Why Account Managers Shouldn’t Prevent Designers From Speaking To Clients

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Working as a Web designer can suck sometimes. This is especially true when you don’t get to work alongside the client. Unfortunately this scenario is more common than you would think. Many organizations have been carefully structured to keep the Web designer and the client apart. But is that really sensible? Would projects run much smoother without your account manager or boss acting as the middleman?

This issue came to my attention following the release of my latest book “Client Centric Web Design1.” In this book I provide advice about how to work more effectively with clients. However, I had made an assumption in the approach I presented, an assumption which turned out not always to be true. It assumed that the Web designer and client can work collaboratively together. Following the book’s release I realized that for many Web designers that this is not the case.

Why Account Managers Shouldn't Prevent Designers From Speaking To Clients2
Image credits go to Brett Jordan3.

Whether working in house for a large organization or as part of a Web design agency, many Web designers never get to interact directly with their clients. Instead, the client’s requirements and comments are filtered through a middleman who manages the project.

In this post I examine why I believe this is damaging to projects and what can be done to rectify the problem. However, before we can answer these questions, we must understand why this way of working has become common in the first place.

Why We Have Account Managers

I want to make it clear that I believe that both project and account managers play a valuable role. There are good reasons why they are part of the Web design process and I am not suggesting they should be removed.

It is the role of account managers to provide outstanding customer service. This is a vital (if often overlooked) role of any Web design agency—we are not here just to build websites, we are here to provide a service to our clients. That means making our clients happy by communicating well, meeting deadlines and delivering within the budget. Our project managers regularly receive gifts from our clients thanking them for a job well done. This is how close the relationship between client and account manager can become. By lifting the responsibility for customer service from the Web designer, account managers allow us to focus on the job of actually designing and building websites—a luxury that many freelancers envy.

The account manager also deals with the plethora of organizational tasks which keep a project running smoothly, not to mention protecting us from the endless comments and questions from the client. I have had the misfortune of working on many projects where we have been drip-fed feedback from multiple stakeholders almost continually throughout the project. If it wasn’t for the account manager, I would have very quickly lost control of what needed to be done on the website. Lets face it, they also protect the client from us, as we sometimes have an overwhelming urge to rant at them uncontrollably (or perhaps that is just me). They also act as interpreters, taking our technobabble and translating it into a language that the client can understand.

In short, a good account manager ensures the client is happy and that the project remains profitable. Those are valuable roles and one that a designer would struggle to do on top of their other responsibilities. Just ask the average overworked freelancer.

If then the account manger is so valuable, where is the problem?

So Where Is The Problem?

Although having an account manager is incredibly useful, things often get out of hand. The role of account manager transforms from being a part of the project team to the sole conduit between client and designer. Instead of facilitating a smooth running project they become the bottleneck through which all communication must pass. This funnelled approach to communication prevents collaboration between the client and the Web designer. This kind of collaboration is essential to ensuring a happy client and a successful website.

Without collaboration, educating the client is difficult. Unsurprisingly most clients don’t know much about the Web design process. However, by working alongside the client throughout the project, the client learns the best practice for Web design and why certain design decisions are made. This educational process works both ways. The client will learn a lot about the Web design process, but the designer will also learn a lot about the client and his business. When the Web designer understands the nuances of the project, business and client, they produce better websites. Without that understanding they are much more likely to go down the wrong road by wasting time and money, while frustrating the client.

This isn’t just limited to designers either. Like many Web design agencies, we excluded developers from client meetings for a long time. Their time was precious and we didn’t want to waste it in meetings. However, we eventually discovered that when the developer understands the details of a project, they produce more elegant solutions and often suggest directions which nobody else had considered. When all communication has to pass through a middleman, the chances of misunderstanding and mistakes are further increased. Like a game of chinese whispers, what is said by the client or designer can be distorted by the time it has passed through an account manager.

I remember experiencing this regularly when I worked for an agency in the late nineties. A passing comment made by a client would become a dictate from the account manager that I had to follow. Instead of being a designer who could bring my experience to bear on a project, I became a pixel pusher. Because I wasn’t hearing directly from the client, I could not judge the strength of their feelings and so had no opportunity to challenge them over issues I felt passionately about.

Finally (and probably most importantly), without the client and designer working together on a project the client feels no sense of ownership over the design. The projects that inevitably go wrong at my agency are those where the final decision-maker is not actively involved in the design process. If a client has been involved in the design process, commenting and working with the designer at every stage, they are less likely to reject the final design—they will feel the design is as much their creation as that of the designer’s. However, if their feedback was through an account manager, they won’t have that sense of hands on involvement.

Fortunately, we can have the best of both worlds. We can have the benefits of an account manager, while still allowing the designer to work closely with the client.

The Best Of Both Worlds

At Headscape4 the role of the account manager is not to control all of the client communications, but to act as a facilitator for those communications. This provides all of the benefits of having an account manager and none of the drawbacks.

For a start, the Web designer and developer always attends project kickoffs, so they meet the client at the beginning of a project. This also ensures that they get all of the background on the project firsthand, rather than via the account manager. The Web designer also works directly with the client discussing ideas and presenting design. This gives the designer the opportunity to present their work in their own words and hear the feedback directly from the client. They can also work collaboratively with the client on some aspects of the design, such as wireframing, to help increase the client’s feeling of ownership and engagement. This also has the added benefit of allowing the designer to question and challenge the feedback they receive, engaging in a much richer discussion with the client.

The account manager is still very much a part of the process. He is still the client’s primary point of contact and remains responsible for ensuring the project stays on time and within budget. Also, whenever possible, he should be involved in discussions between the designer and client, to ensure he is fully aware of everything agreed upon. Where conversations take place without his involvement, the Web designer should report back to the account manager on the content of those discussions.

This all sounds great in theory. However, in the real world of company politics and long-held working practices, you may meet resistance when implementing this approach. In such situations it is important to proceed carefully.

Getting The Support Of Your Account Manager

None of us like change, especially when it involves others telling us how to do our job. It is therefore hardly surprising that you may well meet resistance from your account manager if you suggest the approach that I have outlined in this article.

The key is to not to get frustrated if you meet resistance. Look at it from their point of view: how would you feel if they came along and told you to design websites in a different way, or worst still, suggested they should be more heavily involved in the design of client websites?! No doubt you would be horrified, so take the time to empathize with your account manager and seek ways to make the transition easier.

I occasionally encountered designers who complain to me that they have tried to implement my approach and had been shot down by their account managers. Inevitably the reason behind this failure has been because they have tried to rush the transition. If you go in all guns blazing, the idea will be rejected. Instead, start small and build up over time.

One starting point that has worked for others I have spoken to is to sit in on key meetings. For example, if you are not normally part of the kickoff meeting, start with that. Or if you don’t get to hear the client’s feedback firsthand, ask to be involved in that call. Reassure the account manager that all you want to do is sit in so you can hear what was said. That way they won’t worry about what you might say in front of the client. Once you are involved in those meetings regularly it becomes easier for you to start slipping in the odd comment.

I also recommend thinking carefully about how you present this approach to your account manager. It would be easy to focus on why you want to do it. However, you will have much more success if you present the benefits the approach provides for them. Remember, their primary concern is to ensure that the project is delivered on time and within budget. Therefore, when suggesting your heavier involvement with the client, explain that this will reduce the chance of misunderstandings, leading to a faster sign-off. This in turn will mean less iterations and higher profits on the project—all music to the ears of your average account manager.

Finally, point out that if you work directly with the client it will ultimately mean less work for them. Everybody loves the sound of less work! If you present the idea of direct collaboration with the client as having benefits for the project (and for the account manager personally), the chances are you will meet a lot less resistance.

I confidently believe that allowing the Web designer to work with the client ultimately leads to better websites, happier clients and a greater sense of job satisfaction for the designer. However, I am also aware it has its challenges. I would therefore like to see more discussion about how to best get this collaborative relationship working with organizations that traditionally keep these two parties apart. Perhaps the comments are the place to kick start the conversation.

(jvb) (jc)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://boagworld.com/season/3/
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/55497864@N00/2209126473/
  3. 3 http://www.flickr.com/photos/55497864@N00/2209126473/
  4. 4 http://headscape.co.uk/

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Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the web design agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design, Digital Adaptation and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the Web Designers Depot. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning Web design podcast boagworld.

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  1. 1

    I’m a project/account manager and I have always included our designers in kick off meetings and client interaction. Depending on the client and scope of the project they are sometimes very involved with me and the client as we story board and design the user interface for the site. And while I can translate the ideas and reasoning from the design side it does make the client feel more comfortable sometimes to hear it from the designers mouth. It adds clout and it lets the client see a glimpse of all the effort/thought that goes on behind the scenes.

    But I do filter all of the questions, calls, schedule… etc so that everyone is happy. It’s a good team balance.

    Great article!

    15
    • 2

      “Depending on the client and scope of the project they are sometimes very involved with me and the client as we story board and design the user interface for the site” Maybe I am reading this line wrong, but it sounds like you and the client are storyboarding and designing the UI and not the design/dev team. As the project/account manager why are you being involved in the storyboarding and UI (other than being kept in the loop so you can speak to it)?

      I’m not trying to call you out personally. It’s just a pet peeve of mine when PM’s get involved in the design/dev of a site.

      0
      • 3

        Sabrina Forbes

        July 2, 2012 8:06 pm

        I think you misunderstood what I way saying, and now that I’ve re-read it I wasn’t very clear. I meant that I have the graphic designers involved in the meeting when I present the user interface/design.

        I do think that every company operates differently and we are a more intimate company that has the luxury of working closely together. I am involved in the story boarding, ideas… etc because believe it or not I actually have valid input and we all work “together”.
        None of us quarantine ourselves to one specific role. We all interact on many levels which makes our work better.
        That’s what makes us successful. Team work.

        Not that I’m calling you out personally, but it sounds like you haven’t had very good PM’s in the past.

        6
        • 4

          Thank you for clearing that up. I’m all for a team collaboration in trying to come up with the ideas for the client and I agree it often leads to the best results.

          The PM’s I’ve worked with haven’t been bad. That being said many of the people I know have had horrible experiences where the PM tries to micromanage every aspect a project and is given too much control outside of their skill set.

          and it really wasn’t anything against you personally. :)

          2
  2. 5

    I know what you mean, I have to deal with an account manager called Patrick.

    -19
  3. 6

    We have the opposite problem at my firm. Account managers can’t wait to take themselves out of the picture and deem every issue “an IT thing.” They willingly remove themselves from the process and trust that IT and the client will work everything out, when IT is often uninformed of the project scope and background. The result is the client gets a pile of extra features (for free) and the account manager has no idea what’s going on. Pretty awful.

    7
  4. 8

    Great article, looks at the subject from everybody’s point of view.
    Whenever I’m looking at design agencies websites I’ll have a look at the team page, and if the account managers greatly outnumber the designers/developers then I wouldn’t want to work for/with them. It’s all about getting the right balance.

    3
  5. 9

    You have put everything into words that I’ve been trying to say for a long time. Thank you. Sometimes I think, when I try to push this idea, PMs think I’m just a premadona designer wanting to get all the attention. That’s not the case. The simple fact is that the less middlemen in a creative process the better the project will be in the end. Everyone remains happy.

    I do feel like you might have left out one thing. PMs see designers as a possible liability in front of the client. PMs are trained to know what to say and when to say it. Designers aren’t.

    This means that designers need to build that trust. That’s going to require work on our part to make that happen. We can’t ask for PMs to change and not expect to change ourselves.

    8
    • 10

      I’m a project manager, and I always have a designer in meetings:

      I understand what your saying, but as long as the designer can let the PM take the lead in the conversation then things work out. If you have a designer who wants to “run” the meeting then your right a designer can become some what of a liability. I think clients want to hear different ideas/perspectives.
      You just have to let your PM take the lead, and everyone wins.

      3
      • 11

        Duncan MacDonald

        July 3, 2012 2:47 pm

        Right and wrong. Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate to let the designer take the lead, sometimes it isn’t. It really depends on the individual’s experience. I’ve worked with account managers who were a complete train wreck, and the senior designer or CD had to take over. There’s no set way of doing it. If there were, studios who don’t employ client / account / project managers wouldn’t exist, yet they exist in abundance.
        Good account managers are worth every penny, but bad account managers are a hugely destructive influence, and going on some of the comments you’ve made, I suspect you’re one of them.

        With all due respect, I get the distinct impression that you don’t respect designers, and don’t think they could do your job, when in actual fact they could.

        -2
  6. 12

    I’m lucky to have the experience of being the general manager knowing all aspects of accounting manager and lead designer. Now I’m doing freelance and it’s been real rewarding to be on both sides.

    0
  7. 13

    @Headscape – looking at your website. Do you actually have any account managers? There are no mug shots

    0
  8. 14

    In my experience, one of the things that account managers do that is more destructive than anything is to “translate” what clients say to them especially when it comes to negative remarks. They tend to sugarcoat feedback or reword them in a way that the real message gets lost in the translation. Almost every time something passes through the account manager, the message evolves.

    This is exactly where collaboration between the account manager and the web professional should severely come into play.

    3
  9. 15

    “Like a game of chinese whispers, what is said by the client or designer can be distorted by the time it has passed through an account manager.”

    Lol, you mean the game Telephone?

    4
  10. 16

    Im a web designer myself and i’ve been in those situations where im working remotely with an account manager in singapore, this is where the problem comes in, there is no possible way to interact directly with the client, so i don’t know if the manager is giving the clear message from the client, he might be adding more subjective details that the client doesnt know about. Although for some projects, its always good that the account manager is side by side with the designer and client. I agree with you as to the manager just being the facilitator, this establishes a good and clear discussion with the client.

    2
  11. 17

    I totally agree with you
    you always have to be a little associated with the person who is going give signoff to our designed project

    0
  12. 18

    Duncan MacDonald

    July 2, 2012 9:56 am

    “Without collaboration, educating the client is difficult.”

    This point sticks in my throat every time I hear a designer say it. The client doesn’t want to be educated, and they haven’t hired you to educate them. They’ve hired you to provide a service, end of story.
    If they wanted to be ‘educated’ they would go to design school.
    Most design clients seldom buy design services, and it’s unlikely to become something they do regularly.
    They don’t need to be educated.
    I don’t hire a plumber expecting to be ‘educated’ about plumbing, or berated or mocked for not understanding the ‘vision’ of the plumber. I hire them to do a job that I am not qualified to do.
    It seems to me that a lot of designers have become so self-involved and arrogant that they’ve convinced themselves it’s their job to educate the world about design, and forgotten that they’re just another commercial service provider.

    0
    • 19

      I think you misunderstand what “educating the client means”. There are tried and true methods and ideas in the design profession and the client is often unaware of them. Just as a lawyer would recommend to client how to move forward with a case, a designer should make their recommendations known and the rationale for why. And, Just like with a lawyer, the client can choose to ignore this advice. When I client chooses to do this, you have a choice to move forward or sever the relationship.

      “Educating” the client doesn’t involve sitting them down and taking them through design 101. It means being able to give a client solid and (usually) rational reasons for the design decisions being made. Hopefully at the end of the project they have a product they can be proud of and understand why.

      I think people often get annoyed by designers and see them is a “arrogant” and “self-involved” because of the preconceived notions on what a designer should be. Many people want to see a designer as someone who comes in at the end and makes all the boxes pretty. Sadly, I think a lot of designers out there are doing their part to make this a reality.

      14
  13. 20

    I work with account managers who are commission based and have strict targets to meet. Their main interest is in taking cash from the client and then dumping them into the design dept as fast as possible.

    The whole business is run this way and the senior management are non technical. We have 30+ sales staff and 6 developers and designers in total.

    It would be impossible for me to take any role in customer interaction although too often I have to take the bull by the horns and simply cut the account manager out because of their lack of know how and total b++sh!!

    My main comms with clients are by email. Everything is in writing, reproducable and can be dealt with at times to suit instead of having continuous interruptions. These comms can also be read by colleagues and avoid the chinese whisper game of people making notes on telephone conversations where they will adjust the notes to suit instead of writing what was actually said.

    I have campaigned for a designer only led team, everyone manages their own clients and accounts and does the work but this would cost more and hence clients would have to pay more which ultimately they are unwilling to do.

    Its hard to envisage going freelance without having a side kick to manage communications or restricting clients to email only as there would be no time to actually do the work if I answered all the calls and took the time to teach them what they needed to know in order to understand the decisions being made.

    In my experience there are still few businesses who actually value a good designer who makes well planned and deeply thought decisions and who are willing to pay for it.

    What the market demands, the market gets.

    I’m working on changing careers to something people have a little more respect for like a plumber. “Loose washer on the tap darlin’, yeah that’ll be £75 call out and £75 an hour. Of course I can come round tomorrow.” Job done.

    3
  14. 22

    Bernhard Grubbenvorst

    July 2, 2012 12:22 pm

    Last company i worked for i felt like a cook in a chinese restaurant**. The accountmanager was always outdoors, or when clients came over they were directly guided into meetingroom. Every so often i would get a briefing as short as this: “Design a website, like the one you did for client x. Take the content and logo of their current website.”. After a few days i would present the designs.

    ** Here in the netherlands the chinese restaurants have these tiny sliding hatches. The guy at the counter screams the order through the hatch. 10 minutes later the hatch opens and the meal comes out.

    7
  15. 23

    I found this to be a big problem when I was a permie, and it ends up adding much more time to a project. Dealing directly with the client ensures that everyone is on the same page. And the designer has a better idea what the client wants right from the start.

    In most cases this is perfect, although you can get some clients that are constantly changing their mind. But on the whole designer interaction with the client in my own personal experience is vital.

    Thanks.

    1
  16. 24

    What is your advice for designers less savvy with communication and presentation skills than AMs?

    0
    • 25

      I have the same question as Ren. How can I be a web designer and AM/PM? I know it is possible to be all things, or at least some of them lol. Do any of your books address the topic of freelance web-designers who handle the development and the one-on-one client relationship?

      0
  17. 26

    I established a branding and design studio 10 years ago. In all that time we’ve never employed account managers. We find it’s better that designers run projects and liaise with clients. Our clients have commented on how they prefer having access to the creatives and we find project run smoother and the results are better.

    2
  18. 27

    Simon James Cook

    July 6, 2012 1:51 pm

    This is an interesting article.

    The last agency I worked at actually had a direct designer access policy e.g. they didn’t employ account handlers at all

    From the client’s perspective this worked pretty well, and from the agency’s viewpoint it meant a significant saving on non-creative costs. Obviously, the flip-side was a situation that took it’s toll on the design team’s motivation, morale and most of all available time. Essentially we found ourselves having to spend nearly as much of our week doing admin tasks as working on creative/production with interruptions to take client phone-calls a constant irritation.

    Ironically, as it happens the blend of creative alongside project mgmt, working up costings and client liaison was a perfect grounding in which to launch a freelance career/own business, which is exactly what I did last year.

    0
  19. 28

    Its all about relationships. If Designers and Developers have a good understanding of the tasks an Account Manager is responsible for and vice versa, there will definitely be an appreciation for each other.

    After all, both sides are just as important because a good end product that is designed to meet or exceed client’s expectations is good for the team.

    Much can also be said about the debate whether Designers need to know how to code and if Developers should know design. I believe they do because it just makes you that much better.

    0
  20. 29

    At my previous job, we have recently implemented the process of including designers on the initial kick-off call of collecting content and collateral for the project. One of the bigger problems I witnessed was the designer’s input on the calls. In many people’s eyes, designers are perceived as the experts for design and content, especially when dealing with solo projects.

    But some of my designers were pretty silent on calls, almost as if they were spectating to listen to what the client had to say because the account manager was already there to provide ‘conversation cover’. I think this was just that the designers were very used to only being delivered the information without speaking…

    -1
  21. 30

    This may be an academic opinion based on small companies.
    Here’s the actual daily scenario in big MNC agencies.
    Well at least, my observation here in Asia.

    Accounts: “Client want to discuss and talk us about the changes.”
    Designer: “No, no, I busy. It’s not my job to talk to clients. Just tell me the changes and I will do it.”

    0
  22. 31

    Great Article… :)

    0
  23. 32

    Duncan MacDonald

    July 3, 2012 1:13 pm

    I don’t misunderstand at all. The way you describe it is at odds with what I’ve experienced, so I think we’re talking at crossed purposes. I don’t disagree with your version of events by the way, it’s much the same way I would present work. I just wouldn’t call it ‘Educating the client’.

    First off, I’m a designer, so let’s get that out of the way before you assume too much again, and in 12 years, I’ve had the misfortune to work with a lot of other designers who had total contempt for the client, and their idea of educating the client really boiled down to ‘They have to appreciate modern typography at the same level as me, and if they don’t they’re an idiot and a pleb’. They wanted to take them through design 101.

    I’ve also come across a lot of designers who couldn’t vocalise their thinking, and became frustrated when the client wouldn’t accept the work at face value ‘Because it’s OBVIOUSLY right’. Sometimes those two types are one and the same.

    -3

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