Managing Client Expectations: For Designers

By Wednesday November 19th, 2014

You cannot assume that your only job is to make your client happy. You also cannot disregard the opinions of your client. The ultimate goal for designers who want to build strong client relationships is to strike that delicate balance between the two.

Ah, managing client expectations. Depending on the parties involved, it’s often a designer’s least favorite aspect of the job. Can’t we just sit at our desks making things pretty? No, no we can’t!

A lot of designers are under the misconception that it is our job to make our clients happy. Other slightly misguided designers believe it is our job to meet the project goals. To be fair, they’re both somewhat right. But they’re also both somewhat wrong.

Let me be clear, because I’m probably starting to sound like a very unreliable source for advice on client-designer relationships. You cannot assume that your only job is to make your client happy. You also cannot be so laser-focused on project goals that you completely disregard the opinions of your client. The ultimate goal for designers who want to build strong client relationships is to strike that delicate balance between the two.

Focusing Only on Client Happiness

There are a number of different opinions about how important it is to keep your client happy. But really, how important is client satisfaction?

This may be a familiar scenario. You’ve landed a new client, had your kickoff meeting, and you’re feeling energized and excited to jump into the project. You send over the first round of designs and receive a slew of suggestions that make you cringe. The thought of switching your carefully considered, sophisticated type choices to the clunky, overly-decorative choices your client just suggested makes you want to cry.

If you’re fresh out of school, there’s a good chance you’ll comply even though everything in you is telling you not to. More seasoned designers tend to be more comfortable telling their client when they’re making a bad choice. But even the most veteran designers will give in to client suggestions after hearing too many of them, out of apathy for the project, or because they’re afraid to hurt their client’s feelings. You’re still making money, right?

The problem with giving in to every one of your client’s poor suggestions is that the money is ultimately the only thing you will get out of it. You’re likely to end up with work that you don’t want to show in your portfolio, because it looks like you don’t know what you’re doing. You are the design expert, not your client. That’s why they hired you, so stick to your guns. If you don’t, you can look forward to more unsatisfying, frustrating work in the future.

Focusing Only on Project Goals

Mike Monteiro, Design Director at Mule, has an article about what not to do when presenting work to a client. The very first point he makes is directly related to the subject at hand. Here’s what Monteiro says about seeing the client as someone to please: “What they didn’t hire you to do is make them happy, or be their friend. Your decisions should revolve around achieving that goal, not pleasing the client … never conflate helping the client achieve their goal with making them happy.”

To some extent, I agree. You definitely were not hired to be your client’s friend. If a client suggests something that is counterproductive to the goals of the project, you should respectfully explain why it is not a good idea. However, I’m not sure it’s totally accurate to say you weren’t hired to make your client happy. I highly doubt your client sought out a designer who wouldn’t care if they were happy or not.

It’s undeniably important to keep project goals in mind and work toward them. Yet it seems like a bad idea to sacrifice the happiness of your client to ensure you achieve these goals. Which brings me to…

The ultimate goal for designers is to strike a balance between client happiness and project goals.

Striking a Balance

If you only focus on making the client happy, you may end up with a hot mess of a project you aren’t proud of that feels like a step backward for the client’s business. If you only focus on achieving project goals, without consideration for your client’s opinions, you’ll likely end up with an uncomfortable business relationship that will not lead to future work and reflect poorly on your reputation as a designer. So, how do you achieve that perfect client-designer relationship?

Well, it isn’t an exact science. Your experience will undoubtedly vary from client to client. But there are a few general guidelines that can help steer you in the right direction. The most important things to keep in mind are:

  1. You’re the expert. Your client hired you because you know what you’re doing, so if something feels wrong, speak up. Of course, always be respectful, polite, and professional, but don’t be afraid to say something if your client makes a suggestion that will hurt their brand image.
  2. Listen to your client. Maybe some ideas your client has won’t be good, but it’s your job to hear them out. Even if you don’t follow a suggestion, you may learn the underlying reason why they suggested it and arrive at a better solution.
  3. Be positive, pleasant, and professional. This one is pretty obvious. No matter what happens throughout the course of the project, as long as you are respectful of your client’s opinions and ideas and convey your own in a professional manner, you’ll both be okay in the end.

There are more smart suggestions for successful project management in this post from Brolik’s own Jason Monte. If you have any client relationship management tips, leave them in the comments below!

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About the Author

Hannah is a designer at Brolik Productions. In addition to designing for the web, she has experience with branding, traditional print design, and package design. When she isn't scouring design blogs, Hannah likes exploring new places around Philadelphia and coming up with weird nicknames for her cat.