Ask Hard Questions Early

by Blake W. Howard

I’ve often times thought I am more in the expectations business than in the graphic design business. It’s been my experience that almost every frustrated client is a result of mismanaged expectations. Managing their expectations from the get-go is key to creating great work, healthy & happy relationships, and true fans.

At the beginning of a project you have a choice of one of two things: to have the easy conversations and save the hard ones for down the road or have the hard conversations upfront so the path ahead is smooth and easy. We call it “Easy/Hard or Hard/Easy”.

“Easy/ Hard” is focusing too much on being likable and friendly (the Easy) upfront, desiring rapport, and risking the chance of hard issues unexpectedly manifesting later. “Hard/ Easy,” however, is asking the hard questions up front about decision makers, approval processes, roles & responsibilities, desired measurable outcomes, and past experiences with other firms, or any other potential land mines in the road. The ironic thing is that as the hard questions are addressed the client develops a deeper level of respect, trust, and understanding for you and the project – more so than they would for the “fun creative guy”.

Don’t hear me wrong. There are certain relational pillars that need to stay in place, like creating rapport, showing respect, being interested (not interesting), etc. that must remain. The game changer is the shift in going from “fun creative guy” first to “creative leader” first.

Here are 3 tips to manage the most difficult yet most important expectations of a project upfront:

1. Determine the decision makers
Ideally, you should gauge decision makers before sending a formal proposal, as that should dictate pricing. If you haven’t, then talk with your new clients about what I call the “Swoop Factor”. A swoop is when you work with the so-called decision makers but once finished they then need to float it up river to get final approval. Having someone outside of the process with a big opinion, who hasn’t yet been engaged for his/her opinion, is rarely going to get onboard with the final solution and will “Swoop” in with tons of change, probably blowing up the entire project (and your budget). In order to avoid the swoop, talk to your clients upfront, like resilient detectives, to make sure they are the decision makers.

2. Create a project plan
Time is never enough and an issue 99% of the time in projects. Predetermine presentations, deliverables, and client feedback dates upfront to give your client a deep sigh of relief that you are in control and will deliver. Even if it is a simple week by week calendar, setting the timeline gives you a better chance of controlling the outcome and not cutting corners on your process. It also manages their expectation of when they will launch the site, see the logo, or hear the new name.

3. Champion your unique processes, principles, or philosophies
What is unique about working with you? What is your distinct view on what you do? How do you best work? Regardless of your answer to these questions share them upfront with your new client, especially if they’ve had past experiences with other design firms. Use this as an opportunity to put stakes in the ground for best practices so your client will trust in you as an expert.

Be sure to identify key decision makers early in the new client acquisition process to avoid them swooping in later and engaging in costly alterations, or potentially killing creative.


Quick Tips

If you are interested in learning more on client leadership, read Todd Sebastian’s book “Tell Your Clients Where to Go”. It is a great read with a variety of practical applications for strengthening client relationships.

Dig Deeper!