What Do You Give Your Clients?

by Matt Ward

on October 3, 2010

in Resources

Sometimes, when I’m brainstorming ideas about what to write an article about, I like to turn to Twitter and just ask my followers what they would be interested in reading about. I did that last week, and got a number of different answers. The one that really struck me the most came from Jason Gross, who suggested that I write “A post about giving your clients what they need, whether they ask for it or not”.

Actually, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and probably something that a lot of designers struggle with – especially freelancers like myself, whose clients tend to come primarily from the world of small enterprise. When it comes to websites, for example, I’ve found that many of these clients are just looking to get a site up and running. They are either new businesses that are just launching, or sometimes established businesses that have not had a web presence, or who have a website that is clearly old and outdated (both in terms of content and design)

Rarely do they ever have any real experience in the field of web design, and frequently their “wish list” is based mostly on what they have seen on other sites, rather than on a specific need or perceived web strategy. The problem with this is that, more often than not, several (if not many) of the items on the client’s list may not necessarily derive any specific benefit for them. In some cases, these features may even hinder the overall purposes of the site.

What do you do in these circumstances? Do you just go ahead and do what the client wants, or do you take a risk and work at providing them with what you think they really need, even if it’s completely different (and perhaps even in direct opposition to) what they asked for? This is the question that I want to consider in this article.

Giving Them What They Want

In many ways, just doing what you’re told is probably the easiest route to take. It may even be the quickest path to success, if you consider success to be a long list of customers and a continuous stream of income. Giving the client what they want is basically a matter of listening to or reading from a list of various items that the client has decided that they want in the project – whether that project be a logo, website, brochure or something else entirely.

With that list in mind, you then sit down and basically start building a checklist design, ticking of each of the desired items as you go along. By the time you’re finished, you have a design that meets all of the client’s want, fire off the files to a happy client and (hopefully) get paid without any kind of problem, in turn making you a happy designer.

It can also make things a bit easier to manage in the initial planning stages of a project. Instead of having to sit down and actually take the time to analyze the objectives and determine a course of action based on those objectives, the designer can dive right in and start working on all the requested elements or features.

There can be no doubt that working this way would save time, but I would have to question the real extent of its value as it pertains to the client. If the client is not really all that accustomed to the the whole world of the web, and especially if their requests are actually undermining their ultimate goals, then do you have some responsibility to step in and try to help them right the ship, as it were? If you know something is not going to work, and if you are able to present or suggest a more viable alternative, what’s stopping you from making that alternative known to the client, in order to ensure a better final result?

Giving Them What They Need

As we follow this particular train of thought, we may find ourselves moving toward the conclusion that perhaps our role is not to give the client what they want, but rather to give them what they need. After all, they hire us to make them a great design right? They hire us as professionals in our field, and as such they should trust us! We know how to design the best possible websites, so the client should be listening to us, not the other way around!

Right?

Maybe, up to a point. In every instance where I have designed a website for a client, I can safely say that I probably knew more about the web design and development world than those I was working for. I can create attractive designs, understand HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP and even Perl. I have a good grasp of SEO and the importance of content. But, despite all that, the client carries a powerful trump card in their pocket, because there are some things that they always know better than I do:

  1. Their businesses/organization
  2. Their clients/supporters

As a web designer, my job isn’t to build them the slickest or prettiest website around (though I may do that). My job is to build a virtual gateway between an organization and it’s supporters (customers, subscribers, donors etc), or even potential supporters. As such, what my customer needs is not the latest WordPress widget or an jQuery animation. It’s not the best SEO. Quite frankly it’s not even the most beautifully coded HTML or CSS.

What my client needs is a means of connecting with their supporters, and thus helping them fulfill their primary function. Yes it’s my job to fill that need, but the best results are never going to come from me shoving my knowledge and experience down the client’s throat. No, the best results will come from the careful fusion of my own skill set and the client’s understanding of their own business.

Further Thoughts

A few weeks ago, there was an article published over at Drawar entitled “Freelancers should grow some balls.” The basic premise of the piece is that freelance designers need to step up and take control of their designs and not let the client’s wish list necessarily determine the final outcome of the design itself. It sounds like a noble idea, and might very well be something that many of us would be keen to uphold, but one of the article’s commenters wrote something very interesting:

When you come to me with your portfolio of successful work done for known companies (who also bring a powerful reputation themselves), then you can start telling me how my website will work. If all you got is Ms. Moppet’s Balloon Decoration of South Wisaki, then you’re gonna give me what I want—and like it.

When I first read this, I thought that comment was perhaps a little bit harsh, but the more I thought about it, the more it began to resonate with me. There is definitely something to be said for credentials and experience, and it goes both ways. If you command an extensive resume and portfolio of work, then perhaps you can expect a certain degree of trust and respect from your clients. If you’re just getting started, however, you just don’t have experience to command that level of clout.

It doesn’t matter if you are the most naturally gifted designer, or the most brilliant thinker, if you don’t have a body of proven work, you’re just going to have to grind it out like everyone else, and part of that grind means understanding that the majority of your first clients (or jobs, if you are not a freelancer) will very likely be of the smaller variety, where you’re not necessarily expected to take complete control of the proverbial wheel. In these situations, you need to show the proper level of respect for your client (or boss), possibly even to the point of just doing what you’re told.

Don’t think of it as a constraint, however. Think of it as an opportunity to learn. If you approach these projects with this attitude, there is always something that you can take away, something you can learn and store away in your mind for later on, once you’ve established yourself.

Last Words

Regardless of where you stand on the measuring stick of experience, however, I don’t know that it’s ever the best approach to just come in and take control over a project, by ignoring what a client wants and trying to tell them exactly what they need. More often than not, that just seems like a recipe for conflict and tension.

Instead, consider taking on the role of the educator. Even if some of the items on the client’s wish list are entirely impractical or severely hinder usability, still take the time to listen and consider. Then, if the idea is really that bad, tactfully suggest an alternative and why it might be a better option. Clearly explain the various benefits and help lead the client to embracing your direction, for the greater benefit of the project.

If you can do that, you will certainly have brought incredible value to the client. In the end, though, remember that it’s the client who’s fitting the bill. You can guide, consult, educate and suggest, but in the end the final decision lies in their hands.

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About Matt Ward