Some things in life are always painful. Having your teeth cleaned, for example. There's nothing I hate more than being cantilevered back into a squeaky chair and having a dentist spend thirty minutes monkeying with my molars.
Designers often feel the same way about how the delicate dance required to keep clients happy. There was a great ad for Adobe CS2 many years back that showed a photograph of a conference room with the words "Torture Chamber" superimposed upon it in bold white gothic type. Some designers I've met would prefer the dentist's appointment as opposed to the creative concept presentation. But after a few years of being on the front lines in client meetings and dealings, I can tell you that seeing the dentist is way more painful.
Here's what I've gleaned from watching some great account managers at work. And my dentist.
Connect with your clients as a human being before you get down to business.
If you're looking to develop a strong working relationship with your clients, you need to relate with them on a human level as well as on a professional level. That means that before you dive into the work at hand, you need to make sure their basic human needs are cared for -- coffee or tea, for instance -- and some brief small talk about how things are going outside of work. My dentist loves to offer me an espresso before getting down to tooth-cleaning business, and we'll have a good chat before she starts prodding me with pointy steel instruments. This behavior is civilized and all too rare.
To a client, you are what you wear (at first).
If you're a dentist, you wear a white coat and those funky glasses that keep stuff from flying into your eyes. This complements what you're doing on the job. If you're a designer, you should dress in a manner that complements the impression you want your work to make. Many designers cultivate an aesthetic sensibility with their clothing that doesn't quite match the work output, and in a new client's eyes, that can make for some friction in how the work is entertained. I can't imagine a top-flight branding consultant wearing cut-offs and flip flops, or a killer poster artist not wearing jeans and sneaks.
Always have an agenda for each time you meet with a client.
At the start of any meeting, you should have an agenda that you can immediately share with the team. You may diverge from the agenda, as conversations often do, but at least you'll have signposts for the topics you need to cover in the time allotted. If you know the client is a big thinker, print out an agenda with times for each part of the meeting, so it's clear to everyone what needs to happen and when. This sounds like common sense, but I have fond memories of seeing a dentist who was very good with chitchat, but never told me what he was going to do for the rest of the appointment. People don't like driving on a foggy roads with lots of twists and turns. They lead to accidents.
Set the stage for how you want each conversation to happen.
If you want to present all of your work and then solicit feedback, then say so. If you want the client to chime in if they have ideas or questions on the fly, then say so. Don't assume that they understand your rules of engagement, or how you want feedback separate of formal meetings. Clarifying how and when you communicate at the start of your relationship -- by phone, fax, email, IM, Tweet, and so on -- is critical. That way, they aren't text-messaging you at 2 AM with last minute changes, expecting a response before you get in to work. My dentist sends me a postcard two weeks before my next appointment. She isn't pestering me with phone calls and emails about whether I'll show up on Friday.
Don't be afraid to share contrary perspectives.
You've been hired to fulfill a service, and in going through the design process, all sorts of tough questions are going to come up. Every conversation with your client isn't going to be sunny news. Be prepared to be both honest, diligent, professional, and proactive about solving problems separate of the design solution. Just be sure to deliver the news in a neutral manner that lets you know that you're on their side. If my dentist sees a cavity forming, she isn't going to wait six months until she mentions it, and she's going to give me a set of solutions for it on the spot. Speaking of which...
When you need to deliver really bad news, know how to soften the blow.
When things go wrong, there's a tried and true formula for communicating it to a client. I think my dentist does this really well:
Dentist: Most of your teeth are very healthy, David. I'm impressed... but there's this one molar in the back that has a small cavity. [Start with the positive, then edge into the negative.]
Me: That's terrible! What are we going to do? [As a client, I will immediately think of worst possible scenario, tooth being pulled, and so on.]
Dentist: Our best course of action here is for you to have a filling placed in that molar. In the short term, that will take care of the immediate problem. [Always be sure to have a course of action, otherwise the client may dictate one to you.]
Me: Hmmm... [Imagining how painful the filling will be.]
Dentist: Thanks to this new filling system we're using, it should be a breeze to take care of this, and we'll be sure to numb the area so it doesn't hurt.
Me: That sounds fine. [Visualization of pain reducing. Maybe this time it will actually hurt less...]
Dentist: When we're done here, we can go to reception and schedule you an appointment for next week. [Pins down hard dates for solving the problem as soon as possible.]
Me: That would be great! [Feeling more comfortable, relaxed and ready for...]
Dentist: In the long term, however, I think we need to be more proactive. This may be related to you having eaten too much chocolate this year. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough last time you had a tooth cleaning. If you are going to continue to eat foods with refined sugars, you should be very diligent about cleaning your teeth regularly. [Acknowledges fault, takes part of the blame as a measure of politeness, but really it's my issue to deal with. If I get pissy about eating too much chocolate and blame my dentist for the cavity, then I am not a very good client.]
A sign of maturity in business communications is being able to share the blame with no "he said, she said" banter coloring your conversations. Working through a problem is often a shared responsibility, and both parties should be up front about it from the very beginning.
It takes a certain kind of patience and disposition to float through client meetings with grace, and that disposition isn't something you're born with. It's a series of common behavioral traits that you gather from your colleagues, based on observation and repetition.
So next time you see your dentist, or receive some other type of professional service, be aware of the patterns we fall into when it comes to formal business etiquette. While anything goes in the design studio when the music is cranked to eleven and you're jamming on some layouts, once a client walks in the door you're likely to end up speaking this common language.