They Hired A Captain, Not A Sailor

“I am so utterly pissed at my business life right now. There is barely a client we have that isn’t going off the fucking rails for one reason or another. No payments, unfair demands, arguments over what’s in or out of scope. I spend my life on the phone with assholes. Basically getting treated like dirt under the guise of business.” –P.H.

Web agencies operate a service-oriented business. Success depends on creating happy clients and maintaining that happiness. Some agencies use an approach and mentality they call, “Dating a Client”, which is an attempt to ensure a high-degree of likability and agreeableness to ultimately ensure client happiness. However, this can very often be problematic and many client-relationships run off course in an effort to ensure clients remain happy. For example:

  • Allowing scope creep by accepting more and more client requests which are not part of the agreed-upon project.
  • Allowing clients to dictate the project pace and timeline, when they miss their own deadlines to provide content, timely feedback, etc.
  • Allowing client indecisiveness or second-guessing to seriously delay design sign-off.

I get it, saying “No” to a client can be difficult.

However, one of the most common mistakes which consultants make is forgetting that they are in control over everything. If a client keeps calling you at 2:00AM and demands things are completed ASAP, it is because you are allowing that to happen. If a client keeps requesting more and more changes which are out-of-scope, it is because you are letting him. You teach clients how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.

You are captain of this ship. As captain, you are in control over everything. If just one or two clients are giving you problems, it is likely their own fault. When all clients are giving you problems, it is your fault.

“So I have a new client who needs a new website and some branding and logo work. He emailed this morning asking if I could design in Sketch because he is familiar with Sketch and he wants to be able to contribute to the design while I work on it. I use Adobe Creative Suite (Illustrator and Photoshop) and I’m not very familiar with Sketch… 1) Should I use Sketch? 2) Should I be allowing this client to make tweaks and modifications to my designs?” –R.C.

You would never walk into a dentist’s office and request that they use different tools! In fact, you could walk into a doctor’s office and he could ask you to drop your pants and bend over and you would readily do it! 😉 It is all about positioning yourself as the expert and the one in control. This graphic designer was hired so the client could benefit from the designer’s knowledge, experience and expertise in order to solve a business challenge. The client should be reminded of that fact and any obstacles to achieving that goal should be avoided or denied.

When Steve Jobs hired renowned graphic designer Paul Rand to create a brand identity for NeXT Computer, Jobs asked to see a number of different logo options. Rand replied, “No. I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. $100,000. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people.

Steve Jobs was notoriously difficult to work with. What Rand understood well was that he was a Captain who needed to maintain control over the relationship in order to achieve a successful project. He wasn’t there to date Steve Jobs! He was there as a hired professional to solve a business challenge.

Note that maintaining the control does not mean being rigid, inflexible, uncompromising or to communicate in anything less than the most professional manner. Captains are professional and a pleasure to work with.

Steve Jobs later remarked: “Working with Paul, he is one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with, in the sense that he thought through all of the formal relationship between a client and professional such as himself. There was a clarity about the relationship which was refreshing.

Recently I joined a small team of developers who were in the middle of a project. The project was past the deadline and a bit of a mess. The client was understandably upset and stressed. However, when I would communicate with the client, she was very often rude and when I would ask a question her replies were extremely unhelpful. (“Just fix it!”, etc.)

After just a few rude emails, I sent the following email.

Subject: Communication.

“A note on communication and professionalism: There have been delays on our team’s end and the team has taken responsibility for that. For this project to continue and the remaining few items to be completed so the website can be launched, this level of unprofessional and unhelpful communication from your end has to stop. Immediately.

[Discussed a few specific examples of how unhelpful communication was hurting the project…]

If you demand timely updates, the level of communication from your end needs to change. Period. If there is anything at all unclear about this request let me know.”

The result was a complete 180 in her communication. Her further communication was always, always professional.

Clients should feel that they are so lucky and fortunate to be able to work with you and benefit from your knowledge, experience and expertise.

Here are a few tips on how to position yourself as in control and how to maintain that control:

  • When arranging a meeting, you should always be the one to send out the calendar invites, set up the web conference software, etc. This is your show.
  • After each and every call or meeting, send a follow-up email recapping the call, assigning follow-up tasks to the clients, etc. This reinforces that you are the organizer and the one in control.
  • Define appropriate channels of communication and stick to them. Minimize communication outside of your work hours. Even if you work outside normal work hours, don’t let your client get accustomed to hearing from you during those hours or else they will start to expect 11:00PM email replies.
  • Software, project management tools, etc., should be the ones you select to best enable you to achieve your goals.
  • If you use a project management tool for communication, enforce that all communication happens in that tool. If you receive an email, provide a consistent response: “Thank you for your email. Please send your comments via the project management tools to help streamline our communication.”
  • Provide a consistent experience with out-of-scope requests. When I receive an OOS request, I automatically add it to the project manager task tracker, label it as “Out-Of- Scope” to be reviewed and evaluated at a later date. Clients understand that they are free to submit as many OOS requests as they want and I encourage them to do so. And they understand that these requests are not part of the contract and will be evaluated at a later date and may incur additional fees.
  • Set fees or guidelines for what happens if a client misses their deadlines, takes days to reply to communication, etc.
  • Payment schedule and timeline should always be on your terms. Telling a client they have to pay by a certain date, and then letting that slide, says to a client that all other requirements are probably flexible and you’ll likely let those slide to.
  • Always be on time for all meetings and calls. Being late demonstrates that you are not in control over your time management.
  • Have a bullet-proof contract which clearly lays out the scope, client expectations, payment terms, etc., and stick to that contract!
  • Some agencies ask potential clients to fill out a questionnaire, which is then reviewed by the agency to see if the client “qualifies” for the privilege of being able to work with the agency. Sometimes this is because an agency is at full-capacity. Other times it is simply a sales tactic. In either case, it reinforces the notion that clients are lucky to be able to work with you.

For a successful project, as the expert you must maintain control in your relationships with your clients. I consider it a prerequisite for any successful web project. When clients see that you are in control, on-the-ball, consistent and reliable, they feel much more relaxed and confident about the project and your abilities to execute. They are less likely to feel stress, or try to micro-manage.

You are the Captain of this ship. Act accordingly. Be the Captain.

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