Improving Your Process: Client Communication

I’ll be the first to admit that I view my career in Web development as something undergoing constant evolutionary change. I find myself learning new things nearly every day, and that fact alone is one of the major reasons I love what I do. While I can’t say that I experience enlightenment with each new thing I learn, I can say that nearly every day brings at least a small alteration in my process. The medium in which we work calls for this adaptation, and refusing to update your process to accommodate the (ridiculously) fast pace of change will do nothing to help you.

A very common subject I find myself focusing on is that of communication skills & methods most appropriate given various situations. When I first began professional work, I had absolutely no idea what it was like to work with a (paying) client, trying to convert their ideas into a reality happily paid for. At first it was a struggle, I asked the wrong questions, made the wrong assumptions, and often found myself backtracking on work which was already nearly complete. Over time, a number of things have helped me to better communicate with clients not only for my benefit, but for their as well. It’s much nicer to work with happy clients as opposed to clients who feel they’re unable to properly communicate their reactions or ideas.

Begin internally; have a system

If you work at an agency or on a team, it’s really important to have an internal system of communication. A major obstacle I found myself dealing with was having a lack of resources when it came to me working on a particular project. When working on a team, it’s extremely difficult to keep mental records of every piece of communication, every note, every Word document that was sent to or received from a client. It’s not anyone’s fault, but sometimes various pieces of correspondence may fall through the cracks only to be found after a duplicate request is made to the client, putting you in an awkward position to answer the question “Why do you need [that] again?”. Tie in multiple projects and you can have quite a big stress on yourself in keeping all project material in place.

There’s a reason Basecamp is so popular. Basecamp removes any necessity for a company member or client to ensure anyone and everyone is on the same page with a project. My team has latched on to the ideology of Basecamp through the open source alternative, activeCollab (now forked to ProjectPier), and we’re not looking back. All client communication now takes place through various message threads which the entire company (as well as client participants) can read at any time. Using a collaboration system such as Basecamp or ProjectPier puts responsibility on each person for their own involvement and education for each project.

Being Explicit

With an effective communication system in place, it’s important to ensure your ideas and thoughts are properly communicated both to colleagues as well as clients. Being explicit in your choice of language can greatly affect communication.

A major priority should be to have your team members be on the same page. If there are details which need to be worked out, take care of that behind the scenes, before presenting your opinion/response/reaction to your client. That way, your team can be on the same page to both explain and support your stance on any particular matter.

Additionally, I’ve found it to be really helpful to include full documentation of your thought process behind any design decisions you’ve made. No matter what, clients are going to have preconceived notions about a project before it begins. They’ve got bias toward various elements, colors, or fonts that are going to shine the instant they see the first comp you present. It’s disheartening to hear that a client simply doesn’t like something you’ve produced, so there are a couple things you can do to help avoid complete rejection of a design you present.

It’s become practice in my office to include a (fairly detailed) write-up in support of a design presented to a client. It’s nothing extraordinary, just a document outlining the thought process of the designer which explains why various design elements appear as they do. Having this document to back up a comp has proven to be quite helpful in deterring a completely negative rejection. While not infallible, this document can provide insight on ideas not completely obvious to a client upon their initial inspection.

Fighting the good fight

If you’ve spent an hour doing client work, you know it’s inevitable to receive at least some (possibly ridiculous) suggestions from clients. Suggestions can range from listing a specific font to use to all out art direction. Nothing against clients, but most often these suggestions reflect nothing but a personal bias on their end and do little to improve a design. I’ve noticed that the handling & response to these suggestions can have great affect on the end product.

Many times a designer will read a criticism of their work and become defensive, wondering why the client wants to make a change that’s an obvious detriment. It’s often questioned whether the client truly wants an impressive end product. Of course they do, but of course there will be creative differences as to the degree of that impressiveness. It’s very rare that clients love everything presented to them and that should be kept in mind throughout the design process.

By far, I’ve found the most effective response to outrageous requests to be a simple inquiry of what lead to the request. More often than not, any inspiration for the request will be undefined, leading the client to recognize their poor decision. Initiating the dialogue can be simply saying something to the order of “That’s an interesting idea, what would be the reason for this particular change?” Usually you’ll end up hearing an unsupported response identifying a particular bias to which you can respond with (sound) design reasoning.

On the other hand, sometimes a response can be something you didn’t expect, something that does make sense to work with. While it may not be as aesthetically pleasing, you’ll be able to take their suggestion and work with them to find a solution acceptable to both parties.

The thing to keep at the forefront is that you and your client have a common goal; you’re not enemies. While creative differences may apply some stress to the project, it’s only because both parties care about what results. Try to keep that in mind as you volley communication back and forth about a comp which may have not had the amazing impact you hoped for.

Communication can always be improved

Although I’ve tried to optimize communication patterns in as many ways as possible, I’ve found that (like Web design & development) experience is the best thing you can do. Use your experience to alter the way you do things to improve your communication process both internally as well as with clients. Effective communication leaves much more time to do what we love to do, create.