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Building the Foundation for Improved Client Interactions

This tactic is probably not at the top of the list of your priorities and you may even believe it’s counterproductive to engage in this practice, but I’d like to argue otherwise and urge you, in spite of all the responsibilities you have on your plate, that you adopt it. I’m talking about client management—not the typical smoothing over of confusion about deadlines, scope creep or endless revisions, but rather working with your clients to adopt productive communication behaviors with your team and on the other side of the creative fence, providing moral support and advice to your staff to help them cope with difficult clients.

Outside of being saddled with a poor manager, my guess would be that having to deal with poor client behaviors is the single biggest distraction and morale-killer for in-house creatives. This translates into decreased productivity, attrition and poor quality of creative deliverables.

Most clients don’t set out to antagonize your team. In fact, most likely, they know it’s in everyone’s best interest to forge healthy working relationships. But their misunderstanding of the creative psyche and process can get them into trouble with your team. Here’s a list of typical client assumptions, expectations and behaviors that you may want to diplomatically address with them.

Bad behavior #1: Lack of understanding of how personally invested creatives are in their work.

Tactic #1: Probably no one on our teams went into his or her chosen creative discipline for the money. There are plenty of other jobs that pay more than the careers we and our groups have chosen. We became creatives because we love to create, and we’re passionate about what we do. This means we’re personally invested in our work, and when a client offhandedly belittles or dismisses it, it hurts—sometimes a lot.

As leaders of our teams, we should clue our clients into this dynamic in the hopes that they’ll be more careful when offering criticism. It’s important to discuss the benefits of this passion so your clients don’t paint your group as a bunch of hypersensitive prima donnas. Focusing on the enthusiastic commitment to quality that results from this creative fanaticism should help your clients appreciate its value and encourage them to respect and nurture it.

Bad behavior #2: Trying to solve the problem rather than state it for their creative partners.

Tactic #2: Hopefully this behavior is a well-intentioned attempt on the part of your client to help out a creative partner rather than your client being a control freak. Going with the more positive premise, there’s an opportunity for you to suggest to your client that he or she articulate what’s not working rather than what to do about it. This can be fairly nuanced. For example a client might easily default to requesting that a designer make the logo bigger to make it more important when there are other ways to enhance the visibility of the logo. It would be more productive for the client to simply say, “The logo needs to be more noticeable and prominent” than to request the logo be made larger. Then the designer can explore a variety of solutions from placement to size to color to address the request. Also, recommending that the client be as specific as possible in his or her stating of the problem is helpful coaching.

Bad behavior #3: Thinking the creative process is simpler and less labor intensive than it really is.

Tactic #3: Especially with the advent of computers, clients assume that design is a snap and all one needs to do is press a single button to complete a layout, website or video. Not only does this lead to unrealistic expectations regarding the timing of projects, it also devalues the expertise we bring to our jobs.

As the leader of your team, you hopefully have a level of credibility with your clients that will allow you to state your case on this topic and have them believe you. If not, it may be appropriate to carefully select a job for your clients to observe your team actively working on to really drive home that the creative process is rigorous, labor intensive and time consuming.

A corollary to this misunderstanding is that clients often don’t understand how creative services QC practices can add to the time of a job—especially a simple word or character change to text. Educating them about the QC process should help address this common pain point for your clients.

Bad behavior #4: Minimizing the weight their opinion and approval has with their creative partners.

Tip #4: As much as we like to paint the client/creative dynamic as a partnership of peers, the reality is that the client is the boss. This perception on the part of our team members makes them especially sensitive to client feedback. Clients need to know that very often their creative partners hang on their every word and can take their direction and feedback very literally—sometimes to the detriment of the job—by being reluctant to push the creative envelope or offer up options in addition to the those suggested by the client. Simply making the your clients aware of this dynamic should have an immediate and positive impact on their relationships with your group.

As awkward as bringing up these issues with your clients may be, the benefits far outweigh a transient uncomfortable moment. I’ll discuss prepping and supporting your team for their client interactions in my next post.

If your team and your clients are having trouble understanding or communicating with each other, Cella can help. We have hosted sessions on Partnering Best Practices, Challenges of In-House Creative Teams and Improving Client Management Skills. Contact us if we can help.


Andy Epstein

Andy Epstein is an industry thought leader in the field of in-house creative. He currently serves as the Director of Studio Operations for Cella Solutions where he has oversight of the managed in-house agencies run by Cella. Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative,” a book on in-house design in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, the former Programming Director for the InHOWse Managers Conference, and a key member of Cella’s professional development team. Andy is focused on empowering in-house teams to raise their stature in the design and business communities.

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