James was recently asked to contribute some thoughts on clients and the designers relationship with them. With 12 years design consultancy experience, he offered his take on the article, which appears in Design Week 5th August 2010.
Over the years I’ve worked with a variety of clients from one-man bands to large multi national organizations. Here I will share some of my thoughts and experiences of working with such a variety of clients.
Regardless of size and experience the most important factor to building a successful relationship with our clients is, in my opinion, the personal side of things, the relationship between you and them. In my experience people like dealing with people, and people they like, trust and feel share the same objectives.
Whether you’re working with an individual who has saved up their hard earned cash to develop their idea or, you’re working with a board of directors from a large wealthy company, your client needs to feel they trust you to be diligent and provide value for money. Even more so in the current economic climate.
Product Design in particular is a very personal service, you’re not selling a physical product or a proven output, you’re selling your ability to create something that maybe doesn’t exist. You have to work hard to demonstrate your capability give confidence and assure people you have the personal abilities to see it through, deliver the goods so to speak. Funding Product Development and innovation is a tough call for many clients, with the greatest respect novice clients sometimes don’t appreciate the effort or value attached to the design process itself, “Can’t you just draw it?”. Other clients who have been through the process before, or have a little more experience appreciate that if you allow time for a process and you facilitate it with time, money and resource, you will no doubt produce something of value. So long as you specify what it is you’re looking to develop in the first place.
A specification is key to your engagement with clients, as is managing expectations. Even the most experienced clients can get excited during the development process and request extras, “ If we could do that as well that would be great.”, maybe not realizing the implications of introducing, developing, testing and realising the new features. As product designers we have a duty to our clients to give them the best service possible, be flexible, innovative and commercial. A duty to ourselves to develop and push ourselves forward, continue to innovate and add value to our business. And to educate our clients that investing in Design is a worthwhile exercise and allow time to develop and progress.
In my experience retaining clients is far easier than winning new ones in today’s world. We’ve recently engaged with a reasonably sized, well-experienced company. After what seems a lifetime of chasing, we eventually got the opportunity to submit a proposal for a project. After several months of careful deliberation and negotiating on their part, they embarked on a development project, quite cautiously it must be said. The project ran like clockwork with the initial investigation and conceptual stages producing some fascinating results, with time to develop and engineer these ideas properly. The result is a product that the client is really excited about, they feel they have contributed hand in hand to its development, and their initial feedback from the market couldn’t be better. As a result we’re now discussing several more jobs with the same client. Now they have the confidence, see the value and understand the process more, we’re valued more, respected more and resourced better to continue the work and help our client reach their ambitions within their industry.
Internal design and engineering teams are an interesting client in their own right too. Some employees welcome input from external consultants, some react in the opposite way and I can only conclude they feel threatened by the presence of another that is effectively taking work away from them. As a consultant you have the job of converting negativity into positivity, get people on your side, prove to them you are capable and can make their life easier, take away problems they have and ultimately pull together to deliver a better solution that can build the value of the organization.
A situation we’ve experienced more often in recent times is one where clients are prepared to share equity and/or pay a royalty later on if we can design their product for free or for a reduced fee. Several independent situations have gone something like “We’ve spent all our budget on IP and can’t afford to pay for the design.”. Our response to this is clear, if you cant afford to design it you certainly can’t afford to manufacture and promote it.
I can recall a project where a similar situation arose; this particular client had a Patent in place based on their design. They had spent years in the shed perfecting what they thought was the best offering possible. They raised some money and got a patent, all was good, they were going to be rich…. We were tasked with taking their hand made models and producing manufacturing data for mass production.
At an initial meeting they demonstrated the product to help us understand what it was, how it worked etc. I recall a conversation where we suggested, “what about if you do it this way?”, “Oh no we can’t do it that way, that’s not covered by our Patent!”, “But won’t your competitors do that, which will result in a product easier to use, and cheaper to manufacture?” Silence. The resulting conversation lead to a redesign of the entire system, another Patent, and a well sewn up product offering, now in manufacture. Again, education to the process is key to make sure you are developing, protecting and manufacturing the best product you can to deliver.
Did I have a duty to say what I said to my client, upset him for a bit then develop a better solution? Or keep my mouth shut, go with it then find out he’s out of business. It’s not just about Design, politics, budget, it’s about a relationship of trust, straight talking and delivering what you say and hopefully you’ll do this time and time again and be in business to share these experiences.