Life is all about relationships. With your parents, kids, spouse, significant other, boss, co-workers. And if you manage them well, hopefully you’ll keep “therapist” off the list. As an in-house creative, one of the most important relationships you’ll have is with your internal clients—your stakeholders. You know, those people down the hall, up a floor or in the next cubicle. You’re in a unique but challenging position because unlike a design agency, you can’t choose your clients, or fire them. Let’s face it. You’re stuck with them. So make the connection and make it a lasting one.
When I was building my in-house department, one of my primary goals was to connect with our internal stakeholders and capture as much high profile work as possible with the intent of making our services essential to the success of the organization. This was achieved by reaching out to the various internal business units, taking the time to understand their business and determining how my team could support their objective. This didn’t happen overnight. These relationships developed over many years, through the implementation of initiatives designed to attract and keep clients. Branding and marketing the department, creating a departmental website and capability brochures, displaying framed samples of our best work, holding open houses and winning design awards all contributed to the effort. My ultimate goal was to position my department as an indispensable resource center for all design and production work. And I knew making the connection was the first step to getting there.
Open communication is essential to the success of any relationship and once you begin the design process it’s extremely important to keep your clients in the loop. Periodic project updates will assure that projects stay on track and delivery dates will be met. But beware.
Over-communicating and providing too much information can overwhelm clients and alienate them as well. It’s not necessary to provide them with a play-by-play of each and every design decision, but if you give them just enough information that shows you are a design mister smarty pants (which is why you were hired in the first place), they’ll eventually learn to respect your choices. I also realized early on that good design skills weren’t enough. For the in-house designer, versatility, business acumen and good bedside manner are equally important and will help you better navigate this important relationship. So take the time to develop not only your ability to communicate effectively but your writing and presentation skills as well.
These days most companies embrace a collaborative culture and encourage colleagues from various disciplines to team up to innovate and solve problems. So when your clients engage your department for creative support, look beyond the request, dig deeper for a better understanding of their needs and become business partners. Remember, as an in-house creative you have an edge over your agency counterparts because you and your clients are on the same team. You embrace the same values and corporate vision and have an invested interest in the well-being and overall success of your company. Brothers and sisters in arms. Fighting the same fight with shared values, mutual dedication and a common purpose. You both possess an intimate understanding of your company, its history, culture, products and services. Leverage these commonalities to foster close, collaborative partnerships with your stakeholders. Stop being an order taker and partner up!
When a client engages your department you enter into an agreement, and a design brief is the smart way to document the objectives and design strategies for a project. This reference guide will not only keep everyone on track but will ensure that all stakeholders have a clear understanding of the project scope, timeline and business objectives so quality design work can be delivered on time and within budget. Failure to meet project milestones can not only jeopardize the relationship but impact future business from your clients who may seek support externally. Can’t get your clients to complete a design brief? Remind them that without one, project objectives may be unclear, design solutions may fall short and deadlines may be missed, wasting valuable time.
Remember, just like any other relationship worth keeping, client relationships require constant attention, massaging and TLC. Over time, you may have to realign your services and capabilities to meet the needs of new clients or the changing needs of your existing ones. Periodically schedule time to meet with your clients to reassess their short and long term objectives, as well as to better understand how you can provide effective design support. Determine what additional skills, services, capabilities or technologies are needed to keep your department competitive and eliminate nonessential and redundant services that do not directly support the business. Listening is key. Not only during the life of a project but after it’s been put to bed. Solicit feedback from your clients through an online satisfaction survey that will show you where you’re winning or falling short, which, in turn, will help you be a better partner.
Attracting clients and keeping them happy is an ongoing process that requires networking, empathy, sensitivity, tact and diplomacy. Be proactive, reach out and touch them. Communicate often, collaborate to maintain mutually beneficial relationships, honor your commitments, cultivate to enrich the bond and finally, celebrate the successful partnerships you’ve developed. You may actually make a few friends along the way.
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