Helping Clients Become Better Clients

Agency life is thrilling. We get to work on exciting projects with amazing clients. We get to build incredible web apps and create beautiful designs. We get to be on the forefront of marketing and technology. We get to help brands tell their stories and connect with their customers. We get to push the envelope and take chances. This industry may be brutal, but for those of us with the willingness and fortitude to survive, we wouldn’t trade our careers for anything.

However, if you ask agency folks what they dislike most about their jobs, the answer is almost unanimous: bad clients.

You know the type. They go over scope. They’re unreasonable. They give feedback that doesn’t make sense. They change their minds. They show up late to meetings. They want you to keep your deadlines but don’t seem to understand the word “dependency.” They don’t understand or appreciate our work. Our art. Our brilliance.

They’re the bane of our existence.

And most of the time, it’s all our fault.

Saying that is blasphemy in agency world, but it’s true.

There’s a toxic combination at play. The client has the curse of knowledge when it comes to what they do. Agencies don’t. We can see and understand their world in way they never can because they know too much about their products and services.

Yet all the while, we have the curse of knowledge when it comes to seeing the world from our client’s perspective. Sure – we may understand marketing, customer research, design, digital, etc. But we struggle to understand every aspect of their world.

How many creative and user experience projects do you think most clients come across in their lifetime? Five? Maybe six at most? How about SEO? Analytics? Copy?

It just makes sense that they don’t know how to be a good client and give great feedback based on our worldview. They know coffee cups. Or technology solutions. Or the hotel industry.

Can we really expect them to know how to interpret or give actionable feedback on a design comp or paid media campaign? They have opinions. They’re smart. They know everything in the world about their product. However, they don’t necessarily know how to give feedback to an art director or user experience expert in terms those people expect.

And that’s our fault. We don’t help them become better clients. We don’t educate them on the process. Sure, we show them a project plan with deliverables. But do we really talk to them in a way that gives them an idea of how to best help us help them?

We present designs to “wow” them. Yet we roll our eyes as soon as they give us feedback based on their personal experiences and preferences. “Can you believe the client said I want more red?” or “can you make this pop?”

We send over beastly spreadsheets and presentations with media plans and keyword strategies. And we expect someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes activated carbon to give us useful feedback on something that would only make sense to us. It’s no surprise we receive feedback only on the parts that make sense to them.

So last year we took it upon ourselves to reinvent some of our deliverables, to move away from the industry standards and to try to see the world from their view. We made our SEO, Paid Media, and other digital marketing deliverables easier to digest. Easier to understand.

And it made a difference. Our clients were happier.

But really, it was just a start.

Right now we’re working to create a series of educational documents to present to clients before we share our hard deliverables. We want to help coach them on how to get the most from us. How can they give us better IA or wireframe feedback if they don’t know what we need or how to interpret the world that we live in?

The truth is clients are smart. Crazy smart. They just live and breathe in a world that is much different than ours.

It’s on us to be empathetic, to sympathize and commit to helping our clients become better clients. At the end of the day we’re judged by our work, and to succeed we need a track record of happy and successful clients.

Maybe we should all take a teaching course or two. Even if that’s not practical, the responsibility is on us. We need to channel our inner teacher - our inner coach - our inner mentor – so we help them give us the feedback we need. It’s our job to help them get the most from us. And it’s up to us to do amazing work.

Trust me, I love sites like Clients from Hell as much as anyone. But let’s not kid ourselves – most of the time it’s our fault.

Written by Brian Easter on December 18, 2014

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Written by
Brian Easter
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