5 Tips for Managing Unruly Clients

For better or for worse, clients are like snowflakes – each one is unique and comes with his/her own idiosyncratic needs and challenges. We
August 11, 2009 For better or for worse, clients are like snowflakes – each one is unique and comes with his/her own idiosyncratic needs and challenges. We can never be sure that what worked in the past will work in the future. At the same time, we do tend to face relatively similar problems and struggles again and again, so there must be some common ground.

Looking to extract some guiding principles for effective client management, we dipped into our archive of hundreds of interviews with creative business folk to suss out the most frequently cited techniques. What follows is a handful of guideposts, supported by insightful quotations from small business owners who deal with clients day in, and day out.

1. Listen.
It may seem obvious to listen, but after years of client dealings, sometimes we fall into the trap of tuning out our clients. We assume we know the solution and fail to pick up on the crucial nuances that make their dilemma distinctive. As the founder of Serial Cut studio Sergio del Puerto says, “I believe it's important to know what the client has in mind and go beyond his expectations, but it's also important to listen and to be realistic regarding projects."

2. Educate.
An oft-overlooked part of the client management process is education. Clients come to you for your expertise, but they often need to be educated along the way in order to be able to understand and value that expertise. Todd Berger, a member of design house cypher13, breaks down his approach: “There’s almost always an education component to any project.  A client needs to convey their goals to their consultant and the consultant must convey their ideas to their client. It is our responsibility to succinctly and efficiently convey our ideas to our clients.  With larger budget projects we’re afforded a great deal more time to both concept and communicate our ideas and their evolution to our clients.  When budgets are tight there’s a great deal of pressure to ensure that our client shares our vision and vice versa before work begins.”

3. Communicate constantly.
Keeping the client in the loop and updated every step of the way is essential. By doing so, you can ensure a shared vision as the project progresses, keeping timeline, scope, pricing, and general expectations on track. Even if you’re struggling with something, communicating the situation to the client can be an opportunity to humanize yourself and build trust. And, as Senior Art Director Jonathan Moore from 2Advance Studios comments pragmatically,  “Keeping in contact with the client helps to prevent feature creep and last-minute surprises during the project.”

4. Focus.
Like any consumer, clients can be overwhelmed by too much choice. Our job is to give them the best solution, which may or may not mean providing a smorgasbord of options. Tom Muller, principal of Muller design, favors a less-is-more approach, saying, “Your don't always have to present a client with a barrage of ideas - sometimes just one (good) idea can be enough. Don't dilute yourself."

5. Make the case.
Always lay the groundwork for the presentation of an idea. Whether it’s focus groups or prototype testing, doing the footwork that demonstrates why your product will work in advance is powerfully persuasive. As Alessandra Lariu, a Senior VP at McCann Erickson and founder of SheSays, puts it: “When presenting work to a client I do a lot of work on the end users/consumers. You use them to talk about how appropriate and interesting your idea is - always remember that the work that you do is mainly for people out there and not to satisfy your - or the client's - ego.”

***This post by J.K. Glei is based on research by the Behance team. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.