When working with my designer clients, one of the top issues I run into is that their clients want to lead the design project. Their clients make a lot of suggestions on the design or want to make a lot of revisions, they decide how the design process should go, they pushback on fees, they push for attention out of normal business hours, etc. It can be an unpleasant time for the designer, and often lead to less than desirable results for the client. Even though the client is doing it because they of course believe it will lead to better results. So how do you lead clients to where you want them to go? How do you actually lead them and have them follow you, rather than the other way around? Tell them where you’re going, over and over, and over again.
If you think about any effective leader, they’re always going to have a plan, and then tell their team or “followers” where they’re going (and usually why). If they don’t, they’re going to get a lot more pushback, a lot more groaning, and a lot more rebellion. And whether we’re talking about in a corporation, in the military, or even at home with kids, the most effective leader is always sharing the next move.
Sometimes the Simplest Ideas, are the Most Effective
Now why is something so simple as sharing your plan also so effective? Because 9 times out of 10 if you show the clients that there is a plan, and tell them what it is, they will go along with it. Clients start to take over when it seems like there isn’t a plan. When it seems like things are disorganized or chaotic, they start to see that there’s space for them to get in and take things over. In fact they think if they don’t, their project is bound to go awry. And in most cases they’re probably wrong, there is a direction. It just hasn’t been shared. But in some cases, they might be right. And the project will actually turn out better if they take over, as there just isn’t enough management in the project.
So what does this look like exactly? Showing and telling clients that there is a plan? Well, it starts from their very first interaction with your business, your website. When they go onto your site, you want to tell them how to use your contact form, what should they contact you about, and when they should expect a reply (all in a friendly way, of course). Then you’ll reply within the time frame stated on your site and tell them the next steps, which will most likely be your screening call, and you can tell them what you’ll discuss. And then when you talk to them on the phone, you’ll tell them about your initial consultation and what you will discuss and achieve during that meeting, and then follow up with an email sharing the agenda, how they can prepare, and confirming the consultation.
And then during the consultation if they’ve said they’re interested in full service design, you’ll want to share a document with your design process and walk them through it. And then also discuss what your next immediate step is, and what will be achieved then. And on and on and on it goes. Throughout your entire process, from the very first interaction to the very last. Imagine how much more willing clients would be to follow along, if they constantly knew where they were going and why? If they always knew what was happening, if they always knew the next step, and they always knew that you knew what was coming next, and you were in complete control of what was happening? The entire project would be that much easier. And the client, and you, would be so much happier as a result.
Resist the Urge to “Relax” Your Leadership
Now, what often happens though, is that the project may start off like this. Everything described above, you handle like a pro. You always tell them what’s coming, you have the right documents, the right responses, you’re timely, you’re on top of it. Until…. after the proposal and LOA is signed, you’ve probably moved past your design concept meeting, all has gone well, and then, things start to get a little bit hairy. It gets more difficult to manage the project from one step ahead, there’s just so many things going on, so….. the management starts to lag a little. Things start to get a little bit more “relaxed” or “comfortable” in the process as you know the client now, they know you, you’ve got the project, and you don’t feel quite as stressed about doing everything right.
And we’ve all been there. We get just a bit too “comfortable” in something. Heck, it happens with dating, with parenting, with friendships, with everything. There’s a little bit of a pull to say, ehh, maybe I don’t have to put in quite as much effort now. I don’t have to work quite as hard as so much time has passed. I’m more comfortable with the person, so I can get more comfortable in my efforts. But unfortunately, that’s not the best plan. That’s when things start slipping. When you don’t make quite as much effort to date your spouse, or you don’t make quite as much effort to stay in touch with your long distant friend, maybe not right away, but over time, you notice a difference. You notice that things aren’t quite right. There’s something “off.” And if it goes on long enough, what seems subtle, can become major. The same goes with leading your design projects.
Lead from Beginning to End
And it’s very understandable that it seems like once the initial consultation is over, the proposal is signed, and you’ve started to really nail down the details of the project, there’s no need to manage the client quite as much. There’s no need to continually tell them what’s coming next, or to continually set the right expectations. That’s for the first couple of meetings. Right? Unfortunately, not. If you want the project to go along swimmingly, for the both of you, you will want to do this every step of the way.
Because when clients see that you have a plan, and you’ve shared that plan with them, there’s no need for them to take over. There’s already a leader to this project. There is no empty space at the head of the table. That space is filled by you. But once clients notice that empty chair, they’re going to be eager to fill that void. They’re going to be anxious that someone is manning the operation, as they just dropped a LOT of money for this project, so they slip into that top spot, sometimes even reluctantly.
So I encourage you to look at your process and your projects and see, is there a way for me to better prepare my clients for what’s coming next? Am I keeping them continually aware of what my plan is? Are they absolutely sure of where we are in the project’s progress and why? Am I constantly setting expectations for what they can expect to achieve from this experience, whether it’s only for a 2 hour consultation, a Designer for a Day, or a Full Service Design? And if not, how can I? What else do I need to do?
Very few clients will try to lead a project that already has a clear, confident, and capable leader. 90% of the time clients will try to lead a project that suddenly has an empty chair at the head of the table. As they don’t want this expensive thing flying on its own. So when things are going a bit awry and the client is seeming to take a over a bit too much, think to yourself. Is there someone sitting in that head chair, leading everyone else, sharing the plan? And is it me? Or is it empty? Because if it’s empty, and you don’t slide into that position quickly enough, it’s likely to soon be filled by your client. And we all know, nothing good can come from that.
If you’d like even more ideas on how to provide the kind of client experience that gets you higher fees and profits, get on the Wait List for the next session of “The Exceptional Experience”!