Say an exciting client comes to you looking for splashy new product concepts, and they want your help. Awesome, it's the opportunity of a lifetime! Everything starts off on a roll, but then the entire project takes a wrong turn.
The client gets hung up on hopes of "silver bullet" features that would, in a client's mind, allow a product to spread indefinitely with little-to-no work or expertise on their part. They want to imitate Facebook or Twitter rather than innovate. They don't want to give feedback, feeling like that would be doing your job for you. Forget about pitching a controversial idea, the client won't want to take the risk of advocating for your idea with corporate. Soon, the opportunity of a lifetime has turned into a nightmare.
How do you get your project back on track? How do you turn the client around to your ideas? Over the years, we've found ourselves in this exact situation and have learned a few tricks that gets our work back on track, making sure we end our projects with high fives all around.
Avoiding Unexpected Expectations
Don't rely on the contract as insurance against this situation. You'd be surprised at how many people sign contracts without fully reading what's in them. To avoid a situation of clashing expectations, we send over what we like to call "homework questions." We ask up front for the client to clarify how the company will implement our work, trying to get a feel for what they expect out of us and what milestones we'll need to achieve.
Once the project is underway, we reiterate upcoming milestones each week to see if both the client and us are still on the same page. But as they say ' um, stuff happens, and you might find yourself at odds with the client mid-project over what's expected of you.
Don't panic. You can still turn things around by offering different solutions, making tradeoffs, or extending the project. Show that you're willing to work with the client to find a solution, not just quoting the contract and brushing your hands of the situation. If it comes down to it, it might be best to refer the client to another company or a freelancer you trust to do the work that's outside your comfort zone.
Figuring Out What the Clients Wants
Remember our big client from the beginning of the article who didn't want to give feedback because they felt they would be doing our job? Well, that's the exact situation we found ourselves in not too long ago. More often than not, that's because giving clear feedback and setting goals requires practice, and many clients are new to this process. In those cases, the client leaves it up to you, saying "I'll know it when I see it." That's the worst, and can leave designers shooting in the dark unless they can ferret out more detail.
Asking questions gets over this roadblock. But don't rely on just what they explicitly say, you have to read between the lines. Often clients will toss out solutions to perceived problems, and you'll have to identify those underlying problems. Think of yourself as an investigative reporter trying to get to the root of an answer. You'll have to ask why at least five times before you reveal problems that aren't obvious. It's a lot like the tactic you'd take when doing a customer interview, where you have to drill deep into a customer's reasoning.
Once you understand those underlying problems, you'll be able to offer better solutions. As you talk, throw out options and see what resonates with the client.
Be A Good Listener
Of course, being a good listener helps ferret out those underlying problems, but you can find it's also useful in dealing with an anxious client.
Because these projects can be hugely important to the future of the client's business, a client can quickly feel anxious if he can't see how it'll all come together. If he feels you're not 'getting it' or he's not sure what you're working on, the client can try to regain control by micromanaging the project.
This is where being a good listener can be handy. Don't get the wrong idea, you shouldn't just nod your head, saying 'uh-huh, right, gotcha.' The client needs to know that you understand what they're saying. What's extremely useful is to repeat back the gist of what they've just said, especially if it's a complex idea. If they offer feedback you agree with, let them know that and explain why it'll be a win for the user.
Listening helps, but it's useless unless you take detailed notes. You can't possibly remember everything that's said, and missing details can seriously undermine trust, no matter how inconsequential they may seem. And, at the end of every session, let the client know what you'll be doing next and when it'll be done. Help the client understand how you'll be solving their problems and let them know what to expect.
Dealing with New Blood
A project can quickly end up in the weeds when a new decision-maker joins mid-project. In our experience, this is often a VP of Marketing. This isn't as uncommon as it may seem — often companies hire outside agencies because they're understaffed or unsure how to position themselves, which also leads to hiring new people. Since this new person wasn't present for all the early-decision making, he'll feel pressure to contribute: often by going against what's been done so far or bringing his own people onto the team.
To be honest, we've yet to find a surefire way to solve this problem. Nevertheless, getting the new person on board is crucial. Unless they're invested in the success of what we're doing, they'll fracture the company and the project can come to a grinding halt! The best advice we can give: keep the new person in the loop, address any concerns they bring up, and help them feel part of the process.
What can really make or break a project is how you handle yourself and present your work when a project gets sidetracked. In the end, no matter what you do, some clients will be happy and others will be unhappy. However, most clients fall somewhere in the middle. Be flexible with your process, and don't have a knee-jerk reaction to change. By doing so, you'll be able to get your project moving in the right direction again.