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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 Link

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

Know your role Link

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 Link

“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… Link

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.

Communication Link

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

Approach all communication with a Zen mind Link

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 Link

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: Link
  • 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 Link


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 Link

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 Link

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 Link


Footnotes Link

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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

    I use some strategies no this post, here, in Brazil

  2. 2

    Well said, Jeff! I especially liked the point about trying to look beyond the request (make the font bigger) to try and understand the reasoning behind it (I can’t read that). Something I’ll keep in mind for sure.

  3. 3

    I’d like to read more about the Zen of communicating with clients. That could be an interesting article in itself – ???

  4. 4

    Wow – you have comment moderation in force for people who don’t kiss your ass – nice! Change the heading to ‘Post a reply – it will be posted immediately if you praise the post, or you’ll go into the moderation list of you talk smack’.

    My previous post didn’t get posted – I was notified it was under moderation – probably ‘cos I said one of your last posts was crap.


  5. 5

    A lot of this useful information is common sense, but somehow we need a BIG reminder to get back on track.

    Using the language of a beginner in the communication process is a good approach and sounds easy. It´s not easy, it´s difficult because (ironically) you need time and experience to adopt a begginers mind.

  6. 6

    Nice summary of good strategies A big problem in many projects is clients don’t know what they really want. They give vague descriptions like “I want a design that represents power”. This is where what I think of as a whittling or carving process begins: getting the client to remove the stone that’s hiding the statue that they ultimately want to see (maybe that’s too Zen for some people). Just let the client guide you toward their goals, is one of my basic business tricks.

  7. 7

    What’s John’s problem? I have never read anything on Smashing that is less than useful.

  8. 8

    Great article, although I think you omitted something crucial from the “Do What You Said You Were Going To Do” section: the Change Order.

    In my experience, if a client is asking for something beyond the original scope of the contract, I will tell them that it is beyond the scope and put together a quick Change Order document, which is basically an invoice which lists what they want changed, the amount of additional hours it will take, and the associated cost.

    This is not a renegotiation of the original contract — everything you said you were going to do originally, you STILL are going to do. It is just a clear way of communicating “Hey, what you want to do here is extra, and here’s what it will cost.” It also puts the ball back in the client’s court because they can look at what the extra cost would be and decide whether it’s worth it or not.

    The final thing which is so great about Change Orders is that you can list the change order, list the hours, list the cost, and then comp it (telling them you’re giving them a discount of “x” dollars, where “x” is the amount of the change order). That gives the client a black and white representation of how much money you’re giving them, in essence. It goes a long way to communicate to the client “Hey, I’m cutting you some slack here that is worth a lot of money.”

    In my experience, without change orders, clients want more and more stuff from you for free, they’ve no idea the complexity of what they’re asking for, and you end up losing money. WITH change orders, clients always know what they’re getting, what the cost of the project is, how many dollars discount you’re giving them, and you don’t get burned.

    Just my two cents :)

    Eric Oliver

  9. 9

    While a nice article, this isn’t freelance switch. Please stick to your normal topics, I don’t read playboy for articles on dating.

  10. 10

    I think one thing that should be noted under ‘Do what you said you were going to do’ is that if you do decide to ‘do what the client wants and ask for nothing more in return’ then it’s a good idea to let them know up front that while you’re willing to do it, it IS out of scope and you are doing them a once off favour. It’s important not to trap yourself in a ‘but you did it for free last time’ situation.

  11. 11

    one of the best articles on SM, thanks!

  12. 12

    Man the the pointless criticism is pretty rough in this article.

    This was a pretty damn good article, who cares if it isn’t exactly the same format as some of the posts on SmashingMagazine. I think it is actually a great move in diversifying the topics covered and enjoyed it quite a bit. Keep up the good work Jeff, don’t let the trolls get to you. It was solid advice all around.

  13. 13

    I’m just starting a web design and development business and this article has been great advice that I’ll definitely factor in. Much thanks!

  14. 14

    Hannes Calitz

    October 9, 2008 8:05 pm

    This is by far one of the best, and most helpful, articles I have read in a while. I am unfortunately one of those webdesigners that get very annoyed with clients very quickly. I will definitely be putting some of the above mentioned tips into practice. Thanks

  15. 15

    Well Jef i would say this is was an awesome article and would prove to be an eyeopener for some of us out there as client selection n negotiation are one of the things which should be as you said given selected very carefully. I liked how you briefly explained each n every point especially the last 3 parts. Well as a whole a brilliant article keep it up ^_^

  16. 16

    I could have used this when I was starting out. Chose alot of bad clients that “leaned over my shoulder” every minute.. It was annoying and took some time to part ways with them.. I invested too much time and my ROI was not what i had expected.. I am older, budweiser now ;-]

    Great tips! thanks! The 80/20 philosophy is oh so true for all you up and comers out there.

  17. 17

    ” approach every task with a beginner’s mind. ”

    This can be hard sometimes… :P Great articles though, keep it up man !!

  18. 18

    Great to get these kinds of articles over here at SM as well. Thank you. Nice read.

  19. 19

    Pretty good stuff!
    I guess I too disagree a bit on the “going beyond the scope of the project” advice.
    Let them know it’s going to cost more, and don’t be afraid to say how much more.
    Otherwise, the client will keep coming up with more changes, since you handled the first one so nicely and it was cheap or free.
    Thanks for doing a good job moderating the comments SM, trash talking an author or article does nothing but destroy a good site. Oh please don’t burn me, for commenting on the comments, dear john. Maybe your post didn’t post because of a server malfunction or an operator error.
    Have a sense of humor, it helps I promise.

    Woo cool, I just noticed SM has an edit button in the comments, now that’s an awesome thing, how’ld they do that?!?

  20. 20

    #While a nice article, this isn’t freelance switch. Please stick to your normal topics, I don’t read playboy for articles on dating.

    I think the same;/

  21. 21

    an amazing book recommendation about the client side / ad agency is this:
    Wulf-Peter Kemper, Brandholder Value. Only available in German, though.
    Get it here:

  22. 22

    Bruno Byington

    October 10, 2008 1:06 am

    Good Morning,

    its early and Ive got tons to do as usual as you guys all do too I guess.

    Anyway, the article is my opinion on very good. One thing though it forgot to mention:

    When approaching a Customer. Set your Goals and get the job, yeah right. You can do it in two essential ways though:

    1. Go to the Customer and say something like: “you dont have a website? Im a graphic designer, I can make you one.” – Obviously you havent spoken to the customer about the cash. You basically had your brief and sold yourself a bit cheaper then you are. Depending on the relation that you have with the customer, say that you usually get paid 15$ an hour and that youd like to hold the Sites details in Form of a contract. This helps you and the customer alot. I mean if you know that youll have to do 5 Screen Designs and you get paid for the Screen Designs. I recent mistake that I watched a buddy of mine to was to say, listen I ll do you a screen Design of the site and then we talk about details and cash. Fucking hell we both thought after we had noticed his mistake.

    Anyway, since Im a brazilian citizen I walk too much all day long. Never had a brazilian Customer before but I mean if I should, we will both tallk and talk and talk.

    Have a Stunning Weekend guys and Rock and Roll,


  23. 23

    Good article. Well done.

  24. 24

    Great article. Very interesting. Thanks a lot!

  25. 25

    [b]9. Eric [/b]
    Thanks for the advice on this Eric, its something that I fall prey to quite often with clients, as i like to get under the skin of their business I sometimes loose focus that they are the client and should be paying for my services that are request in addition to the initial project/solution provided.

    Tackling this “creep” is challenging, after all you don’t want to upset your client and at the same time you need recompense for the additional work. I think i will be using your strategy for the the future.

    Thanks again.


  26. 26

    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?
    Thats a point some of them self-proclaimed design genius’ should realize. Some changements are your clients wish! If it isn’t your style, even it doesn’t look asthetic in you opinion, don’t try to teach them how to make their business! They are maker and consumer at once!

  27. 27

    @ Igor (#6) : I fully agree, some people spend entire lifetimes on the beginners mind concept and don’t get it…it’s tough for sure.

    @ Eric (#9): I like it. Never really thought of using addendum’s like that, but you’re right – that would certainly be another way of skinning the proverbial cat.

    To everyone else, thanks for the comments – I’m having a great time reading them all.

  28. 28

    Bruno Byington

    October 10, 2008 3:57 am

    @ RCKY well yeah I surely get your point but the thing is that they are not designers. We are. Its like the never ending battle between Geeks and Artists. Something that is technically perfect isnt the beauty in itself. And something that is artisticlly fucking nice doesnt have to be the new fucking weel. Perspektives are always diffent in our social environment. We either accept them or not. We shouldnt think black and white though as its temping we have to rise and make our geeky design things worth doing.

  29. 29

    Good stuff!

  30. 30

    Heh, I guess my clients like me bashing them. The first thing I say is: You don’t have bloody idea about design, so don’t tell me what colors, what fonts, whatever… If you want it your way, use paintbrush and do it yourself.

    Then we move onto the proper stuff…

  31. 31

    Am I the only person that hates being called a “graphical communications ninja”?

    Or anything “ninja” for that matter. I always see freelance ads on craigslist “looking for a super nerdy coding ninja” – totally makes me want to work with that client (sarcasm)

  32. 32


    October 10, 2008 5:38 am

    never be afraid to tell a client “no more”. that’s what we do. we get every parameter in writing and do not allow the client to deviate 1 micron. you have to keep the client in check at all times.

    don’t be a door mat. no money is worth that.


  33. 33

    I really like this article. It has some usefull information and insight in it. Most of it is pretty obvious, but one just need to be reminded sometimes. Keep it coming!

  34. 34

    Nice article. You may want to think about rephrasing the title though…. I wouldn’t recommend having “relations” with your clients.

  35. 35

    @ Brian : Haha. Get your mind out of the gutter man. ;-)

  36. 36

    hehe, sorry, it was blatantly obvious to me, so I couldn’t ignore it. :)

    It is very sound advice though…

  37. 37


    October 10, 2008 6:56 am

    Am I the only person that hates being called a “graphical communications ninja”?

    Or anything “ninja” for that matter. I always see freelance ads on craigslist “looking for a super nerdy coding ninja” – totally makes me want to work with that client (sarcasm)

    Would you prefer “graphical communications pirate” ? *shrug* Personally I take that as a compliment, considering ninjas are very quick, precise, and extremely good at what they do. It also reflects that the client has a sense of humor, and therefore is probably more open to different ideas rather than the strict preconceived idea of what they want.

  38. 38

    Another brilliant post.

  39. 39

    Good Article, I’ve defiantly found myself in a couple of those situations.

    Thanks for the Friday read!

  40. 40

    Adrilia V. Pedersen

    October 10, 2008 8:25 am

    Great Smashing post — love how broad in application and relevant. Really like your images. As a former catalog marketer I can totally relate to marching into the VPs office with the Designer fully knowing the boss will want the font or logo “bigger”. [Rolling of the eyes all around.] Great designers regard their work as art and rightfully so. This makes it difficult to accept criticism. And if you get even close to talking about what was on the contract … no one’s winning in that interaction! I’m sharing this with all my design genius friends. Thanks!


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