Building a Championship Web Team with the Client

We’ve all heard the old adage, “The customer is always right.” From time to time there is push back from frustrated designers and developers suggesting heresy; the customer is, in fact, fallible. We must be at this part in the cycle because I’ve seen several blog posts lately regarding how the customer isn’t always right and what to do about it. Aside from the obviousness of it — that no one is always right — trying to assign right or wrong to the situation doesn’t address the core of the issue – avoiding confrontation with the client.

The best way I have found to avoid confrontation with clients while remaining in a position to guide website projects is to bring the client into the project team. Here are some tips to accomplish that:

First round draft picks
Putting the client on the project team sounds like a given, but many managers forget to inform them of this during the kick-off call. They just assume the client knows. I would coach you to lay out your team structure during the first call and reinforce it as often as applicable. Continually use the pronoun “we.” Make sure they understand that their participation, not just cooperation, is key to the project’s success.

The starting line-up
You can’t profess to someone they’re on the team if you leave them on the bench. The first reaction to assigning the client work may be, “But, isn’t that what they’re paying us for?” They’re paying you to launch a website, and no worries. You’ll be doing the heavy lifting. Tasks perfect for the client include providing style guide and logo files, reviewing and reporting on analytics, setting up merchant accounts, providing feedback, etc. If you attempt to shoulder the entire project, you risk alienating your client. Keep them engaged.

Be a heavy hitter
The important differentiation here is to be an expert going into a project, not just say you are once it starts. Check your ego at the door.

One surefire way to demonstrate this to the client is by backing up claims by citing sources. No one expects you to know everything, and you’re better off giving credit where credit is due. Another way is with empirical data. Numbers may paint pictures, but they rarely lie.

The All Stars
Establish the rest of your team as experts, too. This is another reason to leave ego out of this, because even if they are your employees, the other team members have valuable insight and specialties. Graphic designers know aesthetics, UI designers know information architecture, and programmers know how to make everything work.

Never throw one of your team members under the bus. It’s important that your team is disciplined enough not to enter debates with the client, but if a point is contested; you can do irreparable harm by not backing them up. Your best bet is to immediately follow up your team member’s comment with agreement and additional support before the client counters. If they are wrong, handle it privately, and let them document the correction. Never reprimand them in front of the client. Some enjoy this because it boosts their individual authority, but all you’ll do is undermine your team.

The more the client perceives you and your team to be experts, the more likely it is they will listen.

Play to their strengths
Your client is an expert, too. It’s your job to tap into it. There are several areas of expertise they likely bring to the table, including their customers, sales cycle, competitors, and company goals. Elevate them if they don’t take initiative to do so. Their information is critical.

Have a big locker room
If your client consistently invites other people from their company onto calls or email chains, start looking for ways to bring them into the team. Utilize their colleagues, subordinates and even their boss. The more they contribute, the more it feels like your client is on a team. They’ll reinforce each other and act as built in reminders. If it’s your client’s boss in the picture, you may not want to assign them much to do, but be clear that you respect their opinion and insight. Provide concise, to-the-point status updates and paint a positive picture. Reinforce that they made a good decision when they approved hiring you. Always make your client look good to their boss.

Go pro
Be dependable, positive and a good listener.

Many ultra talented designers don’t have a solid foundation of business basics. You must communicate well, oral and written. Do you want clients to perceive you as “right”? Start by being dependable and not dropping the ball on anything. Avoid making careless errors; deliver your milestones on time like wire frames and development sites, and embrace the QA process. Mistakes serve as distractions.

As hard as it is sometimes, stay positive. Your attitude can undermine you. No one wants to listen to a Negative Nancy, and they will begin to tune you out. This means you have to learn how to handle critiques.

Being pro also means listening. If you want your client to listen to you and value your words when you speak, you should do that for them first.

Sometimes you strike out
Regarding receiving recommendations, I’ve often heard people say the worst a client can do is say “no”. I beg to differ. The worst they can do is stop paying you. That doesn’t make the client right, but it does mean you have to be gracious. You can do everything right, have all the best supporting evidence, and the client still may say no. If they reject an idea, you have to lead by example, even if that means you need a couple minutes to regroup. You should never “pick a hill you are willing to die on,” because Cufon font replacement or JavaScript drop down menus are the most important thing ever. If that’s your mindset, you’ve already lost.

Put your heart into it
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Sincerity is everything. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” If you believe that, chances are you consider most of this blog post a waste of your time. That belief will only get you so far. As a team leader, you need to get involved in projects at a deep level. In many cases a simple way to do this is through research, listening, and understanding. Once you reach that point, you can honestly start recommendations with, “If this were my site, I would…” When that happens, clients tend to listen. You can’t really teach someone to care, but you can encourage it and hire team members that are capable of it.

The trophy
Bring a client into the team requires tact, patience and finesse. Much like Web design itself, this process can be raised, like a trophy, to an art form. Follow these suggestions well and you’ll face fewer and fewer “The client is always right” losing battles.

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3 Comments

  1. Chris Lund says

    Really useful article – thanks.

    I’d further add that ensuring the right team members are involved client-side. If the guy managing the project hasn’t gathered input from his internal stakeholders from the outset (be it their CEO, sales team, customer service, or whoever) when the site doesn’t meet their expectations, more likely than not it’ll be your reputation getting dragged through the mud, through no fult of your own

  2. Mike Benson says

    Good point Chris. I wasn’t specific in my post about who the right people are since it varies from company to company. I always ask at the beginning of the project who gets a say and who gets the final say (ie. the decision maker). I have had ambitious client liaisons try to run with the project and not loop in the decision makers until too late. When that happens, it’s often costly. If nothing else, I make sure the client liaison understands that their decisions have an impact on scope, and therefore cost.

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