We could all probably write about some bad client experiences, but I bet we can all write an equally long list of really positive things that we've learned from working with clients. Working with clients have made me better at a lot of things. Here are just a few of the ways I believe clients make us better.
Our clients teach us about their business
As we work with new clients, we get tremendous opportunities to learn about new types of businesses. If we care at all about how what we do can impact their business, we learn as much as we can about that they do. Even if it's a business in a similar industry to another client we work with, we get to learn about their unique approach.
In our somewhat limited understanding of a client's business, we're learning on-the-go. We're soaking in as much as we can in order to know how we can provide something that's going to be effective. There's a period of time where we're just being educated by the client, and there are those moments when we say "Ooooh, I get it. I see what you're doing there." And we immediately start thinking about a solution. But as much as we may try, our perspective will never be exactly the same as the client's perspective. There are a few reasons for this:
- Our client has been in the business longer and there are just things they know that they don't always think to explain.
- Our clients may have fundamentally different opinions or approaches than we do on matters that will be meaningful to the project.
- When it comes to the web, we may be basing decisions on things we know to be effective without thinking to explain them to the client.
So, it's very important to let our clients be continuously teaching us about their business. If we allow them to, clients can give us opportunities to learn new perspectives or ways of doing things.
Clients teach us how to listen
Not every project goes perfectly. In fact most projects don't. When perspectives or opinions start clashing, we need to recognize it, and begin to prepare ourselves to listen. We need to be able to identify misunderstandings, confusion and miscommunications.
Each time we discuss or show a different aspect of progress on a project to a client, we're met with feedback and responses that come from their perspective, not ours. Listening to these perspectives can teach us new things. It doesn't matter whether it's a visual or branding direction that you're showing them, or an interactive feature for an application. We need to learn to cherish their feedback, positive or negative.
If we're smart, we learn that our attitude toward all forms of feedback should be one that is open and receptive, because it enables us course-correct a project and confidently continue in the right direction.
Designing something for someone else is hard work. Maybe the client was impressed with our portfolio, but now this project is for them, and everything matters in a different way. They may trust our professional advice and direction, but that doesn't mean we're always right. We need to value every opportunity we get at hearing we got it wrong so we can think about why. Every time a client says "I don't like that." or "We were hoping for more...you know...pop." it's an opportunity to learn something we might not already know. And if they're feedback is vague, we need to keep asking questions and listening for valuable feedback. There is an incredible amount of value, and even relief, to be found in both positive and negative feedback.
If we think of a project as a long journey, feedback is a series of course-corrections that keep us heading in the right direction. If we look at the definitions of journey, you'll see that one of them means "passage or progress from one stage to another." That is exactly how feedback in a project should be treated. So, if we're smart, we learn that our attitude toward all forms of feedback should be one that is open and receptive, because it enables us course-correct a project and confidently continue in the right direction. We should be creating these opportunities for our clients to give us feedback as often possible.
Clients teach us how to talk to them
Clients are constantly teaching us how to talk to them. It's not always obvious, but behind everything a client says, they are trying to relay to us what they want. We have to learn to translate those things, and it's not always easy. As designers or developers, we are constantly thinking of things like color and layout, or architecture, or implementation. Those are great things to be thinking about, but the responses we give to our clients don't usually need to revolve around those things. As we are asking clients to give us meaningful feedback to listen to, we should also be generating responses that are meaningful to the client. These could be responses such as:
"Wow, I really see how getting new sign ups for your newsletter directly impacts the success of your site. I know of some really effective ways to make that happen for you."
"You've really helped me understand that you're actually targeting larger businesses, not small ones. I can see that I'll need to help you with some effective ways of talking to the people in those businesses who most likely be the ones using your site."
These types of responses confirm to the client that we're constantly taking in what is important to them and planning effective ways to do something about using our skills. It sounds simple, but we sometimes let ourselves ramble on about color and layout or technology. Then, we wonder later why the client is so focused on those things. Occasionally, we will get a client who is concentrating on those things from the very start. It's our job to re-focus them on what will impact their business in a positive way, or we are failing them. If all a client wants is for everything to be green from the beginning, and that's all we provide, we have not learned a thing from our client other that their color preference, and we certainly haven't helped them. That client did not make us better, but it wasn't the client's fault. It was ours. We didn't ask that client to teach us anything.
Clients teach us how to react
There was a time when I used to get offended or mad when a client didn't like or appreciate all the hard work I put into a design or a feature. Now, I just thank them. If we design something, and the client thinks we're wrong (whether we believe we are or not), it's not a reason to get mad at the client for being unable to see its effective-ness, it's time to dig deeper. I'll often find that just because the client questions something in the first place, it gives me pause to think of ways I can improve it, or maybe I actually was wrong.
We can truly learn to value the opportunities that our misunderstandings or our wrong assumptions give us to further explain something. We get to talk about the problems, and why we think what we made solves them. And if the client disagrees, maybe it's an opportunity to translate something they know into a way to make something even better.
Our ability to put our egos aside and be humble enough to recognize when we're wrong is essential to helping us improve our approaches and our skills. And our ability to communicate with clients through those difficult issues is equally essential. Clients give us ample opportunity to become better communicators. So don't have a short fuse when you have to explain something. Learn to value it as an opportunity to either educate the client or to learn something new for yourself.