My way or your way? (Or how to strike a balance when dealing with clients)
The other day, I received a long email from someone who has assisted me in an urgent project this year and a thought-provoking question was in the email: “To what extent do you push for your ideas and when do you give way to client’s wishes?
It seemed a very simple question but the longer one ponders on it, the more complex it somehow becomes. And so I briefly replied that, “Hmmm, I am not an expert but, I guess, the priority is still the client’s wishes, his comfort zone, and his realities.” I then realized that the question deserves a longer reply so I decided that this can actually be a good topic in my next blog. 🙂
Before I expound on this question, let me first qualify that my tips/insights below apply only to circumstances when one’s core values and beliefs are not going to be compromised (that is, the situation should not call for pleasing a client but committing a crime or even a professional faux pas in the process!). Therefore, this post refers only to situations that do not involve the commission of a crime, breach of contract, and other similar consequences.
I may be citing real-life experiences just to emphasize a point but I won’t be mentioning names of persons or institutions, for privacy’s sake. (It is indeed true that ‘experience is the best teacher’ so I hope that my own experiences will help you, dear readers, in dealing with situations when you are torn apart between wanting to please your client 100% and pushing for your ideas.)
The following may be considered as good take-off points or pieces of advice:
1. The customer is always right. This may sound used and abused but always remember, when faced with a blank wall, that you exist because of your customer (client). Fortunately, I got trained in DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) Methodology, an approach to problem-solving and considered in the corporate world as part of the Six Sigma management philosophy. Through DMAIC principles, I had a deeper understanding of how to connect the client’s wants and needs to my existence as part of a corporation or even as an independent professional. I will not bore you with the details of how my training went but suffice to say, there really is a ‘methodical’ way of appreciating why clients behave that way and why you, as a supplier or service provider, should go the extra mile to do what your clients want.
2. Know your bottomlines but always refer to point No. 1 above. You can always have your own ‘bottomlines’ or that specific points when you really must say “no” already. This means that you may always bend to the wishes of your client but if such acquiescence means that the final project/output will already have significant impact on your career and long-term goals, then by all means, say a respectful but firm “no”. For example, if a valued client requests you to finish the layout and design of a book with a very short lead time–a time frame that makes it physically impossible to deliver a brilliant design–you can respectfully but firmly reject the project. After all, it will be your reputation and portfolio at stake there.
However, there will always be those rare instances when you simply cannot refuse, right? I had been in those situations and they were really difficult times. Should this ever happen to you, you can consider taking the following course of actions: (i) Accept the project but propose changes in the terms of reference so that the tasks may be adjusted based on the time frame given (e.g., if it is no longer possible to develop 3 cover studies, then strike an agreement where you will only propose 1 or 2 studies; (ii) consult a lawyer to help you develop a contract where there will be enough protective clauses for you (e.g., your contract should stipulate that the client should give their comments within a specific period only and anything sent beyond that will already impact the project calendar and, therefore, you should not be made liable for the consequent project delay); (iii) agree on fair/realistic quality standards and ensure that your client will not feel shortchanged (e.g., while it may be impossible to develop highly-complicated graphic works, you and your client should agree on minimal use of info-graphics and nice but simple design tweaking); and (iv) request your client to allow you to sub-contract some of the tasks involved so that you can deliver on time with the agreed quality parameters.
3. Listen. Have a more open mind. These two ‘epic statements’ sound simple, right? However, they are easier said than done. I have met consultants, artists, and graphic designers who are so brilliant but seem to lack or fail in the emotional quotient (EQ) department. In the same way, I have worked with young and upcoming specialists and professionals who may still be ‘learning the ropes’ but whose work ethics, patience, diligence, and commitment are exemplary. These are preferred by clients. I don’t need a very brilliant artist but who always complains, doesn’t listen, and acts as if he is always right and the greatest artist in the whole world. I prefer someone who does a great job (even if it’s not so perfect) AND really listens, appreciates my business, and open to my ideas. Simply put, intelligence, brilliance, and talent should be accompanied with the right attitude. No wonder EQ is essential in ascertaining whether a person is perfect for the job. 🙂 You might ask, “How will these two statements help me when I want to push for my ideas because I know I am REALLY right and that my ideas ultimately support the goals of my client?” My answer is simple: You can actually make your client feel that your idea is actually his idea just by simply listening and having an open mind. Listen more and you will perhaps realize that your ideas do not exactly oppose his ideas. And in the worse case scenario, there might be a workable compromise position somewhere. The trick is to make your client feel that his ideas are also important and useful in the bigger picture.
4. Always remember, your client is NOT stupid. There are designers and IT specialists who think and act like they are God’s gifts to the universe (pasintabi lang po, bato-bato sa langit, ang tamaan ay h’wag magagalit). They are the ones who will bluntly tell you, “Oh, I cannot do that because…(and then give you long explanations with their technical jargons and IT what-nots)” when you simply needed a user-friendly template. There is a common joke circulating around that we must never have IT administrators as enemies because they hold the passwords to our private emails and, painfully, they can easily cause the demise of our careers (or reputation?). It seems a harmless joke, right? But the reality is that many IT and graphic design professionals have strangely developed a certain ‘air’ around them. They are the untouchables. You cannot mess with them. You cannot argue with them. They have their own language, which you cannot penetrate. They make fun of lesser morals who have only basic understanding of IT and design jargons. But be warned: clients are smart, too. They may have lesser gigabyte of IT knowledge but their basic understanding of IT and design what-have-you’s may mean that they have humongous understanding and ownership of the other important matters in life–including the money that they will pay you. Never assume anything. Never assume that the client doesn’t know anything about your line of work. Never assume that they are stupid or fools. Thread carefully for the client might just ask someone to blacklist you in the whole corporate community just because he did not enjoy your sarcastic email about why it is not possible to convert such a file to the template that you needed. Fair enough? 🙂
5. Good track record matters. Build a solid track record with your client and this makes the work (and future negotiations) a lot easier. It is alright to push for your ideas particularly if they are really brilliant. However, remember that it takes time for a client to trust you enough. It is the same with relationships. Don’t expect people to trust you instantly just because you have a very good CV. Relationships take time to build. It is the same way with clients. They tend to listen more to people whom they already worked with over the long haul. Therefore, if someone or a corporation is your first-time client, be very careful with your ideas. Try to hold your horses at first. Get a feel of how they interact with you, take note of their corporate culture (and even their body languages!), and eventually, you will know when is the perfect time to propose your ideas. (See no. 9 below also.)
6. Appreciation. We had been taught the power of appreciation by our parents. We had been told to say “Thank you” when someone helps us, gives us a gift, or utters a compliment. But no one really told us how to say “Thank you” if someone acts like a brat or refuses to listen. Someone has forgotten to say that the workplace is in another dimension. Planet Mars, maybe? The thing is, it is difficult or downright impossible to say “Thank you” if you are pissed off. However, if the going gets tough and you are faced with a client who doesn’t seem to want to listen to your ideas, count 1 to 10 and say an inner “Thank you”. Thank the heavens above because you have this client and the job. Thank the universe because this difficult moment in your life makes you a better and more patient person. Thank the stars because you have this opportunity to practice yoga (read: the art of detachment). Finally, thank that spot where you are standing on because certainly, someone else can easily fill that spot (and he is just a phone call, SMS, or even tweet away!).
7. Remember the rule of karma and the saying, ‘walls have ears’. Every action that we do will become part of our history. There is no way that we can delete the past so we must always strive hard to think of the consequences of our action or statement. If we made a client very happy today, it may eventually lead to more opportunities in the future (and not necessarily with the same client). A satisfied client will always speak nicely of you and such a reputation is very important in the market. If you are faced with that moment when you really must be frank with a client and insist on your ideas, then weigh the benefits versus the risks. Will insisting on your point ruin or negatively impact your relationship with your client? If the answer is yes, then don’t hold your tongue and simply do what the client wants or wait for the right time to re-negotiate.
8. Patience is the best virtue. I always liked this saying, “Good things come to those who wait.” This is can be applied when faced with the dilemma of finding a way to push for your ideas without offending your client. Learn to be patient. This is particularly challenging especially if the deadline is tight or the situation is just too stressful. I had been there and believe me, I had experienced moments when I just wanted to walk out of a project. Once or twice, I actually gave up an opportunity for a good reason (see my earlier notes about not compromising our values and principles in life). However, it is best that we always keep our cool. It helps us have a better appreciation of the demands of our clients. I guess it takes many years of practice and experience to develop genuine patience and wisdom. I think no one can really be completely patient (every one will always have that breaking point) so let us also try to accept our humanity. The key, I think, is having enough self-restraint and magnanimity without having to compromise our core values.
9. Timing is everything. I have encountered people who seem so close-minded at first but who eventually open their minds up if only they are allowed enough space and time to think about your ideas or proposals. There is that thing about finding the perfect timing. Don’t talk to a client who just had lost a bid or even endured two or three hours in traffic. In the negotiation table, your client will always have the upper hand. Therefore, you have better chances of ‘winning’ if you lay out your game plan at the perfect time. Pray, consult a feng shui expert, or do a ritual dance if you must!
10. It’s a free world. At the end of the day, you are answerable to your own self. Stick to your guts. If you are comfortable in your own skin and have a positive outlook of how the world and businesses operate, you will find it easier to strike a balance between what you think is right and what the client wants. Bend if you must. Be like a strong bamboo that sways with the winds. However, never lose yourself just because you need the moolah. Develop an inner compass and that will surely help you make those critical decisions in such challenging phases in your career, and even life in general. It’s a free world. You have the right to make your own decisions, cognizant of the goals of your clients and the rights and welfare of people around you.
Let me end this post by sharing with you a picture of Nobuko, one of the dolls in the Kimmidoll series. She reminds us to ‘live what we believe.’____________________
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