After you have been in the design and advertising industry long enough, you start to see patterns with clients ... what they want, how they think, what pressures they are under. You start to understand their hot buttons and how to avoid pushing them. And you also get to experience first-hand what happens if you or someone on your team screws up.
Before we started building productivity and project management software for creative agencies, we ran a small ad agency in Denver, CO, for 12 years. During that time, I made my fair share of mistakes (and I will probably continue to do so), but one thing I can't stand is making the same mistake twice. So to save everyone lots of pain and frustration and so you can learn from my mistakes, here are the four things that tick off clients the most and some pointers on how to avoid these situations.
1. Inability to read the client's mind
You could call this "not meeting expectations," but to be honest it's a bit more than that. Quite often, a client has in his or her mind a picture or vivid idea of what they want in terms of design, copy, functionality, etc. The rub here is that they are not used to providing elaborate descriptions of designs, and they often don't know how to speak about design, copy and development in the somewhat arcane terms that graphic designers, copywriters and web developers use.
This is certainly not their fault, and it is on us to extract that information out of their heads so that we can help them realize the vision they have for their brand. Granted, we are not actual mind readers, and sometimes a client's expectations can come out of left field. But I have discovered that, in most situations, if I would have simply asked more probing questions upfront, I would have been able to nail down their vision sooner and avoided extra rounds of revisions.
How to avoid it
Have a long list of probing questions written out before you start any project kickoff meeting. These could include business goals; marketing goals; design parameters; copy parameters; and functionality requirements. In addition, ask the client if there are any designs or examples in the marketplace that are similar to proposed work that the client likes as well as any designs or examples that they do not like and that you should stay away from. This gives you a sense of the design ballpark in which you will be playing.
2. Missing deadlines
Most marketers and business owners are under all kinds of crazy deadlines, and your project is connected to one or more of these. If you miss your deadline, then your client probably misses one or more of theirs. This could lead to anything from mild inconvenience to revenue loss, but one thing it is almost certain to lead to is your client never hiring you for a job ever again because you don't follow through on your promises.
How to avoid it
Granted, sometimes clients almost seem to try to get us to miss our deadlines, with lots of last minute changes and overhauls to the scope. This is why it is critical to keep close tabs on the situation and let them know far in advance if you anticipate delays. Explain to them in detail why you need to move a deadline and provide rational, logical reasons why the deadline needs to move; they may grumble a little but will usually understand. A little bit of discomfort upfront is vastly better then a tongue lashing and getting fired.
And if you need help keeping track of all your deadlines and details, for god's sake try our project management software for designers or another similar tool. Spending a few bucks a month to stay organized is great insurance against losing thousands of dollars of potential work.
3. Going over budget without notice
I knew of a local Web shop that always underbid their projects to win them and then made up for it in out-of-scope charges that they knew the client would incur if the client wanted a finished site. Needless to say, after a few years of this practice, this shop closed its doors.
Most of us are far more ethical and honest in our proposal and billing processes, but there are still times when, through no fault of our own, our projects go out-of-scope due to a variety of reasons - excessive revisions, scope creep, etc. You would think clients would realize this and simply expect a larger bill at the end of the project. Well, NEVER assume anything.
I once assumed a client, who asked for out-of-scope changes to a project, was aware that their request would lead to a larger invoice, and I even told them ahead of time how many hours it was going over. But when they received the invoice they refused to pay the overage because I didn't tell them ahead of time the exact amount it was going to be over the quoted estimate (actually, it was their accounts payable department that protested, so the lesson learned here is to get signoff from all relevant client parties on such overages).
How to avoid it
When you realize that a job is going to require more time, effort or materials, which will then increase the cost, you need to immediately communicate that information to your client in writing and tell them how many more hours and dollars it will require. Better yet, get them to sign off on a new estimate for the original costs and the out-of-scope costs. This way you have leverage if anyone comes back on you about the added expenses.
4. Giving them an incomplete or unusable deliverable
This is probably the most frustrating circumstance for a client. They think they are getting a deliverable they can start using immediately, only to discover that it needs another component or set of features that were not included in the original estimate. It's akin to getting the toy of your dreams on Christmas Day only to discover that it requires 7 special batteries, the only place to get them is on a Russian Web site and it will take 3 weeks to ship them. Grrrrrrr.
I have found this often happens in Web projects, where clients often do not know all the technical requirements to get their site up and functioning. However, I have also seen it happen on basic logo jobs, where the client asked for a full color logo but neglected to say that they also needed files for B&W, reversed-out white and a few other odd color variations. And almost every time I have seen this happen, the circumstance was simply due to a misunderstanding between the design firm or ad agency and the client.
How to avoid it
Here is where you have to anticipate the needs of your client and ferret out all the use cases for the designs, copy and programming you are working on. If they are talking about a Web site, questions like what language they want the site to be developed in, what server the site will be hosted on and how often they need to make changes to the site can give you more insights about the true scope of the project so you can quote it accurately.
As for design projects, understanding where and in what mediums the designs will be used can help you provide your clients with upfront advice on all the other things they need to consider so as to get maximum benefit from what you are creating.
If you have other items to add to this list, just provide them in the comments below.
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