You may have seen the Tumblr feed Clients From Hell which describes a series of situations where a designer or agency has had to work with a less than cooperative customer. These anecdotes are amusing to read and are a great place to validate our opinions after a tough client meeting or when waiting on a tardy invoice payment.
Lately I've been trying to avoid these types of resources because I feel they have a negative impact on those who read them. Many of the cases outlined by sites like Clients From Hell could have been avoided by better communicating with clients and by learning to attract the right kind of clients to your business.
Communication is key.
The problem I have with blogs like CFH is that most of the situations they talk about could have been avoided. For about a year after starting my web design company something funny would happen every time we revealed a new site to the client. We would build them a beautiful mock-up using all the latest typography trends and sexy jQuery content sliders only to have the client say something like: "hmm..this isn't really what I was looking for". Our first thought was the disregard the client's obvious lack of design knowledge and head straight to one of the sites listed above. Reading about others having the same problems would pick us off the ground, give us a laugh and help move on to the next project. After several months of this I started to think about why this kept happening. I remember saying to my business partner, "I just really want a client to look at the mock-up and say 'Wow, that's exactly what I was looking for.'"
After sitting there thinking about why we suck, I got hit with a simple idea. Clearly, I was not effectively gaging what it really was that my clients were looking for. We decided to change our approach to client meetings. Instead of just sitting down with clients and asking a few questions we tried a different approach. We began working with our clients to develop ideas. We sat with clients (sometimes for hours) sketching mock-ups and explaining different aspects of the site we would be making. We made sure our clients understood why each and every decision was made. We made sure to figure out what the essential experience our clients wanted their users to have when visiting their site. In short, we made sure we knew exactly what the client wanted and included them in the design process. The result ended up being a much happier client base after we returned to them with a mock-up including all the elements we discussed.
Attract the right customers for you.
Another way to avoid clients from hell is to take a good look at what types of clients your company is attracting. The biggest turning point so far in my company happened when we sat down and defined what our core business values were, and changed the copy on our site to better reflect those values. We recently changed the "About Us" page of our site in a way that now, we feel, outlines the core values of both our business and our philosophy on design. This small change has done wonders for our business. Only a week after making the changes we received a call from a new customer, when I asked him how he found out about us, he said that he Googled 'Vancouver web designers who care about simplicity'. One of the major values that we outlined in our about page revision was a section outlining how much we care about making simple websites. This makes so much sense that it hurts. By marketing our values and with a little help from basic SEO techniques we were able to attract a like minded client who wanted us to do the type of work that we love to do.
I think it's time we stopped looking at clients the way we do. We're all in the customer service business and sites like Clients From Hell make us forget that if a customer has a problem with your work, it's your job to fix it, regardless of whether or not you think they're crazy. Too many designers romanticize their positions. It's easy to feel high and mighty sitting behind giant iMacs in trendy studio spaces, and even easier to forget that our goal should first be to satisfy our customers. We have a hard time taking a step back and seeing things from another person's perspective. Let's stop focusing on clients from hell and start finding ways to attract those who are like minded and want to do the type of work that we want to do. There are clients from heaven out there, you just need to know where to look.