns about certain approaches. Discuss what the implications might be to their businesses. Your goal is to produce a solution that works for them. Sometimes clients will request approaches that make it harder to reach those goals. At such times, suggest alternatives—but let them make the decision.

This approach works because your client feels in control. A sense of control is critical. This is especially true for someone who feels they’re risking their company’s future on your approach. Let go of some control. Instead, make suggestions. My bet is that your client will be more open to your insights if you do.

True to the agency’s word, the new name led to a ten-fold increase in website traffic.

Be personal, but don’t take it personally

Sometimes, clients say things that can be hard to hear. They might tell you that they hate what you made, or that their 4-year-old could do better. You might want to bite back at such remarks. Please don’t. Instead, remember your place in this. You are a guide who is helping them through a difficult—and personal—process. It’s understandable that they sometimes get frustrated.

In these moments, think like a therapist. Their feedback isn’t about you—especially if it’s emotional or cutting. Odds are that it relates to an inability to express their feelings. They might lack the words get their ideas across.

Be friendly. Be welcoming. Be empathetic. Afford them a safe space to express themselves, and help them find the words they need. Probe for insight. Ask questions. Restate what they’re saying (in a less antagonistic fashion). They’ll appreciate you listening to them, hearing them, and helping them find their way. Odds are they’ll also admire your restraint and professionalism.

Own your mistakes

I’m not perfect. You aren’t either. That’s OK. Actually, this a good thing. Perfection is expensive. It also tends to come at the cost of something else. It’s reasonable to trade off a little perfection for gains in speed. You can course correct along the way.

Some mistakes are embarrassing, though. You send the wrong file to the printer. You miss a typo. You don’t deliver on an important deadline. These things happen, but they are missteps—and they can shake your client’s confidence. Take clear and decisive action when you make a mistake. The sooner you get on top of it, the better the chances of you retaining your client’s trust.

If you did it, own it. If one of your employees or staff members did it, own it. (You hired them, so, you’re responsible. Do not deflect10. This one is yours to keep.) Then, determine why it happened, and how you can prevent it from happening again. Relay this information to your client—and pay11 to make it better, if you think that’s called for. Then, get back to work.

We all make misteaks

Get paid

The biggest mistake studio owners make, is in working at a loss, in hopes that it’ll pay off further down the road. This is a significant blunder that can bankrupt your company. First off, if they get it at a low price now, they’ll never pay full price. Second, working at a cut rate means you’ll want the project to look great in your portfolio. This will lead you to put your desires ahead of your client’s needs12.

Worse than that, it depletes your company of oxygen. Without adequate funds, you can’t hire good people, buy decent equipment, or plan for contingencies. Reducing the price on a job is fine, but then cut the scope accordingly. It’s unreasonable to give a client all the work for half the price13. Take the money. Do the job as you promised. And, grow your company in a healthy manner. If you don’t, you might not be in business when your client comes back for more.

Moonlighting

Show them what they paid for

A lot of design related work is invisible to the buyer. This is why people outside of our industry are so shocked by how much a logo can cost. What few realize are all the unspoken tasks that take so much time. This means phone calls, emails, and meetings. It also means transit time, tests that didn’t work out, and discarded options.

So, keep good notes. Track your time throughout the day, as you go. This will help you make note of tasks as they happen—because you won’t remember them at the end-of-day. Write down everything: phone calls, sending documents, managing files, research, correcting images, and so on. You don’t need to show them this, but if they ask, you’ll want it close at hand.

What you should show, are the big steps. Whenever you send work out for client review, make a note in the email of all the significant things you did, and where you’re at. This helps them see that you are in fact working for your pay. It also gives them a sense for where you are at, in the project’s progress.

Get it on paper

Thank them for keeping you in business

“Uh huh.” <— I hate that.

It’s what young people seem to say instead of, “you’re welcome.” For me, this was particularly irksome when it came from a young staff member. I’d say something like: “Thanks—nice job.” They’d toss back an “uh huh.”14 While I recognize there’s no ill-intent in this phrase, I find it off-putting.

Put yourself in your client’s position. They have spent thousands, tens-of-thousands, or even hundreds-of-thousands of dollars with your studio. Sure, you earned that money. Even so, they still spent it—and they spent it with you. That means something. It represents faith, trust, and even some risk. Don’t take that lightly.

Thank your client for trusting you with their business. Check in regularly, and ask if they’re getting what they need. Also remind them that as much as you value their business, you are only there for as long as they consider you useful. They are free to work with others should they choose—in spite of how much you appreciate this relationship.

Lost in translation

Homework

Whenever you feel like a client engagement is souring, reframe your work from a service viewpoint. Think first about how you can provide value to your client/customer. As you do this, you’ll witness their trust in you grow—and many of the things you struggle with will become easier.

  1. If you focus on servicing someone else, you’ll likely find a great deal of personal fulfillment. This is because there’s little as satisfying in life as knowing you’re useful and needed.
  2. I once wrote as a columnist for a well-respected trade journal. One month, I used the column to talk about the pointless nature of design award shows. The publisher rejected the piece. He noted that even though he agreed with my position, their award shows were profitable. He didn’t want to jeopardize that.
  3. The next version of our website will not contain a portfolio, nor, will it show any work samples. I don’t think you should necessarily do the same. That said, I do suspect that you pay your portfolio more importance than it likely demands.
  4. I wrote a book called The Design Method a few years back. It covers a lot of the points I reference in this post. If you found today’s article useful, you’ll get even more out of the book.
  5. This once happened at smashLAB. One of our regular clients came to us at a particularly slow time. They asked us to devise a campaign that would achieve a 45% conversion rate. (This meant that every second visitor to their website needed to spend $2,000 for the campaign to be considered a success). We told them how unrealistic this was, but took the job on anyway (so we could keep from laying off any staff). As you can imagine, this didn’t work out so well.
  6. You might feel compelled to deride a new client’s existing design assets. Do your best to avoid this trap. Even if you don’t appreciate the treatment/approach in place, these items got your client to where they are now. The fact that you didn’t design those things, doesn’t make them crap.
  7. This happens more often than you might realize. Especially when the key decision makers only take part at the procurement stage, and when you present the final work. This can create an enormous amount of discomfort and sleepless nights.
  8. Making fun of their type choice won’t get you anywhere. Yet, noting the possible implications of such a choice can be useful. For example, you might say, “Yeah, that typeface is friendly. That said, your wine brand is pretty high end. Do you think buyers might get the wrong idea about what you offer?”
  9. Just make sure they’re paying you by the hour. Please read this article and apply the advice in it. It will make your business more profitable and your clients happier. It’ll also lower your personal stress.
  10. In the event that the mistake is actually the client’s, you still don’t point the finger. Instead, talk about what happened. Note how you could have done more to clarify the situation or prevent it from happening. The last thing you need is a client who’s embarrassed in your presence, due to a mishap on their behalf.
  11. By paying for this, I mean eating some hours, or sharing the costs to make it right. Alternatively, you can provide some other monetary compensation to ease the sting.
  12. This is an understandable position, but it’s still faulty.
  13. When you do this, your client might infer that the price they are paying is the real price (because you agreed to it). They’ll then reason that you inflated your asking price.
  14. This might make me sound old-fashioned, or like a jerk. I say it relates to politeness. I speak to you with respect. It’d be nice if you did the same. (Even if you disagree with me, on this point, the example still holds.)

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All comments—including critical ones—are welcome. I just ask that you keep them polite. Please note that although I can’t respond to all comments, I appreciate every one of them. 🙌

 

  • Mark OlsonMarch 27, 2019 12:40 pm

    Great advice for designers who want to open a studio and stay in business longterm. Serving others by solving their problems is the only true source of value in any business. It's pretty straightforward, but many lose sight of this. Or worse, never ever see it to begin with. 

  • DragoșApril 4, 2019 1:40 pm

    Hi. May I suggest hyperlinking the numbers in the footnote to their corresponding word(s) in the paragraphs, so it becomes easier to jump back and forth through the article? 

  • Eric KarjaluotoApril 4, 2019 4:25 pm

    Hey Dragoș—seems I had linked those improperly, so the numbers in the post body weren’t linking properly to their corresponding footnotes. I fixed this. Also, if you click through to one of those, and then want to return to your place in the post, just click the Back button. Your browser will take you there.