Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with my friend Rajesh Pancholi of R27. Rajesh is a UK designer who has worked with several clients including Epson, HP, Amazon (UK), Cisco, Tandberg, Volkswagen, BMW, T-Mobile, and many more. I've done a lot of interviews in the past; many of which focused on the designer's background, workflow, and personal opinions. In today's interview, we decided to focus on Rajesh's relationship with his clients and how to best work with them. If you've often wondered how to court large or small clients, take a moment and review the interview below. Rajesh offers some excellent insights into the designer/client relationship.
A Bit of Background Info
After studying at the London College of Communication or the London College of Printing (LCP) as it was known in my day. I began working in the Design Industry in '94, two days after buying my first car so I could get to work. The size of companies I've worked for have varied, my first had just two staff, the boss and I. This was an eye opener and gave me an insight of what goes on behind the scenes. Robert gave me a trust/access to everything; I definitely knew when things were good and when the purse strings had to be tightened.
Along with various numbers of colleagues taking on different roles, I've supported B2B and blue chip companies of all sizes and many new businesses. I continue to do the same since starting up R27.CREATIVELAB early 2007. Working directly with clients or supporting many marketing groups/PR teams to deliver to their end-client. Lucky for me, the client list has been varied and I plan to keep it that way if I have anything to do with it...
I've worked on the design and build of exhibition stands, (going out to Monaco, picking up 24 foot poles, balancing them on my shoulder as we put together a stand with Stuart Hookway and his team for Fox Sports) to online incentive/reward programmes. Marketing Collateral, Identities, Direct Mail, Logos, Corporate Literature, Point of Sale to smaller projects for younger businesses.
One of the most important things I've realised is it’s important to try to understand what type of day the client/potential client has to deal with. They all respond differently dependant on their schedule. Although you may want to focus on a project on a particular day because it suits you it may not work for them, they may not be ready to give you feedback or are wrapped up in another part of their workload.
The project may be all time consuming to you but may be a smaller cog in a larger process and its important to realise this. Understanding this helps to organise your own time and what types of communication you should be using with them, asking which method the client would like to use is a good start and the timelines you should be working to.
No matter who the client is, its always important to put a voice to a name as so much correspondence is done online, you can learn a lot about a person by their manner on the phone and even more so if its possible to meet them. Reminding yourself it’s still about people. It also helps them understand you and your character.
That aside it’s important to make yourself visible online as this is probably the first thing individuals will do (Google you) before anything is moved forward. Just make sure you project the right image and it’s consistent.
I know the above is not rocket science and I don't pretend to know it all but it helps me lay a few foundations down early on which in turn help get things going smoothly.
Client Communication. Voice or Email?
The "putting a voice to a name" is something I like to do when I can.
Depending where you are in the project and what kind of comments are shared I still like to document items spoken about. If anything is mentioned over the phone that needs me to action, you'll probably hear in the background lead scrapping paper as I take notes in my own form of short hand. I try to make notes for every project whether large or small. Sometimes the note becomes a doodle as the conversation proceeds buts it still reminds me of what spoken about.
However, if it’s to be a number of action points then these are scribbled down and very soon afterwards emailed back to the client to let them know how I am going to proceed. This also gives them a chance to change any initial thoughts they have before we go too far down the line. I guess it’s important to clarify as much as possible in the conversation but there have been and will be many occasions where the client is unsure and asks for my thoughts. Sometimes it’s just useful to have a moment to think and then respond with thoughts than to share too quickly ideas which have very little mileage. One of my Clients introduced me to Concept Share which works very well.
This is all dependant on the timeline we're up against and availability to communicate further before the work needs to be carried out.
Client Communication: Following Up
An obvious and simple rule would be treat them like you would want to be treated, that goes without saying. From there on I try to understand how the current project fits into the bigger picture. Knowing this may not only help you with the job at hand but you may be able to suggest ways to make the process easier and suggest further options. Try to get involved as much as you can or they let you without being a pain and then follow it up with future calls/chats to see how things are going at all times helping because at the end of the day that's why you're there. Small conversations can go a long way and it’s the least you should invest into building a relationship over time.
It helps if you are able to strike up a personal rapport but that in turn can be tricky if you are inclined to get over friendly and too familiar, remember they are your client first.
It comes down to delivering more than they were expecting, I don't mean ten variations of a logo but rather thinking ahead for them and making the process pain free. It's not about being a sycophantic designer but someone who adds value.
How to Establish a Rapport With Your Clients
I try to treat and approach all clients in the same manner; the biggest difference is how often you're able to contact them to talk things through depending on their workloads, where they are and how often they're simply available.
It's important to show passion about what you do yourself and try to understand what they do and the importance of it in the big scheme of things. Finding a way to get excited about the widget they produce. If you have a genuine approach, it'll show and makes the conversation easier. Listen to them and let them tell you what they think they need and then share your thoughts. Remember it’s about them and every decision should put them first. As time goes on you'll find yourselves talking about subjects outside what you may be currently working on and there the relationship grows. But do be weary of sharing too much; they may not care about what you got up to on Saturday night.
I think the basics for establishing a rapport are the same, it all depends on how open they are and how much they are willing to share about their work and personal life.
Working Directly With the Client vs. With a Marketing Agency
Both have their pros and cons, working directly with clients you have to mange expectations carefully along with timelines and changes to a project that should already have been live or on press. While some agencies manage this process really well and buffer you to make sure it all runs smoothly reminding you that you're on the same side.
It works best when you are involved early on whether that be directly with clients of agencies, watching something grow from the onset and seeing it make a difference.
When I first worked inside a small studio, small being just me and the boss I felt that working through marketing agencies was a pain. Many days it left me with a feeling that I was missing something and I really wasn't sure who I was designing for, the end client, or the agency who were just pin balling us to the end result. There seemed to be a constant battle where all involved seemed to know better or maybe it was just a few people that were giving me that impression. Of course it could have simply been my lack of experience at the time.
These days the teams I'm lucky enough to work with have a real sympathy for design as well as making sure the clients needs are always kept in sight. As long as you trust the team its fine, only when you begin to think you know better and the people you work with aren't receptive does the road becomes rocky.
Listen to them, really listen to them. Forget what you think they need as you walk into the meeting and rethink it on the way out. Let them push you into new territories, try something new each time so it all stays fresh if the brief allows it. The client knows their business better than you so learn from them so your solution is a stepping-stone to helping them take the next step.