Of course it’s scary. Tamping your sweaty palms as you prepare for that big call with your prospective or—worse—disappointed client. Feeling the wind sucked out of your stomach; your heart dancing from the chill of your client’s tone: “Okay, but I don’t see how adding another section increases our scope. You just move the box and add the content–”
“Okay,” you say, “I guess I can do that.” Just this once.
Being scared is normal. Letting fear control our industry isn’t.
Fear with no teeth
When we over-promise and avoid tough conversations about roles and expectations, when we don’t catch the project scope before it slips like a grey fish out of our fingers, when we dismiss red flags because we’re terrified we’ll lose one more client, we let fear drive our projects. Clients begin to think we’re all dishonest or incapable because we can’t possibly provide the things we say we can. They begin to believe we’re ‘all like that.’ They hold us collectively under the microscope.
When we won’t talk with other shop owners because they might steal our clients or learn our billing rates, when we won’t give our teammates honest feedback or let our project managers try something new, we cripple our teams. Fear creeps into the joints of our industry and locks up our companies. We become paralyzed. We’re moths with shiny pins nailing us to the wall.
The low grade anxiety we feel every day seems somehow less painful than having a tough conversation with our client or team. Ironically, that one conversation would make the fear dissolve into the floorboards.
What are we afraid of?
Scarcity is not the cause.
Unless the Internet comes crashing down (which it could, but then we’d have bigger grey fish to fry), people will always need digital services. They will need new and better websites and apps and strategies that fix problems for people until the sun’s light flickers out. Brick companies and bakers and big data and all the businesses taking up letters of our alphabets in every language all need digital love.
If we are good at many tasks (UX, UI, you name it), we don’t fare better or worse than being good at one thing. It’s all in our adaptability—our commitment to letting our skills evolve. Available work is as plentiful as sunlight. There is enough for everyone. So we will not run out of projects.
Clients are people. People have wishes and fears. They want to do great things and be accepted and valued. We are people who want to be accepted and valued. We are the same people staring at each other in the mirror. Clients are not scary. Interactions with them can be, but only if we believe they don’t want what we want. They will, but it’s our job to make sure we’re reaching for the same things.
Courage and bravery are two different things. Bravery is standing up to an actual physical threat. Courage is facing a purely emotional one. Now that we’ve eliminated the mighty Saber Tooths and wrestled this little old earth into submission, the only fears we have left are about ‘what’s mine.’ We’re the top of the food chain and yet we’re terrified. We have so much to protect. Our fear is salient because we feel like we’re about to lose: a job, progress, our dignity. But if we’re all scared, aren’t we scared together?
What are we afraid of? Here’s a better question:
What would our industry be like if we helped each other stop being afraid?
I think about things like education and medicine. They’re standardized in most parts of the world (for e.g., UNESCO for education, WHO for health). You can’t wield a rusty scalpel blade because that will kill your patient. You can’t teach kids that the world is flat because they’ll drive all over the earth looking for the end of it. We c0llectively avoid pitfalls in these industries. We decry misinformation and explore the darkness together. We support each other and nurture our collective growth because if we don’t, we all fail.
Our design industry seems to be great about creating standards, at least for technical requirements. But why do we let each other fall when it comes to integrity and the courage to say to our clients and teams, ‘there’s a better way’? In the work we do, we choose to operate out of fear or love. We either fear the choices we make or fall in love with the greatness they can be. We can help each other learn how to let go. We can call each other on our bullshit and then throw in a hug and a beer. We can tell our clients the truth. We can share the ‘secrets of the industry.’ Hell, we can be courageous.
Last week, we had a call with a potential client. Although our relationship started out great, the call didn’t end well. My knees were shaking. In fact, things felt terrible. Stakeholders were misaligned in their goals and we felt the gears grind to a halt.
So we told them.
Dear [Client name],
Thanks so much for our call. We want to be honest with you, though. It didn’t feel good. We want to be equal partners with you. The types of questions that we were answering felt like like there would be very little trust and very little flexibility during the project with high expectations for the build.
From our perspective, Acme would be a ‘red flag’ client. I want to share why because I think it will help it to understand what makes a healthy client/partner relationship and maybe help Acme adjust how it works with others. I’m working with agencies right now to help coach them through how to talk with their clients around these same kinds of issues.
Our industry is fear based: agencies worry they might lose a client to someone else so they promise things they can’t possibly provide. Then they end up disappointing the client anyway and the client takes the reigns. Together they drive the project into the ground. The result? Ridiculously under-scoped products no one is happy with that take way too long to create. This makes me really sad. Maybe by sharing this with you, we can start a conversation about how to make things feel better.
• Our point of contact is resistant to letting us have ongoing interaction with the other stakeholders and states that all information would be contained in a static document which prevents us from doing our job. This also compromises our ‘understandings and assumptions’ clause in our contract.
• Acme balked at a $17K starting price. The site is the digital face of your company and has the unique ability to float or sink you depending on how you move forward. Enterprise scope rates are usually between $50-100K. Fear about this starting price means that we’d likely be battling every single scope change along the way, which is painful for both parties and leads to frustration and resentment.
• Your other contractor went dark for months before popping up again. This usually signifies that there are huge issues in the client/partner relationship and zero trust. If we’re walking into that, we’d instantly have to be on the defensive.
• There seemed to be a great deal of tension on the call internally. This usually signifies issues with communication breakdown or differences in project values.
• Folks at Acme seems to be resistant to technology that is the best fit for the project because it’s new. This holds the company back since Acme isn’t willing to embrace new technologies to be a leader in a market it could crush.
• The core people in our two meetings left early both times (usually means that they are stretched and cannot put enough time into the project because they have so many other responsibilities). This leads to timeline delays and inevitable scope changes.
• People don’t feel excited about the project. There seems to be more of a grim determination and stress to just ‘get it done’ which makes me wonder about what kinds of things are at stake and where the pressure is coming from.
I’m totally fine if you want to send this to the team. At Louder Than Ten, we operate on trust and mutual respect that we’re both bringing our best to the table. If we can’t be that fit for Acme, we completely understand. We’ll be here for you if you have any questions.
The client responded by thanking us for our candid response, apologizing that the call didn’t go so well, and offering to take us out to lunch. We didn’t get that particular contract, but the thing that keeps running through my mind is:
What would we be teaching clients about our industry if we did?
A new face for courage
It’s incredibly scary to tell the truth. Calling out a red flag when you see it is terrifying. Then again, not calling it means you’ve made a conscious choice to ignore it–you’ve hunkered down for whatever tornado is grinding toward you. Calling out any sort of obvious red flag takes courage but it gets easier when your colleagues support you. Maybe, to face our fears, we just need a little help from our friends…
Imagine if together, we helped all clients understood that a design agency doesn’t provide commoditized value, but instead, creates value in terms of understanding a client’s audience, their goals, requirements, and their technology needs. What if they knew a dotted line around our respective roles and expectations meant they could let go so our project managers could guide the project? What if all clients knew that we had their backs, but also each others’, that we’d call a foul like the savviest referee..?
• We could stop working the minimum wage equivalent at 60-70 hours/week.
• We could say ‘no’ to impossible demands and feel justified in our resolve.
• We could give our projects the pricing, pacing, and breathing room they need to actually grow legs.
• We could have better, longer lasting relationships with our clients and teams.
• We could stop being afraid.
We have a chance to fight for each other instead of wrapping our fear in a sense of competition or proprietary secrets. Because, here’s the thing, fear isn’t driving this mighty industry: we are.