We have to be the lighthouse, guiding the clients to shore. (Image credit)
In the end, the final decision falls to the client, but there are times — and most of us have experienced them — when the client's lack of expertise in the field affect the quality of the design. In such times, we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to convince the client that the design is perfect as it is, and that any further alteration would impair the website's ability to communicate everything it needs to. This confrontation is not welcome by either party, but it is certainly necessary.
Many designers want to avoid conflict and, as a result, cave to their clients at the slightest sign of disagreement, rather than spend time trying to convince them that they stand on the right side of the design decision. This is often a mistake and does not serve the design, which should be the paramount consideration. We owe it to our creative work to argue for whatever serves the design beyond all else, even though the client is footing the bill. We may end up having to give in to the client, but at least we tried.
Below is an overview of some tips and techniques you can employ when you find yourself butting heads with a client. These approaches might work individually or in combination, but they all at least offer a launching point to help you put your best foot forward and lead the client exactly where they need to go.
- How To Explain To Clients That They Are Wrong
As the title suggests, an article that helps you tell the client they might not be right.
- How To Identify and Deal With Different Types Of Clients
Another Smashing post that helps you identify the various types of clients you'll run into and how to handle them.
[Offtopic: by the way, did you already get your copy of the Smashing Book?]
Confidence Is King
Whatever the context, in every interaction with both potential and working clients, you want to present yourself confidently. This will make interactions with the client smoother and discourage them from challenging you. This is not a surefire recipe to get clients to comply — far from it. But the more confident we are in our abilities and skills, the less likely we will allow ourselves to get pushed around on a design decision. Some clients — not all — will pounce at the slightest whiff of uncertainty.
Just as the slightest sign of fear puts an animal in danger, in the professional kingdom, the slightest display of doubt could spell danger for the designer if it is detected by the client. We have to maintain an air of confidence whenever we deal with the client, especially if we are trying to convince them that the design no longer needs any tweaking. We know our proper boundaries, and if we are assertive enough, we might be able to keep the clients from forcing us cross them.
Here are a few things you could say to the client that might convey an air of confidence:
- "While I think your suggestion could potentially benefit the project, I am confident that going with the design as is will yield much more positive results."
- "While I have considered alternative approaches, I am most confident that this route will serve the project best."
- "I do understand where you want to go with this design, but I sincerely have more confidence in what this approach offers."
- Each meeting is an opportunity to be assertive and show your passion for the project.
- Always exude confidence, whatever the context of the meeting.
- Be assertive when discussing any and all design changes.
Remind Them Why They Hired You
Confidence leads to the next tactic for making design reviews go your way. You need to remind the client why they hired you. By that, I don't mean to suggest you carry around your credentials and testimonials, ready to pull them out when your expertise is questioned. Rather, this has to do with constantly projecting the image of a passionate professional who is undivided in their focus on the client's project… even if that is not a perfectly realistic assessment of your situation.
Subtly remind them that you are the expert. Your skills and ability are what made this project come to life. Never give the client a reason to doubt that. Don't let them get the sense that you are distracted from the end game. When they ask you to make a questionable alteration, your know-how and experience should trump their wishful thinking. And it falls to you to remind them why they should listen. It is about establishing trust and making them defer to your judgment. Your skills and abilities will make this process go smoothly.
Here are a few things to say to remind the client why they should listen to you:
- "I see what you're saying. However, given all of the time I have spent in the field and knowing what I do about it, I must say, personally, that I would let the design stand."
- "I only want what's best for your project. And from all of the satisfied clients I have worked with in the past, I have a very good feel for the market. So trust me when I say that this is your best way forward."
- "Given my extensive background, I firmly believe that this design perfectly satisfies all of your needs."
- "In my professional assessment, which is in part why you hired me, any further alterations would be detrimental to the effectiveness of the design."
- Keep your skills and experience at the forefront of their mind.
- Show them your single-minded passion for the project.
- Foster in the client a trust in your abilities, so that they become comfortable deferring to you.
If your gentle reminders about your qualifications are not inducing the client to defer to your judgment, then you could always compare the design — or at least the elements that are up for debate — to work of yours that has succeeded in the market. While not always the best approach, most business professionals are receptive to it. Given that their decision to hire you was likely based on your past work, such comparisons might be effective in convincing them to let the design be.
Sometimes, comparisons to your past successes can sell the client on your current recommendation. (Image credit)
This is not always the best strategy because it can come off as a bit defensive to some clients. If they say that the design needs something more, and you respond by recalling a similar project you had worked on that was a clear success, then they might assume this has become a matter of ego for you. Still, if you can tactfully steer the client to the right decision by describing a similar model that they can relate to and that effectively employed the same techniques and approaches, you might be on to something. Offer a comparison that will reassure them, because uncertainty is usually the cause of their resistance.
Here are a few things you can say that will help with the comparison model:
- "That is a good suggestion, but if we look at _____, we can see that going in this direction could be counterproductive to your goals."
- "While _____ met with moderate success by following that direction, I believe your project will be better served by sticking with the design as is."
- "If we look to _____ as an example, you can see how well this approach has worked for them. And I have no doubt you will experience the same success in your own market."
- Compare the design to a previous project of yours that has measurable success and that the client can relate to.
- Be tactful, so that you come off less like you're trying to flex your muscle and more like you're trying to address their concerns.
Make It Feel Like Their Idea
A trickier tactic is to make it seem like their idea to keep the design the way it is. Essentially, it will be their idea, but getting them to see it that way is not the simplest of tasks to be sure, especially if they get it in their head that the design is far from perfect and needs revisions. You need to stand your ground. Explain to them why you made the choices you made and how they fulfill what they were asking for all along.
Basically, show them how the design truly realizes their original request, and demonstrate that the design as is, in fact, reflects their idea from the get go. This frees you from having to tell them that they're wrong, and rather just requires you to point out that their new request contradicts the original purpose and impetus of the project.
This is practically reverse-psychology, and it has worked for some designers in the past. With the right type of client, this approach works well. If you think this is the route for you, then ask the clients plenty of questions early on to facilitate the process. You'll be able to sell your case much more effectively.
Here are a few things to say to make the client feel that the idea was theirs all along.
- "While I like the new direction, I think your initial ideas, which spurred this design, are a much more effective approach for your field."
- "I would recommend not changing that aspect of the design, or you'll risk losing the _____ idea you originally wanted to convey."
- "Implementing that change would almost certainly compromise the promise of your initial request."
- Explain that the design was created from their specs, and point out each way this is true.
- Show them how these changes would contradict the mission they adopted at the start.
- Ask plenty of questions early on about what the client wants to make this an easier sale.
Don't Get Defensive
Another thing to do during these exchanges that is also a bit difficult is to not get defensive. Ultimately, getting defensive will work against your purpose, and because you may be the only one who is truly serving the design in this case, you need to stay professional and level-headed.
The design will reflect on you and will shape your reputation, so as soon as the client questions one of your choices, your natural instinct is to get defensive. But to react this way would be a mistake, and you know it.
There are times when we have to lay down our shield and not get defensive. (Image credit)
You have no reason to take disagreement personally. The client is not attacking you. They genuinely care for the project — not to mention their bottom line — so do not make it about you. If they see you get defensive, then they will assume that your ego is more important to you than the project and will react in kind. And in that mindset, they will stop listening to your advice.
Here are a few things to help you convince the client without sounding defensive:
- "That's a good idea. In fact, I considered something very similar to that before ending up with this solution, simply because this is a more solid means of achieving what you're asking for."
- "While I do see the merit of your ideas, implementing them would not only exceed the needs of the project, but could potentially add time and expenses to the bottom line."
- "I think your ideas would make for some interesting changes. But I'm not sure those changes would serve the requirements of the project."
- Remain professional, and do not take requests for revisions personally.
- This is about what best serves the project, not your reputation.
- Getting defensive usually only leads to the client doing the same.
Don't Challenge Them
Another reason not to get defensive when trying to get a client to follow your advice is that you do not want to appear like you are challenging them. Of course, you are not challenging them, and you need to make that distinction clear to them. This situation requires finesse; you want to appear as though you only want what's best for the project, not that you are questioning their judgment or ideas.
Most people do not like to be challenged, especially by people they are paying, because it does not feel to them like the natural order of things. So, tread carefully. They should see that you are distilling their ideas, steering them to their logical fruition, not questioning what they're asking of you. This might sound contrary to the premise of this post, but if at any time you lose the client's favor, then you will be less effective at guiding them through the process.
Here are a few things to say to keep the client from feeling that you are challenging them.
- "While the changes you've asked for are completely do-able, if you re-examine the design I have submitted, perhaps you'll see that it already satisfies these goals."
- "You are completely right, that would be an interesting change to the design. However, I am not sure how it would serve the functionality of the website."
- "While I would never suggest that you are wrong, I do feel in this case that perhaps I have not fully explained the benefits of the approach I am proposing."
- Impress upon them that you do not mean to challenge their ideas, but rather serve the design as best you can.
- Make them feel that you are refining their suggestions and refocusing them on ideas that were already there.
Talk Business, Not Style
As designers, getting hung up on style is all too easy, and when we do, we can lose the client fast. Keep the discussion on the business end of the decision-making process, focusing on why the design serves their business interests, not why it is aesthetically perfect.
They will be focused on their market, and you need to focus the dialog on it, too. Relevance is critical. They do not care whether the design will be the most stylish thing to hit the Web; they care whether the design serves their goals. If you convince them that you are coming from the same place, you'll have an advantage in your disagreements. They'll know that you understand their position and will be more inclined to listen and take your advice. Fight the urge to get caught up in the design when you are explaining why the website is perfect; keep it strictly business.
Here are a few things to say to show the client that you are focused on business:
- "Looking at it from a completely business perspective, I see so much potential in the design as is. The changes you suggested, while good, could potentially disrupt the bottom line."
- "I think it is important to note that making those changes could upset the design's ability to perform effectively in the market you are introducing it to."
- Keep them on the same page as you. Always relate the discussion to their business, not the style.
- Make them feel like you know where they are coming from.
- Focus on their business needs, not on the attractiveness of the design.
Never Be Dismissive
The client needs to feel like you are hearing what they're saying if you are to gain their trust; otherwise, convincing them to opt for your design as is will be harder than it should. Every effort you make to ensure that things go your way will make for a smoother design process.
Just as becoming defensive can make the client defensive, not properly considering the client's position and ideas can make them unreceptive to yours. And then, all of your efforts to convince them that no further adjustments are needed will be futile. So, ensure that they understand that you have heard what they've said, perhaps by resorting again to comparisons. Show them instances of other brands suffering from having been taken in a similar direction.
Here are a few things to help you make the client feel that they have been heard:
- "While I hear what you are saying, and I think that could be effective in the right circumstances, I am just not sure that taking that direction would be right for this project."
- "I really like the enthusiasm coming from you, but I think at this point that making these changes would hurt the design rather than enhance it."
- Listen to their suggestions and ideas, and discuss them.
- Use comparisons to show why their proposed changes would prove ineffective.
Don't Talk Down, Lift Them Up
If you want to assure the client that you have digested their ideas, then this next point will help you do that and convince them that the design is just fine. Don't talk down to them as you explain your case. Instead, educate them on the finer points of the design process and how it can achieve their goals. Sometimes, language is the roadblock that prevents the client from seeing your point.
If you take care to explain the reasoning behind your direction, the client will appreciate it and open up to your way of thinking, a rarity in this field. The client will sense your passion. The best way to help someone see your point of view is by enlightening them on how you arrived at it. The client more than likely lacks knowledge of design, and you must do your best to bridge that divide.
Here are a few things you can say to start educating the client on your view:
- "While I get where you are coming from, if I could take another minute of your time, perhaps I could explain how the current design already goes in that direction."
- "If I may be so bold, your suggestions tell me that you are missing some of the finer points of the current version. I would love to go over the project's goals with you to show how each is being met."
- "I appreciate your uncertainty, and I don't want to diminish your concerns, but if you'll allow me, I can walk you through the current design and hopefully alleviate any apprehensions you might have."
- Educate the client on the design choices you made and the practical reasons behind them.
- Break the creative language barrier between you and the client.
- Let your passion show through so that the client sees that the design is what matters.
Consider A Different Perspective
The client will have a business frame of mind, which is perfectly reasonable. Perhaps you should balance this with a different viewpoint, one that the client might be overlooking: that of the end user. Whenever you ask a client to compromise on their suggestion, show that you have considered all perspectives, because that shows that you are not just being difficult or defensive. You are acting in the best interest of the project.
In addition to showing that you are truly listening to their ideas, show that you have considered the perspective of the end user as well, who will be the recipient of the design. This makes good business sense, which is hard to argue with, and it reinforces why they should keep the design the way it is. Given their own limited perspective and the fact that you are supporting your viewpoint with consideration of a perspective other than your own, they are likely to hear you out.
Here are a few things to say to help the client see the user's point of view:
- "I see what you are asking for, but from the user's standpoint, I think those changes would be more harmful than helpful."
- "Taking the end user into consideration, I firmly believe the changes you requested would create a far less friendly experience overall."
- "While I understand what you are saying, I am not sure it makes complete sense from the user's perspective."
- "The changes you have asked for are technically sound, but the negative impact they would have on the user's experience makes them unfeasible in this case."
- Consider the design from the user's perspective, and present that side of the coin.
- Demonstrates that your advice represents a reasonable business approach, which will make the client more receptive.
- Argue the numbers: client's perspective vs. designer and user's perspectives. Two against one.
Contractual Conscience Clause
This last one is not always the easiest to pull off but is certainly worth a shot: the so-called contractual conscience clause. This assumes that both you and the client are willing to sign a contract, which most designers would never work without anyway. At the beginning of the process, try to write in a clause that leaves all final design decisions up to you, especially if you determine that a requested alteration would have an negative impact on the product.
The contract may be the key to giving you final say in the project… if you set it up right. (Image credit)
Not every client will agree to this, but in the right circumstances and with the right client, this is an effective way to avoid headaches when you see a design as being finished but the client wants more. Try to get the client on board by reassuring them that you would exercise this clause only to protect the best interests of the product. Allow them to add stipulations if that would make them feel more comfortable surrendering the final cut to you.
Here are a few things to say to help the client see the benefit of including a contract conscience clause:
- "Of all of the clauses in the contract, this one does the most to make the best interests of the project paramount in importance."
- "Without this clause, I feel like the design would be open to potentially being damaged by unnecessary additions or inclusions."
- "If you want to ensure the most effective design for your project, then this clause is nothing to worry about, because that is its only purpose: to serve the design."
- Write a clause into the contract that gives you final say on all design decisions.
- Give the client the option to amend the clause until they are sure it will work.
That's All I Wrote
That wraps up all of the advice and approaches we have to get this discussion started. If you have any comments about what I've said so far or any words of wisdom on the subject, feel free to drop them in the comment section below.
- A Handy Set of 20 "Convince Your client of Anything" Templates With PDF Chart
An insightful look at convincing your clients to follow you in whatever the situation.
- What To Do When the Client is Wrong
A post from Freelance Folder that offers helpful tips on how to handle the situation when the client is wrong.
- 10 Sure-Fire Ways to Make Your Clients Love You
A post to help you convince clients by winning them over.
- 30 Tips on How to Get, Convince, Keep and Deal With Clients, Be It in Web Design, Writing or SEO
Another useful post that you should definitely check out.
© Robert Bowen for Smashing Magazine, 2010. | Permalink | Post a comment | Add to del.icio.us | Digg this | Stumble on StumbleUpon! | Tweet it! | Submit to Reddit | Forum Smashing Magazine
Post tags: client, communication