What Do You Give Your Clients?

by Matt Ward

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or sometimes established businesses that have not had a web presence, or who have a website that is clearly old and outdated (both in terms of content and design)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

  • Leukeh

    Oct 3rd

    Well written. Thanks for this. I’m a student and keep getting conflicting arguments from lecturers and designers all around the place. This cleared it up quite nicely.

    Also, reminds me of this comic:
    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_changes ^_^

  • Abrishca

    Oct 4th

    Great article Matt – I think the hardest part (and you covered off on this) is trying to get an understanding of the business’ clients and/or customers.

    As a freelance webdesigner of the ilk you describe above (ie: in the beginning stages with “smaller clients”) I think it can help significantly to target a niche industry or client’s whose business or product you already understand from personal experience.

  • JJ

    Oct 4th

    This article certainly echoes my sentiments. Friends/clients have been commenting that the previous designers/developers do not give any recommendations or ideas. They are merely robots who do anything that the client wants. In the end, the website came out to be very non-ideal for the client’s business.

    I guess what’s most important is that developers/designers should believe in themselves and stick to the principle of providing the best solution for the clients.

  • Marco Silva

    Oct 4th

    Very well written.

    I couldn’t agree more with you. We always try to push our limits with every client, and I don’t mean only tecnically.
    We always try suggest new and practical solutions for every client.

    And the result: a happy customer :)

    click.pt

  • John G.

    Oct 4th

    I’ll always try to suggest ideas and let the client know why I think it should go one way instead of the other, but I’m not going to argue with the client or beat my head against the wall for it. I’m not getting paid to do that.

    I give them what they want. If it’s not something I’m proud of, I don’t add it to my port. I’ll just collect my money and move on. It would be nice if every site or print piece could be the new masterstroke of my portfolio, but if it isn’t I don’t sweat it.

    If the client wants to make the call and I don’t agree, I’ll implement it and they can live with the consequences of their decision.

  • Jason Gross

    Oct 4th

    Good stuff Matt. An educational approach can go a long way when working with clients who are not super web savvy (which is most of them). You may be surprised at the number of people who will lean your way simply because they were not originally aware that your suggestions were even options to them.

    I do think its worth adding that every now and then you will most likely run into a client who is pretty stuck in their old ways. Depending on the client sometimes it is worth it to stick to your guns and fight for ideas that you know will improve their business. Other times we must put our pride aside to the person who signs the check. However, making a habit of only providing clients with what they want can really stunt your growth as a professional.

  • Josh Rucker

    Oct 4th

    As the designer/developer you have a responsibility to educate the client on best practices and the like. That’s why they hired you. If they refuse to listen to you, you only really have two options. Walk away and not get paid, or give them what they want.

    If you get the feeling that a client isn’t going to value your recommendation (and some clients will), maybe you should find someone who values your work more.

    The client is not always right. Sometimes they can’t be any more wrong. But they’re bringing the cash to the table.

  • cynicdesign

    Oct 4th

    It becomes easier over time to recognize which type of client you’re working with.

    You always give your client what they want.
    Sometimes that’s your expertise. Sometimes it’s a pretty picture.
    As a professional you need to recognize the difference.

  • replica handbsgs

    Oct 7th

    Thanks for the blog loaded with so many information. Stopping by your blog helped me to get what I was looking for.

  • chancadora

    Oct 8th

    Good stuff man, The customer experience first

  • Moe

    Oct 16th

    I don’t see what we do as design only. Because of the nature of our craft, we have been forced to teach ourselves about usability, branding, seo, marketing, content creation and so on.

    And, while I agree it is important that we educate our clients to the best of our ability regarding best practices, or pipe up when we believe (know!) that something is going to hinder their site’s performance – if they don’t have the budget to pay me for the 4 hours it takes to explain all the ins and outs of why copy/pasting from the competition is bad, or why they should be posting info to their site regularly to rank better on the serp’s, and all sorts of other good fun stuff…then often I’m forced to give them what they want and not much more.

    We work with a lot of startups and small businesses (sadly and unfortunately a lot of family as well..and I know you all know what that’s like) and the budgets that go along with those companies. If buddy comes to me with research in hand, all of his content ready, a basic wireframe of the site architecture and nice beautiful high-res pictures, and a list of questions, then I’m more apt to spend a bit of extra time going into the finer details – because I know he cares and has put in the time. But, if like Matt said it’s a client looking to throw something up and who are happy with just having a “web presence”, we’ll quote based on their specifications and 9 times out of 10 leave the finished product out of our portfolio.

    I’m all for education and providing a helping hand – but not at the expense of my bottom line.
    Moe

  • Affiliate Marketing Network

    Oct 20th

    very good article …your thought make easy way for working with client..

    Thanks for posting..

  • Cathy Dunham

    Dec 13th

    I agree with Moe on developing websites that incorporate branding, usability, clear messages, relevant imagery/content, and intuitive navigation… Design is just ONE component, but it MUST integrate with conversion and engagement. Website design/development becomes more intense when the project includes SEO setup and maintenance and then the client tells me to remove things that are “put in place” for optimization. Example: Today, a new client asked me to remove the email address field from their Contact Us forms and was upset when his Pay-Per-Click didn’t show up when typing in his company name. EGADS!

    When you’re creating websites and SEO for a client, it’s not just listen, produce, take money and run. Web strategists become intrinsically involved with their client’s business, online goals and the needs and wants of their customers. If a client demands changes that will negatively impact their online program and still holds us accountable for outstanding results, that’s the time for a solid heart-to-heart talk with them. We also have the option of FIRING a client. There are many clients out there with whom we can become valuable partners.

    It’s also helpful in keeping our sanity and hair intact!

  • Terry Wingfield

    Feb 21st

    Thank you for this article very interesting!!

    http://www.digitdotnet.co.uk

    Regards

    Terry Wingfield

  • sanji

    Jun 14th

    When working as freelance, I notice that most businesses don’t even have an idea about their website. They just to put up a site and thinking that money will follow through. And if this doesn’t happen, they will blame the designer. The hard truth, Great Read though!

  • RobK

    Jun 22nd

    Great read and great discussion.

    When it comes to this subject, I tend to lean toward the hierarchy of (1) what the client wants his/her clients and him/herself to experience and (2) if I can satisfy that with my own insight or at least do what they ask and provide an alternative if i believe the thinking is counterproductive to their success through the communication. I’m fascinated by the idea that efficiency could allow me to provide both, and teamwork between us and the client means success for them that they’re satisfied with – not just now – but into the future. I.e. What does it really take to do both and can I do it in time and in budget. And what could I do in the future to enable that efficiency that allows me to offer alternative/welcomed thinking.

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    Jul 1st

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