Employee Post

Forming Harmonious Client-Agency Relationships

“Harmonious” may not be the word a lot of clients and agencies/freelancers would use to describe their relationship. Perhaps many would even land on a more negative term. Why is it that we hear of the bad cases so much more often than the good ones? Are designers and stakeholders simply destined to be nemeses, playing an eternal game of tug-of-war over button placement? Are developers and clients set to battle over feature bloat until the end of time? Personally, that doesn’t sound fun or productive to me. I’d like to propose a better way of doing things. First, let’s get a few misconceptions out of the way.

Your clients don’t suck. You just have a big ego.

Let’s get this out of the way upfront. Complaining about clients is BS. Websites like Clients From Hell are garbage. They offer nothing more than an outlet for whiny people to complain. It’s like when your waiter complains about the people who sat at your table before you. Doesn’t make that employee look very good to you, does it? By the way, those clients are the people essentially responsible for keeping your lights on. Just a reminder.

The main problem isn’t with your client–the deeper issue here is your ego. And believe me, I’ve been there before. You spend all night designing a beautiful comp—tight grids, carefully set typography and a color palette van Gogh himself would be proud of! The next day you excitedly share it with your client. You’re expecting her to pin a medal on you and pop champagne bottles. Instead she utters those oh so familiar words, ”Hmm. This is a good start. Why don’t we try…” and instead of laughter and champagne, you head back to your office for a long night of Photoshop and cheap bourbon. Seems like a healthy lifestyle, right?

Checking your ego

One of my new favorite books is Articulating Design Decisions, by Tom Greever. It may have “design” in the title, but I recommend it for developers, project managers, and anyone else involved in the project. In this book, Tom very aptly describes how our ego often gets in the way of seeing the value in stakeholder input and even hinders our own ability to communicate why exactly our chosen implementations may work better than the client’s suggestion. The moment we distance ourselves emotionally from the project (that goes for the agency and the client), we begin to see more clearly. We can then have conversations that move the project forward instead of getting caught up in little squabbles that get us no where.

Meetings Meme: One does not simply stay awake at meetings

Meetings…ugh

Nobody likes meetings. Well, except Project Managers, maybe. But it you want to build a relationship, you have to put time into it. That’s where meetings are really great. You get to know each other and how the other party prefers to work and interact. This can be really beneficial when it comes time to present ideas and discuss them. We don’t want to be holding meetings just to chat over coffee and pastries, though.

Here are some meeting tips I use every day to make sure they’re brief, but productive:

  • Always have a kickoff meeting. Try to include all of the stakeholders, whether it’s one or thirty people. This gives you the chance to get to know everybody and get to the root of the problems you’re going to solve.
  • Always let the other party say their piece. Everyone likes to talk and be heard, so try not to jump in while the client is still talking. Tom Greever recommends taking notes during meetings and occasionally mentioning things like “That’s an interesting point; I’m going to make a note of that.”
  • It’s your job to direct the meeting. If it derails into a tangent or something like “Why is the text in Latin?” you are the one who has to bring it back in. You can do this by letting the client quickly know you’ve made a note of something they brought up, but you’d rather focus on X for this meeting.
  • If you’re presenting something major, like a design comp of the homepage or a big feature you’ve been building for two months, try to have a meeting for it. Even if it’s over the phone or video chat. This gives you the chance to discuss it as opposed to the one-way conversation produced by email.

Remember your roles

Clearly defining and adhering to roles will help the project tremendously. The client is the subject matter expert, the agency is the expert on translating the clients message into something users will understand. When the designer says image sliders on the homepage are bad UX, listen to her! On the same token, when the company’s CEO insists that the market simply won’t buy a new feature you’re pitching, you should probably listen up.

When we give mutual respect and quit getting in each other’s way, everyone is much happier. Project budgets and timelines also don’t get inflated.

Next step

Try these tips out on your next (or current) project and let me know how it goes! If you’d like further reading I highly recommend You’re my Favorite Clientby Mike Monteiro and the book I mentioned above, Articulating Design Decisions, by Tom Greever. Both are game changers and cheaper than all of that champagne and cheap bourbon (although we won’t judge you if you multitask…who says reading isn’t a drinking activity too?!).

2 thoughts on “Forming Harmonious Client-Agency Relationships

  1. Is it so common to have an acrimonious relationship with the person who pays the bills? Goodness, I hope not. While such opposing points of view will inevitably occur, I trust these are the exception and not the rule.

    That said, more often than not, blame can be be shared. If the issue is a technical one, the user must take a hard swallow and listen to the technical expert. If the question concerns content that the user feels will make the offering more attractive to potential customers, it’s the user’s call and their preferences must take precedence. After all, it’s their income.

    However, I believe the user is often at fault due to their not understanding (nor making the slightest effort to understand) the technical restrictions of a given issue. The user can go a long way by doing some serious homework and studying the technical issues. This way, when the teckie tries to explain a problem. there can be some degree of understanding.

    Talk to each other, people. Explain the problem in the language of the other party, and make a concerted effort to understand the other point of view. That’s the only way you’ll ever be partners instead of adversaries.

  2. Stephen, unfortunately the problem is a lot more common than it should be—there are sites and books dedicated to the subject!

    It truly is all about talking—and sometimes having tough discussions. But no relationship that’s worth having is 100% easy to maintain all of the time. You just have to put in the effort!

    Thanks for your thoughts!

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