One of the central challenges for any service-oriented firm is learning how to manage clients successfully and productively. The general assumption is that clients come to us because we are experts at what we do – whether it’s graphic design or public relations or custom software development. And they do. But where many small businesses run into trouble is by assuming that just because the client knows you’re an expert in the field that they will accept your judgment implicitly.
For the research I’m doing with Scott Belsky at Behance, we recently had the opportunity to chat with Tom Hennes, the founder of Thinc Design, a leading exhibition design firm, which is currently at work on the installation for the National September 11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero. Hennes frequently deals with projects that must align numerous constituencies, and he made a great point about the conundrum of client management:
“I think we often get into a very bad cycle with clients confusing opinion and expertise, as a colleague of mine used to say. I think clients usually do have the answer, but they can’t often articulate it, so we need to be smart about the kind of questions we ask. The answer they have is the answer to what they need, not the answer to how to make it.”
When you’re trying to solve a problem, the natural approach is to propose solutions, and this is most clients’ inclination. Yet, a client’s proposed solutions may not align with their actual needs, and thus, projects typically unfold as an ongoing process of re-education.
A process that requires team leaders and project managers to constantly reframe the story that the client is telling, honing in on what they want to achieve (i.e. goals), rather than what they want (i.e. opinions about this color, that approach, etc).
It can be hard work, going the extra mile at every turn to ensure that the client fully understands why you’ve chosen one particular approach over another. But even if it slows the progress of the project in the short-term, incrementally educating the client almost always pays off in the long-term. That way, when you finally arrive at the end product, everyone will truly understand its value.
***This article is adapted from the research and writing of Jocelyn K. Glei, a creative strategist with expertise in editorial, design and publishing. She regularly collaborates with Scott Belsky and the Behance Team, who run the Behance Creative Network, the Action Method project management application, the Creative Jobs List, and develop knowledge, products, and services that help creative professionals make ideas happen.