How to manage client expectations
Is there such a thing as client-relationship etiquette?
We may not think of communication skills as the key to client engagements, but it’s alarming how quickly a project can fail without prioritizing frequent communication. Freelancers (and agencies) should not be tempted to take a creative brief, not ask any questions for weeks, and then send over a final deliverable via email. That approach is a recipe for a huge #Designfail.
Clients don’t hire freelancers (or agencies) for their design skills alone.
Designers need to flex their people-management skills as well. Sharpen your soft-skills and emotional intelligence. Be a joy to work with!
The following are five communication etiquette basics that every freelancer should know. It’s easy to avoid burning bridges with attention to these basics. Even the most junior of junior designers can nail these skills.
You may assume that a client expects you to read a brief and return a few weeks later with a final design. Nope! The success of any client project comes from frequently communicating, gathering feedback on early design concepts, and pivoting to meet client expectations. It’s important to check-in with the client on their expectations and feedback early and often. Never assume that you know exactly what the client wants by reading documents.
The best way to navigate fuzzy project requirements is to constantly check-in with the client in real time. Don’t be shy. If you need to get quick feedback on an early design concept, set up a meeting. Live reviews are ideal because they allow you to listen for tone and read the body language of the client. Creative collaboration depends on discussion and conversation, not just reading and interpreting documented requirements. Use your active listening skills and listen for emotion in the client’s reactions to your design.
What is your client REALLY saying?
From the BigTalker blog on active listening
“We need to truly listen to each other. Active listening is a powerful teamwork skill — listen to what your teammates are saying, but notice their tone and emotion. What’s behind what they are saying? Switch off the impulse to interject your opinion right away and truly listen to your teammate’s perspective. Ask probing questions and seek to fully understand what is important to them.”
You poured hours of your life into your design. But don’t be married to it. Be prepared for any kind of feedback. You may need to throw out that first draft and start again. Value is created by the design process, not just by a culmination of hours of heads down work on a first draft. Hone your ability to create a quick first draft, collect feedback, and adjust the draft to reflect the feedback you heard. Then repeat.
Designers often get their feelings hurt during design reviews because they hear criticism as feedback on the designer personally. Remember, design criticism is for the designer, it’s for the design itself. Detaching yourself from your own designs is an important skill. Criticism evokes tension, but tension should be harnessed in the creative process.
“The benefits of learning to feel your feelings, and learning that you have a choice in what you do with them is immeasurable. Through my “embodied critique method” I teach individuals and teams to have hard conversations, to be more courageous, and to turn ‘tension tension’ into ‘creative tension.’”
Embrace agile methodology
Frequently review design concepts with the client in person or over video chat. “Is this what you had in mind?” When you begin the design process, you are making dozens of micro design decisions like font, size, colors, accent colors, number of screens, scrolling, etc. Never assume that your decisions will fly with the client. Constantly validate your assumptions through communication. The agile process is all about throwing out bad ideas quickly — getting feedback, testing, and iterating.
The last thing you want to do is spend a week building 50 screens only to learn that the client doesn’t like your approach. Validate internally.
It’s much better to ask your client to attend a daily design review of what you have so far than to assume they are busy for weeks and don’t want to hear from you.
Many junior designers will hide behind their keyboards. Perhaps they are avoiding conflict? Or they may assume that the client is too busy to do a daily review. Or perhaps they worry that the client will think less of a designer who requests so many check-ins.
Not true. A client is more likely to get frustrated with designers who don’t ask questions than they are with designers that wants to check-in frequently. If you need frequent check-ins to get feedback so you don’t waste too many cycles going in the wrong direction, ask for them. Manage the client and project in a way that minimizes the risk of spending too much time building something that may not be right. This is ‘lean design’.
Review designs in real time
Never just send a design over email with a note for the client “let me know if you have any questions.” OMG. Instead, set up a time to present the design to the client. Talk through the thinking behind the design. The presentation of early design drafts is a review and discussion, not a hand-off that you package up and send over like a Christmas gift.
For a client, receiving a bad deliverable via email is a terrible experience. The temptation is to just delete the email in disgust. Remember that design reviews are very fluid discussions, they should never be handled via asynchronous messaging like email. To a client, the actual delivery of the design is not a task that can be checked off. Keep reviewing and iterating until the client agrees the deliverable meets expectations.
Email is tempting because it allows you to take time to carefully articulate your thoughts, but remember, tone and emotion are often misinterpreted via email. Never email your client a heated 10 paragraph rebuttal of their design feedback. You’re only agitating them and compounding your communication weaknesses. Email is not the place for fluid discussion about design preferences.
Focus on professional polish in mockups
If you are going to attempt high fidelity mockups, focus on beauty and detail. As soon as you add color to a wireframe you are opening your designs up to opinions like “I don’t like that yellow.” Make your mockup a design masterpiece worthy of showing around. If you end up with a Frankenstein design, the client won’t share it internally because it’s not “client ready.”
How important is design polish? I’ve seen startups land funding just because their mockups were so pretty.
And there’s a big difference between a wireframe and mockup. Don’t confuse the two. If the client is expecting a mockup and you send over a wireframe, well, that’s embarrassing.
These fundamental client relationship tips are so important to the success of the project. For many junior designers, it may be tempting to think that design is a solitary activity that is heads-down work, not dependent on interaction with the client. It’s not. Design depends on communication and an agile mindset.