It takes a very special type of person to be a teacher. You must be patient, kind, selfless, and passionate. One of my cousins is just that type of person. When I ask her how her “kids” are (because she calls her students her “kids”) and she launches into an hour-long conversation about their ups and downs, I’m not surprised. I was, however, quite surprised at her response when I asked about the parents of her students.
“Nonexistent,” she said.
From there, we talked for a while about how there have been several situations where she has sent notes home, made phone calls, or tried to catch parents for a quick second after school, only to be ignored.
Funny, I thought, it seems that no matter what profession you work in, you experience people like this. People who just seem to not care.
Let me clarify here that I am not, in any way, trying to compare my work as a designer with that of a teacher. In the grand scheme of things, my work in CSS can’t really even begin to compare with educating future world leaders.
However, after listening to the hardships of these invisible parents with my cousin and a few of my close friends who are educators, I found several strategies that I could use on any given day. In this article, I will discuss a few tactics that designers can use to deal with those hard-to-reach clients.
Take Notes During the Initial Meeting
The first tip comes from a friend of mine who teaches middle school students. She explained how she does her best to memorize all of the children’s names at the beginning of the school year before the initial “Parent Night.”
This allows her to speak individually to each child’s parent or guardian. During this mini-meeting, she takes mental notes. Does the parent have concerns? Does he or she help with homework? Does he or she even know the teacher’s name?
You can take similar steps when meeting a design client. During the initial phases of the project, be mindful of not only the client’s feedback, but also the quality of the feedback. How quickly does he or she respond? Is the feedback thoughtful? Paying attention to these details will help you set up deadlines accordingly. For example, if a client consistently takes two weeks to get back to you, you know to give two weeks for client feedback. This, of course, is an extreme example but I think you understand the general idea.
Being an Authority
I often find that communication issues typically arise because of a lack of respect in a relationship. Your client needs to see you as an asset, an authority, and a partner. The last of which is perhaps most important. Your client shouldn’t see you as a tool to create something he or she wants. He or she should understand that you were hired as an expert, and that you should be regarded as such. To demonstrate your authority, you must remain professional throughout the design process. To further reinforce your reputation as an expert, you can send samples of your work, or reference blog posts that you’ve written to demonstrate your knowledge in the design world. If you can make your client see that you are respected by others, he or she will likely follow suit.
Using your judgment from the initial meetings with your client, you may determine that it is a good idea to keep a detailed record of your time. For most clients, I now track all time spent on their projects in a Google spreadsheet. The document includes the amount of time spent, details on what was accomplished, who was involved in the time spent, etc. I also track time spent on follow up. It takes about five minutes to gather my notes, call a client, and leave a message. If I have to call the client more than once, that time quickly adds up.
Put It In The Contract
When all else fails, put it in writing. Optimum7 has actually begun to add clauses to our contracts that note that client unresponsiveness will directly result in a delayed deadline. We’ve also included information in our new client survey that asks permission to move forward if we are not given a response within 48 hours. This allows our busier clients to trust that the work we are doing is up to their standards, and stay on schedule without needing to approve every step.
Constant Follow Up
As soon as I send something to a client for review, I create a reminder on my calendar to follow up in two business days. This allows me to stay on top of all my clients without worrying about the last time I contacted them. When following up, I also send a link to the last message I sent, complete with a timestamp. This demonstrates the consistency in my follow up, and also gives the client a sense of urgency.
Remember that Google spreadsheet that I mentioned a little while ago? Well, it isn’t just a tool to keep track of the amount of time spent, or to send a bill to the client. I use it so a client can actually visualize the emptying of their wallet. When a client sees that I’ve had to follow up multiple times, and that it has ended up costing them a significant portion of their budget, it’s quite the wake up call. Clients who seem to shrug off your follow up, usually start paying attention when they can see their unresponsiveness monetized.
Do Understand That Life Does Happen
With my Type-A, list-making, color-coding, schedule-making personality, one of my least favorite expressions has always been, “If you want to see God laugh, tell him your plans.” Religious beliefs aside, I have to admit that there does seem to be a pattern. Plans don’t always go as expected. Things happen. At some point in their lives, our clients will most likely face a tragedy, get sick, etc. and be unable to respond for long periods of time. My advice here is to be human. Understand that what they are going through is taking precedence over any work you are doing. Give them the time that they need before following up again, or suggesting suspending the project. This kindness will go a long way in the situation that you need to take a sick day.
But If “Life” Seems to Be “Happening” An Awful Lot…
If your clients’ excuses seem to pile up, they may be dodging the project. If this is the case, simply remain professional and move their project to the back of the design queue. Don’t hesitate to tell your client that either. Write him or her a polite email that states that you will be ceasing any work on the project until the client has more time to devote to it, and that you will be contacting them again in a month to readdress the project. When they are ready to begin work again, they will most likely contact you. Until then, begin working on projects from other clients.
Don’t Take It Personally
My final piece of advice is one that I honestly have a bit of trouble following myself. I am the kind of person who is very passionate about design. I truly enjoy what I do, and put a great deal of thought and effort into my work. This is why, when facing a client who is unresponsive or indifferent, I am guilty of “taking my work home with me.” I don’t mean that I physically take work home to do (although I typically do that too, (ha-ha), I mean that I begin to stress out about why I am not getting a response. I often feel that if I don’t receive a confident, “Yes!” as soon as I send out work for review, that I must have missed the mark. I put my heart and soul into my work, and when it isn’t received well, I begin to obsess over what I should have done, revisit concepts that I hadn’t executed, and begin to doubt everything I’ve done for the project.
Although I am still learning to be more confident in myself and my work, I can say that, without a doubt in my mind, the obsessing is a waste of time, and it isn’t healthy. It especially isn’t healthy with clients that just seem to not care. I need to understand that their response (or lack thereof) is not a reflection of my work, but only of their habits. I have to learn that I can create the best possible solution for my client, but I can’t force them to care.
But that, of course, is the worst part of it. When you dedicate so much time and effort into creating something that you believe in, and grow to really love, you really can’t help feeling down when the person that you created it for dismisses it with a wave. It’s like a punch right in the gut; it literally leaves me breathless and frustrated. But I need to understand that this is a part of my job. Clients like this will always exist and can actually be found in almost any profession. It is our job as designers to endure and continue working passionately and professionally, even when our clients become less than unenthusiastic.
There are many different types of clients in the design industry. In my opinion, the worst type is the kind who doesn’t respect your work or your time. However, with a bit of confidence and the tips from this article, I’m sure you can successfully work with any type of client that comes your way.
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