10 Steps to Great Client Relationships

Mar 14
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As Design For Use celebrates its 5th birthday, we have decided to share our hard-earned wisdom by distilling what we feel are the 10 most important lessons to help build a lasting client relationship. Enjoy!

1. Above all, be honest

Good relationships are built on honesty, trust and integrity. Be transparent about your pricing, capabilities and ability to deliver. Usually, the first “deliverable” our prospective clients see is our proposal and statement of work. This document should reflect the quality of your work, your understanding of the project scope, detailed plan for execution and pricing information.

We believe that we price our services fairly, so negotiations around budget are typically only on the depth of the design process and never on rates. We don’t build an “x%” buffer into our pricing to account for negotiation as we feel it signals to our clients that we would overcharge them if given the possibility. A great proposal and clear, fixed pricing structure sets the tone for the rest of the relationship.

2. Set clear expectations, responsibilities and deadlines in your kickoff meeting

We always schedule 2 hours for a project kickoff meeting and longer if starting with a new client. We go through an updated project plan in detail, show examples of deliverables that can be expected at the end of each phase, walk through all project tools and software to be used, and exchange contact information. We have one primary contact (usually the principal) from our side and request two client contacts to act and make decisions on behalf of the company. We also maintain a kickoff guide (script plus checklist) that we bring to each meeting to make sure we don’t forget anything.

3. Take time to know and understand your client

Invest time and energy to study your client, beyond the bounds of your current project. We view a client as a partner, which effectively means that we have an equal stake in the success of the project and by extension, their company at large. Spend a couple of days at the onset of the project interviewing various stakeholders and understanding the overall vision for the project. Periodically send news and articles that might be useful. Pay attention to interests of each team member. In other words, constantly look for adding value to client’s business.

When possible, spend time with your team and key client contacts in less formal and more social settings. The time you spend with your clients during lunch or after-hours having a beer will increase team camaraderie and pay dividends when you need to collaboratively solve problems that arise with your projects.

4. Be Flexible (within reason)

Clients have a lot on their plates. Their organizations are fluid and subject to constraints and changes that fall broadly under three categories: budget, process, and time. Our client engagements are either project fixed fee, monthly retainership, or sometimes staff augmentation at fixed resource rates. Our design process allows us to flexibly integrate with most development methodologies (waterfall, RUP, Agile) while keeping the sanctity of user-centeredness. However, there are limits to the degree that we can allow changes to time or scope after we’ve begun a project and still maintain our standards of quality and profitability. We usually accommodate client requests for minor changes or look for opportunities in our project plan downstream where we can “swap” out deliverables. If requests become too large or there appears to be an emerging pattern, we discuss these with our client and submit change requests.

5. Create a central repository for project documents and communications

We have successfully used Basecamp for small and medium-sized engagements. For larger project teams (more than 50 members), customized instances of SharePoint have also worked well. These central project spaces not only make it is easy access documents and monitor progress, but also serve as a historical document to reconcile issues that may arise later on. We also try to create email groups and filters to facilitate communication within teams and projects.

6. Send minutes after each client meeting

This point may seem common-sense but in practice it is rarely followed. We could have saved a lot of heartache in our early years by adopting this practice and sticking to it diligently. On one of our first projects, a client emailed us asking for the visual design templates a week after we had presented the final iterations of the wireframes. According to them (and contrary to our collective memory), we had committed to this deadline during the prior meeting. Our project plan had correctly allocated two weeks for this exercise but because the project schedule had already slipped, we could not point to the plan, as it had not been updated to reflect the delay (another minor lesson, by the way). A couple of all-nighters later, we resolved to always send minutes summarizing the decisions, commitments and to-dos from every meeting.

7. Be quick to respond to client emails and calls

Sometimes when managing multiple projects, it becomes difficult to keep track of emails and voicemails. There is nothing worse than a client kept guessing when building a long term relationship. Respond even with a couple of lines like “I’ll get back to you by so and so date and time. I am a little tied up right now.” Open communication goes a long way!

8. Accept responsibility for issues immediately, apologize profusely and fix them quickly

We are all human. Occasionally things go wrong: project deadlines are missed or something slips through the cracks. When these things happen, act decisively and quickly and always communicate with the client immediately. Never handle these issues over email — a phone call or face-to-face meeting is the best way to address these issues. Articulate what went wrong, accept the responsibility, apologize profusely, and offer solutions to rectify the issue in as short a time as possible. In order to further repair the damage and extend goodwill to our clients, we have offered to discount our final invoices or added a deliverable free of cost. In one instance, we delivered branding ideas and moodboards (not part of the agreed-upon scope) after the official project ended.

Bring warm cookies. It might seem silly but taking cookies or treats to tense meetings can also help take the edge off and keep the atmosphere a little lighter. We like to bring cookies to big project meetings, especially project kickoffs and the final presentation.

9. Get client sign-off on each deliverable

Probably one of the most difficult things to do, but insisting on a client sign off on deliverables before moving on will make everyone’s life easier – yours and your client’s. On top of the list of client complaints are the constant revisiting of previous design decisions. For instance, “why is adding a new account a stepped process in the visual comps?” (er… because you approved the interaction in the wireframes.) A signature gives a sense of closure to each phase and tells the client that there is no turning back. We usually ask one of the two contacts who are authorized to make decisions on behalf of the client to sign on papers or send an email with an approval to go ahead.

10. Perform a sunset review after the conclusion of a project

No-brainer really. How you close the project is as important as how you run it. After allowing an adequate time to pass after the final presentation, we schedule a sunset meeting to just “listen” to the client. We go over what went well, what didn’t, and how could we as a design firm could improve internally and on the next project with the same client. Most of our clients have been in business longer than Design For Use (we’re 5 years young), so we believe that their experiences as an organization can help us improve and grow. This is also a good time to get testimonials to put up your sales and marketing collateral.

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  1. Tushar

    May 5, 2010 - 09:11 AM

    Awesome Stuff – Loved it – Very Resourceful!!

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