Is John The Client Dense or Are You Failing Him?

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Meet John the client. John runs a reasonably large website. He is a marketer who considers himself smart, articulate and professional. That said, he doesn’t know much about Web design, and so he needs your help. John comes to you with a clear set of business objectives and asks for a quote. But what happens next leaves John confused, frustrated and extremely unhappy.

Explain Why You Are Asking About Money

Before giving John his quote, you ask a little more about the project. After chatting for a few minutes, you ask him about his budget. A fair question, you think. After all, you could approach the project in so many ways. Without knowing the budget, knowing where to begin is impossible. In your mind, building a website is like building a house. Without knowing the budget, you can’t possibly know how many rooms the client can afford or what materials you should use to build.

John, on the other hand, is instantly suspicious. Why would you want to know about his budget? The only reason he can think of is that you want to make sure you don’t charge him less than what he is willing to give. Besides, he doesn’t really know his budget. How the heck is he supposed to know how much a website costs?

Money Grabber
Don’t come across as money-grubbing. (Image credit1)

John leaves, determined to find a Web designer who doesn’t want to take advantage of him. Fortunately for you, all of the other designers he speaks with also neglect to explain why they need to know about his budget, and so you manage to win the project after all.

Justify Your Recommendations In Language John Can Understand

Once you have won the job, you arrange a kick-off meeting to nail down the specifications. However, John instantly regrets his decision to hire you because his worse fears have been confirmed. In his eyes, you are all of a sudden trying to squeeze more money out of him as you waffle about the importance of usability and accessibility. John doesn’t care about disabled users. He doesn’t expect disabled users to visit his website anyway.

And as for usability, surely the job of the Web designer is to make the website usable. Why do we need expensive usability testing? He is pretty certain that usability testing involves expensive things like cameras, labs and two-way mirrors. You thought you had explained these issues clearly. You spoke of WCAG 2, and you mentioned Jakob Neilsen. You are beginning to wonder if John is a bit thick.

People looking confused
Avoid techno-babble if you expect clients to understand what you’re talking about. (Image credit2)

Perhaps if you had talked about accessibility in terms of assessing search engine rankings and testing usability as a way to increase conversion, then John might have listened. As it is, John puts his foot down and refuses to pay for any of these “unnecessary extras.”

Include John In The Process

You walk away from the kick-off meeting pleased to have a signed contract. But that feeling in the pit of your stomach tells you that this might be another one of those projects. Regardless, you try to be optimistic, and you dive into the design process. Almost immediately, you get a phone call from John asking if there is anything for him to see. You explain that it is still early in the process and that you are not ready to present anything. John sounds disappointed but resigned.

A short while later, you are ready to present the design to John. You are pleased with the result. It took you a lot more time than you had budgeted for, but it was worth it. The final design is extremely easy to use and will make for a great portfolio piece.

Person hiding
Stop hiding from your clients. Show them your work early on, and include them in the process. (Image credit3)

When John sees the design, he is horrified. From his perspective, you have entirely missed the point. The design clashes with his offline marketing materials and doesn’t hit the right selling points. Also, he is convinced that his suppliers will hate it and, although they are not his end users, their opinion matters.

After a tense conference call, you feel demoralized but have struck a compromise that hopefully will make John happy. You wonder in hindsight whether showing John some of your initial ideas and sketches would have been better. Perhaps you should have presented a wireframe first.

Educate John About Design

After much agonizing and compromise, you are once again ready to present to John. John is much happier with the new design and feels it is heading in the right direction. However, he does have some concerns. For starters, he has to scroll to see most of the content, and yet white space takes up either side of the design. He tells you to move key content into this wasted space. Also, as he thinks about his young male target audience, he realizes that the color scheme is too effeminate, so he tells you to change it to blue.

While John feels somewhat happier, you feel crushed. You feel as though he is trying to do the job for you. The instructions to move this there and change this color to that makes you feel like you have been reduced to pushing pixels.

Teacher teaching maths
Educate your clients so they make more informed decisions. (Image credit4)

By this point, you are sure the client is dim, and now you just want him to sign off on a design. At no stage do you think to ask John why he is requesting these changes. Perhaps if you had appreciated his thinking, you could have explained concepts such as screen resolution and suggested an alternative to corporate blue, which is so over-used on the Web.

Instead, you wash your hands of the design and just give John what he wants.

Communicate With John Regularly

Now that the design is complete, you turn your attention to building it. John certainly won’t care about your code. Now you can finally do things right.

It’s a big job and takes a lot of time. Even though you put too much time into the design and washed your hands of it, you still have your pride. You are not about to cut corners with the code. After all, other designers might look at it and judge you! You work really hard, putting in more work than you probably should have. John even manages to slip in some extra functionality at the scoping phase, which turns out to be a pain in the butt.

For his part, John is wondering what’s going on. He hasn’t heard from you in weeks. Surely the website must be ready now? He decides to email you to ask how things are progressing. You reply with a short email telling him that everything is progressing smoothly. You never did like project management, and you are sure John would prefer that you spend time building his website instead of writing him detailed reports.

John receives your email and is becoming increasingly frustrated. What does “progressing smoothly” mean? He writes back asking for an expected date of completion, and you reply with a rough estimate.

The date comes and goes without a word from you. After all, it was merely an estimate, and several complications have delayed completion by a few days. John finally loses his temper and calls you. He tells you that he has arranged a marketing campaign to coincide with the launch date, and because he hadn’t heard from you, he presumed everything was on schedule.

Phone with the receiver taped up
Communicate with your client regularly. (Image credit5)

You defend yourself, citing “scope creep” and unanticipated delays. But responding is difficult when John says, “All I needed was a weekly email keeping me up to date on progress.”

Explain John’s Ongoing Role

By this stage, the relationship has broken down entirely. You finish your work, and the website finally launches. Begrudgingly, John pays the invoice after delaying it for as long as possible. What amazes you most is John’s pronouncement that he is bitterly disappointed with the result. How can that be when you gave him exactly what he asked for? This guy isn’t just thick: he’s a jerk!

Of course, John sees things differently. He came to you with a list of his business objectives, and the website has failed to meet any of them. He had hoped to launch the website, watch it achieve his objectives and then move on to the next project. Instead, after an initial spike in interest, the number of users and inquiries dropped over time, and the website stagnated.

Seedling being cared for
Ensure that your client understands what kind of ongoing care their website will need. (Image credit6)

What John does not realize is that websites need continued love and support. You cannot build a website and then abandon it. John has to nurture it by adding new content, engaging with visitors and planning for ongoing development.

If only someone had told him.

The Moral Of The Story

It’s amazing how quick we are to judge our clients.

As Web designers, we communicate and empathize for a living. Our job is to communicate messages to our clients’ users. We create usable websites by putting ourselves in the position of our users, which allows us to design around their needs.

Why, then, do we so often seem to be incapable of empathizing or communicating with our clients? Perhaps it is time for us to apply the skills we have cultivated as Web designers to our own customers.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://flic.kr/p/6eyE3T
  2. 2 http://flic.kr/p/frJ48
  3. 3 http://flic.kr/p/4n6M23
  4. 4 http://flic.kr/p/Hf2E7
  5. 5 http://flic.kr/p/691uEj
  6. 6 http://flic.kr/p/68QFDp

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

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  1. 1

    Very interesting read, I definitely think like the designer in the above article sometimes. Taking the time to explain to my client the process as well as the why’s and what’s would probably be a good idea.

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    • 102

      Having a process that is connected to a timeline, and to payments, is the key. The client has to understand that you want to get it done faster than they do. Tying the milestones to meetings or phone calls is a great idea, too.

      That said, there is not one type of client. I’ve discovered a lot of smart marketing people who insist on controlling the process, and push back every time you try to gently but firmly redirect their angst. Pushing them to consider the customers opinion to them often only tells them you are challenging their intelligence and assume they don’t care about the customer.

      I agree there are methods to resolve these situations, but more often then not, if you find someone who simply does not appreciate what your own perspective might bring to the table, you are doomed. I have found over the years that people like this are like this with everyone they have ever worked with. And they almost never work with the same person twice.

      Really, the key is to try to find the clients that best fit your company’s style and way of working. When you realize you have encountered someone who loves your work but refuses to involve themselves in the process, you have to switch to survival mode. In my considerable experience, you can waste days, weeks and even months trying to get a client to see it your way and only piss yourself and him off.

      That said, if you are one of those guys who likes to lock himself in a dark office to design works of art, and sees client interaction as a pain, you are likely never going to succeed in business.

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  2. 203

    I’m amazed that any of these points have to be touched on, at least as regards “one-man-band” types like myself, who have to do the project management, the design, the programming, the graphics, the SEO, and the sales.

    There are a few things that I personally insist on making a point of:

    1) I don’t expect them to know everything about the features they want in their website. I just want to know what they hope to get out of their website. Is it supposed to be a simple “brochure” site, is it a store where people purchase their goods, or is it primarily a means of communicating with existing customers, or … ? Is it supposed to reflect a fresh branding, or is it a blending of their existing offline marketing materials?

    2) I’m clear with my clients upfront that I don’t expect them to love the first draft of what I do. It could happen, of course, and I’d be relieved if that were the case, but let’s be realistic, it’s not likely to happen that way. The client has a vision of what he’s after, and my job as the designer is to figure out what that vision is. This requires an ongoing conversation, and a few rough drafts.

    3) Every time you talk to the client, let him know when you will talk to him next. If you say you’ll call on Friday, do so, even if you don’t have much to talk about; and then say you’ll talk again on Tuesday. The silence just kills them, and sometimes they get the sinking suspicion that you’ve run off with their deposit.

    4) Give them a link so they can peek in on what you’re doing between times, with the upfront caveat that sometimes the page is going to be lopsided, the links aren’t going to work, etc. I know, some developers would object to this. My experience is, though, the client just wants to make sure that SOME progress is being made. If it looks different today than it did two days ago, they know you’re on the job. And it’s always been to my benefit to have my client peek in. If, for instance, somehow I’ve veered off in the wrong direction design-wise, the client will be able to let me know BEFORE I invest a lot of hard hours doing something he didn’t want.

    My favorite website that I’ve ever built for anyone is not the one that I think looks the best or has the coolest features (although it really is a good website if I do say so myself), but is the one where the client was happiest with the end result. That one client has provided me with more personal satisfaction in my work, and more positive word-of-mouth, because we had a successful meeting of the minds. He knows I listened and he was more than happy to tell his friends and colleagues where to get a good website.

    I’m not boasting by any means about my technical prowess; I’m not the best designer I’ve ever met, nor the best programmer, nor the best graphic artist. But I don’t mind saying I’m the best LISTENER I know of, and as a result, I’ve never had anyone tell me they were disappointed with the site I handed to them.

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  3. 304

    a Very nice articles, Paul you have given words to my emotions….. :) thankyou

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  4. 405

    That’s great if John hears you, but if not. If you tell him everything, but he doesn’t want to listen.

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  5. 506

    I think it starts with the question “why a web site”. I know this DOES aggravate some of my potential clients. But too many times I’ve designed websites, where an e-newsletter would have been a better solution. Or a radio ad, or a…

    If they aren’t prepared to really use a website as part of their marketing campaign, then I won’t quote on the job.

    The coding time-line is a perpetual problem. As one person, it’s going to take a certain amount of time, and sometimes, during that time, there really is nothing to “show”. I’ve had to take extra time, to make temporary things to show clients, just so they can feel like the project is advancing, but I hate doing that, it’s a waste of my time, and their money.

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  6. 607

    Awesome article.
    I’m currently a web design student & this is the first post from smashing that has really made me think about all the clients I’ll be dealing with in the near future. After interning for a design group, I’ve definitely already noticed the ups & downs .. the hair-pulling emails & all the headaches .. but this gives a me new hope. Tough clients CAN be dealt with after all :D !

    I’d love to see more articles like this!

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  7. 708
  8. 809

    Excellent article! I’m still making some of these mistakes myself — especially the ‘update your client at least weekly’.

    Communication, communication, communication… it occurs to me that I’m often too scared to tell a person something they don’t want to hear, but if I just told it like it is, I’d have happy clients — partly because they’d be in the loop, partly because I’d successfully scare away all the unpleasant clients :-)

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  9. 910

    One of the best articles I read here: easy to read, point the target and it is helpful.
    Thank you!

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  10. 1011

    this john sounds like a bit of a #&$t!

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  11. 1112

    What about the wire framing process! What them? How do we explain to john that this step is one of the most important steps??

    I work in cooperate America where they don’t believe in wireframes! How do I get them to understand that step??

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    • 1213

      Ways to get around Those Who Hate Wireframes:

      – Don’t call it a wireframe. Call it an outline, or a starting point.
      – When consulting with the business side, say you want to discuss calls to action or user behavior or taxonomy (of product, application, content, whatever) and make sure that all the bases are covered. “I want to make sure we present the user with the right call to action for the business” is a great start to the conversation.
      – If they’re really, really anti-wireframe, don’t make it particularly look like a classic wireframe. Where possible, use color, sample their real content, insert stock photos, use their logo. If it’s for an already-designed site, insert screen captures for header, footer, etc.
      – Work with what you have. Some of my best concepts have been wireframed in (shudder) PowerPoint, because it was thought IAs and designers didn’t need silly things like Visio or Axure.

      Good luck!

      P.S. This was a great article! I LOL at “he realizes that the color scheme is too effeminate, so he tells you to change it to blue.” Actually happened to me in 1998.

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  12. 1314

    I’m just a fledgling Web designer (I’m just now at the point where I understand CSS). And this article is WAY ahead of where I may ever get in my knowledge of the art of creating websites.

    But I found this to be awesome. It ruled.

    The way you wrote this was brilliant. Wonderful job.

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  13. 1415
  14. 1516

    How about handing out an “intro package” that explains to clients the ins-and-outs of our craft and what to expect throughout the development life cycle? Without being to intrusive, it could contain a questionaire for them to fill out to help us understand what THEY want/expect. Good apportunity to show off some mad print design skills too.

    So how about it SM? Can you come up with some resources and/or best practices?

    5*

    0
    • 1617

      Don’t you think a lot of clients would think an “intro package” is just a bunch of fine print for you to rip them off? They won’t read it.

      0
      • 1718

        Maybe, but it is good business to have everything in writing up front so there are no misunderstandings. Plus you have something to refer to later when/if there are questions.

        Another technique I use (in the requirements gathering stage) is to repeat back to them what they just said to me, like “I just heard you say you would like…”. It really helps both parties understand each other.

        I have had clients come back and say they appreciated the time and effort I spent listening to them and could tell from the start it was the right decision to go with me because I made sure I was HEARING what they where SAYING. (Same works with my wife by the way…)

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  15. 1819

    The biggest thing to remember in this kind of scenario is that it’s kinda audacious taking a big web job on as a one-man-show… you’re competing against companies who will have a separate person responsible for project management, design, build and testing. Possibly even for sales and support. In this respect, the person responsible for the communication roles will never be too distracted designing or building the site to speak to the client.

    The client is expecting the same product from you as the larger company and will expect the same level of service – after all this IS part of the product. Even if they are paying a lot less for it. (I’ve never known a client cut any slack because they’ve got a bargain)

    I discovered the only way to get round this was to effectively plan the project management time in on top of the design and build, and plan more for certain clients. If the project process looks like it will be demanding, allow for that. Then it just becomes part of the job, and not a distraction from it.

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  16. 2021

    Very nice articles :)

    0
  17. 2122

    Fantastic article!

    I’ve been doing client work for a few years without hardly any hiccups. Just recently my style and techniques became rather popular for people looking for their next big “redesign”.

    With that, I’m finding now that client expectations are very high of me and the pressure is always on to come up with something new and innovative just like the stuff displayed in my portfolio.

    All this has wore me down to a point where I lost my first client. He wasn’t satisfied with the results…and I really put my all into. I personally like the design, but the client responded with “I know what looks good”

    Stuff like this is very demoralizing for me, but this article opens my eyes to the real world. You aren’t going to please everyone…but at least try to explain why you made certain decisions in your design ;)

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  18. 2223

    Great Article Paul …and agree
    If a company does not have the ability to communicate technical concepts to non technical people and to facilitate conversations between technical and non technical people it should sets off red flags on both sides of the table..

    People , the client has a real business to run and a real product to deliver based on a company’s digital strategy. He does not have to understand technical jargon to be tech – savvy enough to know specific features and functionalities wanted for his project. It requires a two way channel of communication. Effective communication gets everyone on the same page..

    Designers and programmers need to be able to communicate with their customers and have an open mind. It starts with listening . Ask what they don’t want.

    It provides a starting point for conversation of client vision, expectations, cost, and timelines and just maybe increases the process efficiencies and drives the team toward innovative solutions that create value to the client.

    It’s all about effective communications , decisions and questions. Clarifying those questions also reveals an understanding and that your project could be implemented in different ways?

    Don’t be afraid of exposing costs, this inevitable comes out later. Make sure that everyone is thinking the same thing and on the same page..

    The client should be a part of that process and communication flow.
    I so agree with @SeanTubridy. Don’t assume that your client is dense and have a process. I look at other comments and can really empathize with John the client. You invest only a few minutes asking questions before you start talking budget.

    @SeanTubridy is bang on right. The client wants assurances that you understand his company’s vision and qualified to do the work. Budget does matter but understanding product and services deliverables and timelines impacts company bottom line. .

    In response to Stephanie strange comment and cultural perspective. Programming is all about decisions that could impact the build. Code does matter and chances are the client has already done his homework. Melissa’s comments are equally disturbing. She is making decision for client based on budget. How would you know if the client was willing to pay extra based on the value of the feature and functionality you did not mention..but discover information out later.

    If budget constraints truly existed for your client just maybe your creativity will provide innovation solutions to achieve the vision and the bells and whistles the client wants at a cost that is affordable . Sharing information and providing options is a good thing.

    More often than not, companies do not want to provide a quote unless they are getting paid to listen and understand the client’s vision. They take on jobs without understanding the scope and when it comes to walking the talk they fall short of the mark.

    0
  19. 2324

    Great Article Paul …and agree
    If a company does not have the ability to communicate technical concepts to non technical people and to facilitate conversations between technical and non technical people it should sets off red flags on both sides of the table..

    People , the client has a real business to run and a real product to deliver based on a company’s digital strategy. He does not have to understand technical jargon to be tech – savvy enough to know specific features and functionalities wanted for his project. It requires a two way channel of communication. Effective communication gets everyone on the same page..

    Designers and programmers need to be able to communicate with their customers and have an open mind. It starts with listening . Ask what they don’t want.

    It provides a starting point for conversation of client vision, expectations, cost, and timelines and just maybe increases the process efficiencies and drives the team toward innovative solutions that create value to the client.

    It’s all about effective communications , decisions and questions. Clarifying those questions also reveals an understanding and that your project could be implemented in different ways?

    Don’t be afraid of exposing costs, this inevitable comes out later. Make sure that everyone is thinking the same thing and on the same page..

    The client should be a part of that process and communication flow.
    I so agree with @SeanTubridy. Don’t assume that your client is dense and have a process. I look at other comments and can really empathize with John the client. You invest only a few minutes asking questions before you start talking budget.

    @SeanTubridy is bang on right. The client wants assurances that you understand his company’s vision and qualified to do the work. Budget does matter but understanding product and services deliverables and timelines impacts company bottom line. .

    In response to Stephanie strange comment and cultural perspective. Programming is all about decisions that could impact the build. Code does matter and chances are the client has already done his homework. Melissa’s comments are equally disturbing. She is making decision for client based on budget. How would you know if the client was willing to pay extra based on the value of the feature and functionality you did not mention..but discover information out later.

    If budget constraints truly existed for your client just maybe your creativity will provide innovation solutions to achieve the vision and the bells and whistles the client wants at a cost that is affordable . Sharing information and providing options is a good thing.

    More often than not, companies do not want to provide a quote unless they are getting paid to listen and understand the client’s vision. They take on jobs without understanding the scope and when it comes to walking the talk they fall short of the mark

    0
  20. 2425

    This is one of those places where ‘fast prototyping’ comes in.

    To do well, it’ needs to be an iterative process (Communication)

    Instead of asking for a budget, go away and think about it for a bit, then come back with a series of illustrations either using other people’s existing web sites, or quick and dirty samples:

    Each is labelled with an approximate cost for the idea, based on it’s difficulty in implementing.

    ***

    Part of the consultation should be to ask him for sites that have features he wants to copy. Discussing why he like them, can lead to teaching him something about design.

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  21. 2526

    Here is an awesome, happy-ending type lesson I just learned today:

    Don’t rule out the possibility that your client is actually being perfectly reasonable (especially based on his/her information, which may or may not be correct) and wants to help, but you two have very different styles of communicating.

    Ask for clarification, don’t assume somebody’s motivations, and learn how to explain yourself in a non-threatening way. Be specific and ask for specifics. For example, my client said, “this graphic at the bottom is techno” when he responded to some screenshots I sent. I said, “ok, that’s just an adjective to me – does this mean you like it or that you want something different?” He said, “oh, I guess I just thought you’d know what I meant. The graphic gives too much of a high-tech impression when the site is really about people and culture and things that are sort of, more organic.” At that point a light bulb went off. So I said, “Ok, when you give me feedback, if you don’t like something, be sure to give me a direction to go in – even if you can’t suggest something specific, give me an idea of more what you want, so I’ll know where to go.”

    Sometimes you just need the conversation of diplomacy, where you figure out how to talk to each other and what the person’s motives are. This client had seemed uncooperative and unreceptive to the vast majority of my ideas, but it was really a series of simple misunderstandings. He thought he was providing constructive feedback. He was not being unreceptive, just offering counterpoints. He also wasn’t actually that attached to his own ideas. I was beginning to think this project was not worth the effort (being pro bono work for a charitable organization), but as of today’s conversation, my blood pressure will no longer go up every time I hear back from him.

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  22. 2627

    I’m a software developer not a web designer, although I have studied some graphic design before.

    But I did decide to take up a job as a side project, and I wish I hadn’t, for these reasons:

    1. I show the client a mockup that I made in Photoshop and he says it’s fine and to “go ahead”. So, I turn that mockup into HTML. Then after I did that, he says that he’s not happy with it and wants to change it (?!?), even though the HTML looks exactly like the mockup. So I ask him if he can be more exact, and he does not answer the question and just says to try some things.

    2. Does not pay or even acknowledge my invoice that I sent him (hmm???) yet demands changes …

    3. Takes forever to respond to my e-mails.

    So, what the hell?

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