8 Strategies For Successful Relations With Clients


Let’s face it. Some days, you want to just fire your clients. You go through one too many comps, iterations or edits and you’ve had enough. It has happened to everyone at least once and I’d be lying if I said it won’t happen again; you get to the end of a project and realize that you would have made more per hour flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Thankfully, as with most common problems, there are a few simple guidelines that you can follow to help make sure that you’re never working for below minimum wage.

Due Diligence

“Experts often possess more data than judgment.” -Colin Powell

Know your role

Remember that the client will always know more about their product or service than you do. They are the expert at what they do; their problem is usually that they don’t know how to explain it well. That is where you, as the designer, step in to help. You are a graphical communications ninja, but to effectively make your, and ultimately your client’s, point you must fully understand what needs to be said.
From the outset, make it a priority to get as much information as possible about the company, their product or service, the intended audience of your work and the reason that your work needs to exist. The better prepared you are and the more information you get out of the client before you start working, the quicker your design will be accepted, and the quicker you will get paid. Use that overflow of data from the client to form a coherent picture of what you’re trying to accomplish and then use your good judgment to make something beautiful from the madness. By spending ample time collecting information, you have allowed the client to share their knowledge and participate in the project. This is a good thing. When clients feel they are part of the process they are less likely to question the design decisions you make.

Hire the right customers

“If you try and please everyone, you won’t please anyone.” –37signals1

Remember that part of your due diligence is making sure that the project is a good fit for you as a designer. You cannot be everything to everyone, and if you try to be, you will not only look bad, you’ll lose money.

Remember the principle that carries the Vilfredo Pareto2 name: 80% of the output will come from 20% of the input. In other words, you will make 80% of your income from 20% of your clients, so focus on the good ones and fire the bad ones. Stay true to your strengths and don’t be afraid to pass on a project. In the end, everyone, including your client, will be better off.

I repeat…

Don’t try to take on every project that comes across your desk, even when you’re starting out. This will preclude a large percentage of your client problems. By picking your two or three biggest strengths and building a solid reputation, you will attract clients who are looking for a genius in your fields of choice and who, consequently, will be willing to pay well for the service.

The Harvard Business professor Michael Porter3 states you can hold a competitive advantage in one, and only one, of two areas: price or quality. Focus your efforts on your strengths, build a solid reputation and you’ll never be forced to compete on price again.


“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” –Peter F. Drucker4

Approach all communication with a Zen mind

original image by isa_adsr5

Zen philosophy teaches you to approach every task with a beginner’s mind6. This is simple when you’re trying to teach yourself hyper-astro-meta-particle physics, but not as easy as you think when it comes to something you do all day, every day. Try hard to put yourself in the shoes of a beginner; you will be more apt to understand and sympathize with your client’s point of view. You will also find that by using less jargon (by assuming the language of a beginner) your client will understand and internalize your point much more quickly, which in turn helps to create an evangelist for your work in your client’s organization, which always makes your life easier.

But adopting a beginner’s mind isn’t as simple as dropping your haughty design-speak in favor of a fifth grade vocabulary. You need to approach each conversation or communication as a beginner does, with no expectations and no preconceived notions. Without the benefit of assumptions or preconceived notions, you will be forced to ask more questions and in turn draw more information out of the client; and just like that, your job will have gotten easier. Disclaimer: If all this Zen stuff is too new age for you, just remember the old adage: When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.

Listen for what isn’t there

What the client says: Can you make that text just a little bigger?
What the client means: This font might be a little hard to read. What do you think?

Everyone fears the dreaded “Make this text bigger” line, and everyone (well, almost everyone) has probably cringed and then painfully capitulated. When faced with clients asking for design changes, especially from those clients who don’t have any design training (let alone a good eye for design), it’s important to check your design ego at the door and ask a few pointed questions. What you really need to find out is what the client actually means. Before doing anything to the design, pause for a moment and ask the client to explain what it is about the design that doesn’t accomplish the specific goals you outlined in the pre-work discovery meetings. (You did set specific goals, didn’t you!?)

Here are a few tips to help you get to the point:
  • Ask blunt questions (but tactfully). Don’t start or get hauled into arguments.
  • Use feature/benefit terminology and plain language, not design-speak.
  • Use yes/no questions that push the client to reveal what they really think (e.g. “Do you think this font is hard to read?”).
  • Take criticism well. (No one likes an overly sensitive artist.)

By your focusing on the goals rather than the implementation, clients will understand that you are trying to use your craft for their benefit, not just to take their money. Oh, and a note about that ego you left at the door: now is not the time to go into a diatribe about your profession or your skill as a designer. No one cares; your client just wants a functional design that they can be proud of when they show it to their boss.

Do what you said you were going to do


But don’t die by the contract. I’ve heard of many situations where clients and designers get into arguments about what was and wasn’t in the original contract. If the client comes to you with something that is obviously beyond the scope of the contract, you have a few choices:

  1. You can do what the client wants and ask for nothing more in return.
  2. You can refuse to do it and stick to what the original contract said.
  3. You can try to renegotiate the contract to a new middle ground before continuing work on the project.

There isn’t any one right answer here; different situations call for different actions. If you’re not going to get badly burned by going the extra mile, it will probably be worth it (so long as the client knows you’re hooking them up). That said, sometimes the new request is outrageous and would take many, many hours to implement. In those situations, it is a good idea to be open, talk it through with the client, make it known that you’d love to help but it would be too much of a time commitment (you do have other clients, after all) for the current numbers to work out.

If you approach things with an open mind, with a positive attitude (instead of a demanding one) and on an even playing field, the client will generally help you out with a bit more cash. And if they are livid at the thought of paying you more money for more work, well, they may have just singled themselves out as a client who needs to be fired.

Admit it when you screw up

Then do everything possible to make it right. Mistakes are okay; everyone makes them from time to time. Hopefully you’re not a habitual offender. But the general rule is: the sooner you recognize the mistake and take the heat for it, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

By letting more time pass, the mistake only grows and becomes more difficult to cover up, and the heat that was originally a small and controlled campfire is now the roaring flames of hell licking at the bottoms of your feet. Get it out of the way, clear the air and get on with it. Your client will appreciate your candor and honesty, even if he or she isn’t that happy about the problem itself.

Parting Shot

Hopefully you’ve started to catch on here. Most of the things that can be counted as “common problems” are fairly easy to circumvent, especially if you put in your time doing your due diligence on the front end and adopt a firm but cooperative attitude in your client communications.

Remember, clients aren’t supposed to be a burden. They are a blessing (they are buying the bread on your table after all). But the relationship should always be mutually beneficial. You are getting paid to do what you, presumably, love to do, and the client is getting something beautiful and functional. Hopefully, you’re both learning a little something along the way.

Further Resources



  1. 1 http://gettingreal.37signals.com/ch04_Hire_the_Right_Customers.php
  2. 2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle
  3. 3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Porter
  4. 4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Drucker
  5. 5 http://www.flickr.com/photos/whoisthatfreakwiththecamera/2562204088/
  6. 6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoshin
  7. 7 http://particletree.com/features/the-importance-of-design-in-business/
  8. 8 http://www.sitepoint.com/article/designing-for-clients-made-easy
  9. 9 http://www.positivespaceblog.com/archives/what-you%E2%80%99re-missing-if-you-don%E2%80%99t-challenge-your-clients/

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Jeff Gardner is a business nerd. He loves spreadsheets, graphs and helping companies figure out how to perform better. He also enjoys writing, photography and being outside. You can check him out at his blog.

  1. 1

    Most definitely a great article….
    Helpful to the last for those of us that are ‘wading’ in to the design world on their lonesome to try and get some clients on the line and put them in the keep net.
    For the guy above that said ” I don’t read Playboy for articles on dating”
    – if you weren’t so busy reading playboy and these guys wrote an article on ‘dating’ , maybe, just maybe you could put your old playboy’s away and get out on some dates ?.
    Not for you, fine, great for some of us though.
    Mike F

  2. 52

    this was a good read.. it’s saturday.. 10pm and I’m…. I’m doing revisions! >:|

  3. 103

    Check your ego at the door… easier said than done, but absolutely a necessity!

  4. 154
  5. 205

    Not exactly the quality of articles I read on SM. Disappointed. Does’nt give any concrete ‘new’ things. A very general layout. Hope it’s only me feeling so!

  6. 256

    Well said indeed! It’s nice to see a mutually understanding mind, but even better when it’s all written out and documented.

    This Article finally made me post on here. Fantastic!

  7. 307

    A fantastic article: useful, relevant, coherent and well written.
    Thanks very much!

  8. 358

    Nice article, although that after 5 years of exercise it is easy to know all of this. Most difficult is to explain the benefit of the design process (why ask for a designer), especially in non-english countries.

  9. 409

    Its good to know there are others facing the same situations in client interactions. Thanks for the tips!

  10. 460

    I like this post … not becouse it’s true, but i’ve been there … it is true

  11. 511

    I really appreciated this article and could identify with the challenges. It was truly encouraging to know that I have been dealing with some of the issues in an appropriate manor (though this is not gospel) and I’m not the only one going through this.


  12. 562

    What i would like to point out is the fact that business (all business) is trading. You give something, client gives something in return. In this line of work, you give designs (logo, website, …) and client usually gives you cash. The main point here is that both are of equal value, more or less. Your logo is worth $100, little green paper client gives you is worth $100. There is no reason to think of your clients to be “higher” than you, because you are giving them same value, or even more, as they give you. Sometimes it is even a privilege for a client to even be able to step into your design studio, and i have often witnessed clients begging to pay MORE in order for certain designer to do the work.

    Just think about it.

  13. 613

    @ Daemon: Very true. I once read about a wedding photographer that wanted to get out of the business. She started raising her prices in hopes that the business would just taper off based on how expensive she was becoming. Curiously, the opposite happened. The more she charged, the more her clients thought that they were getting. It got to the point where she was charging $20,000 for a days shoot … Just goes to show that pricing has a very psychological aspect – it’s all about value, but perceived value can more important sometimes.

  14. 664

    Great article! I put a lot of your points into practice already and I’m sure I’ll benefit by implementing the rest. Nice job!

  15. 715

    nice article, verty helpfull. thanx smashing !

  16. 766

    >> Admit it when you screw up

    yup, but dont give in for nonsense

  17. 817

    what a Commitment~
    Thank for it !…………..thanx smashing !

  18. 868

    @Geoff & @Jeff — Thanks for the kind comments!

    @Christopher Ross — So, SO true! Honesty is crucial. When something goes wrong with a project or if there’s something that you can’t do, many beginners make the mistake of “fudging” and trying to cover it up and hope that the client won’t notice. In reality, if you are honest and straightforward and just tell the client what’s up immediately, they will appreciate it and will forgive most anything (as long as they can tell you’re making an honest effort to make it right, too). I run my business the same way you do and have had the same results — people who stick with you over the long term, through thick and thin, because they know they can rely on you.

    Eric Oliver

  19. 919

    GREAT fucking article!

  20. 970

    rjssvujxfzxwwsqfwell, hi admin adn people nice forum indeed. how’s life? hope it’s introduce branch ;)

  21. 1021

    It is a good article. I found some good resources about dealing with clients in the whitepapers and what they call Smart Guides at http://www.linktogether.com. It appears to be a new community targeted at developers/designers, and it is backed by a large entity–Network Solutions. I think it’s worth a look.

  22. 1072

    The Baldchemist

    May 10, 2009 5:16 am

    The worst thing you can do is see the client as a problem. Problems come with the brief. You are there to create great solutions not to make the problem fit.
    When your client or prospect is asking awkward questions they are BUYING, they require more information to be assured . When they are silent, then you have problems.
    Remember they often dont have your expertise , thats why they came to you in the first place. So dont assume that they understand your jargon.
    There are hell of a lot of restrictions you impose here to make a contribution.Other than that nice article. Take care.

  23. 1123

    Scott @sydneydesign

    July 9, 2009 7:00 pm

    Hi, Great post. I’m already designing for some time as a freelancer but still have the common issues. Enjoyed the comments! LOL

  24. 1174

    Miroslav Nikolov

    August 6, 2009 8:59 am

    Read it for a second time.

  25. 1225

    me too :P
    second read :)

  26. 1276

    @Otherwise, the client will keep coming up with more changes, since you handled the first one so nicely and it was cheap or free.

    true. When I did it for a reason of getting over it with the client. They seem to like you work again. but no more, because they’re very cheap.

    Also there are times when both have different preferred design style. If it didn’t work then that means they’ll just have to look for other designer who share the same design style with them.

    sigh. a more realization that I really don’t like pleasing anybody, even if it’s the client (when it comes to design). haha. I guess It’ll be better for me to just code.

  27. 1327

    Hi. I’m coming from the opposite side. I paid a web developer ½ of the project cost, two months ago, and he continues to duck and weave….and is not completing the job. Have any of you ever confronted such a situation and what did you do about it?


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