I recently worked on a Pro Bono project for a friend, and it reminded me of a period in the beginning of my career and how lucky I was then to get such great advice from the more senior professionals around me. A tip that eventually saved me from some big pitfalls. I made mistakes here and there over almost 20 years of projects, but with every hiccup came a lesson. Here are some excerpts from my lessons and all these smart tips.
Equal clarity questions
Clients come to us as designers for our expertise, and it is our job to guide them through the process. We help them find clarity about their vision and goals for their project. Doing so well means asking questions! It’s important to remember that not all customers will be good at conveying their vision – and that’s fine. You can still work with them and get amazing results by asking many questions and following those answers with more questions until you are both on the same page. This dialogue will help set clear expectations about the scope of the project, the products and everything in between while avoiding frustration for both parties.
Think of the word ‘classic’. Now think of five things that can be described as ‘classic’ – it probably changes a lot, right? So, what version is your customer imagining? You can guess … or you can clarify with additional questions like “Can you show me an example of what ‘classic’ looks like to you?” Or “What makes it classic?” And so on. This is a silly example, but it illustrates how subjective descriptions can be and how good it is to maintain good communication between you and the client. Keep in mind that your customers do not do this for a living, so asking questions will help you get to the root of any problem quickly with less time in guessing. And no, it would not look unprofessional if you asked a lot of questions, but it would make you a better creative.
Cooperation for victory
On one side of the table, you have a designer with knowledge and experience. On the other side of the table, you have the customer who knows the business, the audience and its goals. As creatives, we must remember that we are on the same team as our customers and aim for cooperation over conflict. Design should be a collaborative process: both parties are at the table with different perspectives and different knowledge to contribute. It is this variety of perspectives that will make the creative stronger and ultimately make your customer happier.
When you work collaboratively with your clients, they will often tell you what they need even before they realize it themselves – and sometimes, those needs are things they did not even realize they wanted until after talking about it with someone else! This is because people often find it difficult to articulate what they need out loud (even if they think they know exactly what they want), so customer involvement in the process can help ensure that everyone’s needs and project goals are met.
It all comes down to communication. Everyone at the table, customers and designers alike, want to feel heard and respected. Good communication and listening skills are a way to ensure that clients understand that they do not have to be designers themselves, but they still contribute significantly to the project. It helps to maintain a full investment in a great result.
Contracts are your friend
Contracts can help you set clear expectations for both parties. The best way to protect your business and make sure you are not burned by a client is to get a signed contract before doing any design work. If you’ve ever been forced by a client (or had to fire one) it’s probably because you did not have a contract when you started the project with him.
As a designer, it can feel a little awkward to submit a contract and you may be tempted to just dive straight into the job even when a client has not signed a contract. But there are a number of reasons why you should always, always sign a contract before performing any design work.
First, it will help you protect yourself from perimeter crawling. A clear definition of the scope of the project is essential. If the customer wants to add more elements or change his mind four times about what they need to design, it’s much easier when you have a contract and products clearly defined to say, “Sorry, but we have to go back and renegotiate the scope of our agreement.” That way, you will not do more work than you agreed on.
Second, a contract will help your customer trust you. When working with someone new, trust is everything – and they need to know that they can trust what you say and how it will be conveyed. A contract helps build that trust by setting expectations around quality and deadlines.
Third, contracts help clarify your client’s definition of “executed.” If there are any questions about what constitutes acceptable products for them (or if their definition changes), it is much easier for all parties involved if these questions are answered in writing before starting any work.
Finally, if something goes wrong and you need legal help, your contract can help prove you did what was agreed in the first place or at least show that there is an agreement.
Go with your stomach
You are built with intuition; Use it! Learn to trust your stomach when working with clients. I have found that clients who do not look like they are straight with me are often problematic. I do not encounter these problems very often nowadays because time and experience (and a good contract) have improved me in locating potential problems. When I meet with clients I make mental notes of red flags and green lights. Red flags are the things a customer or prospect might do that give you a moment of pause or make you worry a little. Green light is, of course, the opposite.
Red Flag customers will deploy limits such as expanding the scope of work but expecting the cost to remain the same, or deferring payment in an attempt to negotiate a lower price after the work is done even though they are satisfied with the project results. Sometimes it is better to move a problematic project; It leaves you open to taking on one big one. This is a pill that is hard to swallow when you first start because you are excited and want to take on as many paid projects as possible. I’m just calling you to be careful. If something does not feel right about a customer then it is probably your intuition that is throwing up a red flag.
Ultimately, it is up to you whether you take on the project. Just remember, if you decide to go ahead, get a deposit to get started, get a signed contract and make sure it is specific with a detailed product list.
Tracking is everything
Last but not least, it seems to me like a matter of course, but I feel it is essential to read. Provide everything you say you will do for customers – and do it with a smile! I can not stress how important it is to cultivate relationships and build a reputation of being reliable, trustworthy and amazing to work with. When customers trust you, life just gets easier. They will appreciate your design decisions more easily, they will continue to work with you and recommend you to others who need your services. I promise it’s a win-win.
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