When do clients get upset? When they expect something common -- such as a swift response to an email -- and you don't write back for a day. Or when you show two concepts when the contract said four. Or, heavens forbid, you show up for a meeting 15 minutes late and don't call them well ahead to warn them.
No matter whether you're flying solo or working within an agency, there are key expectations that every client considers a given: timeliness, transparency, value, and respect.
Read these next paragraphs in the voice of the client that appreciates you most.
The Design Client's Bill of Rights
I know when I'm getting deliverables, how long I have to review them, and when I need to pay you for them. Up front, on a schedule, net 30 or 60 -- this must be clear from the start of our engagement.
Additionally, we will keep to scheduled meeting times and you will not be late without warning. I am always exempt from rebuke for tardiness, as I am busy working to ensure your work is approved with your best interests in mind. However, if you're billing me by the hour and my lateness is costing me money, please gently let me know.
Once a schedule is set, your work will never be late, unless an unforeseen circumstance arises and you contact me well in advance of the deadline to ensure that my superiors do not clobber us for the possible appearance of unprofessionalism. If we change the scope of our project, I expect you to negotiate a new schedule with me that allows the work to proceed to the best of your ability without compromising fully our initial time frame.
I need to know where we're at in the project at any time.
I need to know the thinking behind the work that you show me, the work that I choose, and when necessary the work that I decline. I am your advocate in my corporation/organization and need to be able to own the agency's perspective when I speak before my boss, my CEO, my peers, and the general public. Do not assume that you will be able to participate in every meeting within my company to defend the work.
I need to know the impact my project will have on my customers, my company, and the world at large, not to mention sustainability issues and ethical concerns that may transcend the work and damage our reputations.
I am always seeking fairness in agency/designer fees. I will mindfully defer on negotiating minor fee changes if my project has a major, provable impact on brand equity.
That said, my corporation will usually require me to bid work through multiple agencies, so be aware that the cost of your work will always be factored into the overall value of our potential relationship. If you're underbid, that doesn't mean I'll always choose the lower bidder. I will choose the best vendor for the project.
Don't hide costs or penalize me for the lack of forethought in your bidding or my strategic approach. Work with me as a partner to help me understand where we need to meet, both fiscally and professionally, so that both of us win.
If you can't do the work for the costs you estimated, let me off the hook quickly enough to allow me to engage with another vendor before my boss fires me, or bring me options that both of us can live with, being mindful that I may not return to work with you again -- no matter how great the final result can be.
If I smell oversized ego, or if you tell me I just don't get it, then you're history. I'm responsible for my business and have to live with the consequences of your recommendations.
I expect you to convey, through everything that you do for me, the knowledge that you care and respect our shared partnership. We have a relationship that is predicated on our focus on creating meaningful design communications. This can influence everything: how you dress, how you talk, how you describe your work to my boss, how we catch a beer after work and you respect the client/designer boundary. We aren't friends. We are colleagues.
If you have the ability to do so, you should write up expectations for what your clients should expect of you right as you're hired.
If you can't return an email in two hours, tell them. If you need one to two days flexibility on your project milestones because you're overloaded in your studio, tell them up front. Don't surprise them along the way. If you do, you'll risk diminishing your long-term relationship and chances for success because of something unspoken, unfulfilled, or unwittingly ignored.