If you’re interested in building a service-based business that includes working with clients on custom work, there are a few things that are helpful to know going into it. A lot of working with clients effectively is about setting the right processes in motion from the start. This is especially true if you’re working with clients who are far removed from your industry. With that in mind, these are some ways to be really intentional with the “how” in your process.
Don’t take on clients who exhibit red flags.
In the beginning, it’s so tempting to try to cater to everyone and everything. You’re trying to keep your head above water and the only answer at the time seems to be “get clients; make money.” Not every client is worth the time, and understand that some clients may actually cost you money in that your time working with them takes away from investing time into your business and/or clients who are more suited to your services. Red flags are things like clients who’ve waited until the last minute for help with their project, clients who bash their last designer, clients who try to skirt signing contract agreements, clients who try to pressure you for sub-par work with the intention of getting a discount, clients who try to avoid paying applicable deposits. One of the biggest ways to observe the presence or absence of red flags is if a potential client is resistant to signing documents agreeing that you will do work for them and that they will pay you for that work. (Your policies and contract stipulations should always outline that no work will commence until deposits are paid, all applicable contracts are signed, and that completed work will not be delivered until after final payment has processed.)
Communicate excessively and clearly.
You may have thought, for example, that when you explained to your client that the time, cost, and set-up for professional printing is a different process than simply running to a familiar office printing chain store, that they understood it. You may even have thought that clients would understand that they are responsible for the accuracy of the information they provided, proofed, and approved (e.g. names, count totals, deadlines). Estimates change, timelines change, and those changes or delays can change the outcome as well as the invoice. Make these things even more excessively clear than seems obvious. No matter the type or scale of production, clients need to understand their part in the process. It’s probably in your contract, and you most likely told them several times, but be repetitive to the point of excess if necessary. This helps them to keep it in mind, and it helps you for having that to defer to if a project hits a sour note. On that, it’s a good idea to archive documents and emails just in case. I’ve (thankfully) never needed any of what I’ve saved, but it’s always, always a good idea to be over-prepared.
Maintain open communication lines—and boundaries.
Clients will call you after hours and on weekends—if you allow them. If you don’t have the luxury of a separate phone line or an office away from your home, set up a cloud-based call management system that runs through an alternate phone number. It allows you to limit when calls are able to be received and keeps your business and personal calls and messages separate. (Tip: Pay for this service. Lost, damaged, or unrecorded messages from using a freebie service is not the professional image you want.) Likewise, clients need to be able to contact you via a means that is as beneficial to you as it is to them. Weigh the pros and cons of maintaining multiple communication lines (i.e. email, phone, in-person) vs. a single kind. An example of a single kind would be something like a project management system. The big advantage of something like that is everyone can stay up to speed, and it’s far more organized than sorting through miscellaneous emails and phone messages.
Allow clients to be a part of the process.
It may sound counterintuitive showing clients (what to you is) unfinished work. However, in the beginning stages, showing clients sketches helps them follow you along the journey. It helps you all more easily reach the same destination because everyone stays on the same page with a sense of being kept “in the loop” along the way. The work you’re doing for them should be more comparable to a gourmet experience than a drive-thru rush. The process matters. By helping to develop your client’s vision for their project, you’re allowing a beautiful fusion between their vision and yours. That can only happen through communication and the resolve to stay open to each other’s ideas.
Explain the rationale behind your concepts.
Clients aren’t thinking through the process in exactly the same way that you are. Things that come easily to you are not always second-nature to them. (That’s why they hired you.) Explain to them why you feel having a logo that’s uncapitalized, for example, seems human and conversational and why that fits their brand. Without that rationale, they might simply perceive it as “wrong” because it doesn’t fit into a more conventional preconception of always capitalizing the first letter of a proper noun. Explain why really “busy” designs are distracting or even unusable in some applications such as screen printing, business cards, or social media icons. Invite clients into your vision, so they can see how your vision and their vision overlap. It creates a better dialogue for everyone.
Don’t show your clients work that you would hate for them to choose.
I used to feel like I owed it to clients to show them all the concepts I explored—and I mean all of them. That’s not what they hired you to do. They want your expertise, not your leftovers. You shouldn’t put yourself in a position to hate a piece of your portfolio. When a design is too boring, stale, or just plain wrong, it can sometimes be construed as a kind of safety akin to why people ubiquitously equate over-stylized typefaces as being “interesting” instead of the hot mess that they actually are. Don’t do this to yourself; don’t do this to clients. Show clients your best work to choose from because your best work is why you do what you do.
Learn by doing, and learn by listening.
You’ll learn a lot of things as you go. When possible, learn what you can through others’ experiences. For an illustrated guide on good design advice, I love this simplified list. If you need a good laugh on the worst-of-the-worst client interactions, this site has some hilarious submitted stories that will put your own stories in perspective. This podcast (in spite of its intentionally salacious title) gives a really excellent perspective on why good client relationships are made, not born.