The Perfect Client is Not So Perfect After All
While the word perfect is highly subjective, I can state with some degree of confidence that the “perfect client” for us web designers would be a client that:
- Gives us complete creative control
- Tells us what they want
- Leaves us alone to get the job done (i.e., they aren’t a micro-manager)
However, I can tell you from my experience that having a client that goes overboard on those three things is far from perfect.
My “Perfect Client” Experience
Not long after I started this journey as a freelancer, I was able to secure an ongoing contract with a local church as their media guy.
I create all of their print and digital media, as well as take care of their websites, social media, and online marketing needs.
It’s a really sweet deal. What can be better than working with some nice, polite, church-going folks?
When I first met with the client, I was told what the job would entail and how the day-to-day operation would work.
There were 3 things the client told me (I’m paraphrasing here):
- “We will not be looking over your shoulder. If we needed to do that, then we might as well just create the stuff ourselves.”
- “We trust your judgment and experience.”
- “We will give you the basic idea and let you run with it.”
So, I’m hearing this and I’m thinking, “Can it be? Have I just seen my unicorn? Spotted my white whale? Discover how to turn lead into gold? Have a just found… the perfect client?”
Well, for the first month or so, I really thought I had, but let me tell you why having the perfect client isn’t so perfect after all.
The Issue with Complete Creative Control
Remember the first thing they told me? “We will not be looking over your shoulder.”
Well, they really meant it.
And while it’s great that I don’t need to submit several design concepts, or worry about dealing with client requests like “make the logo bigger” and other things web designers don’t like hearing, it’s also nice to know that what you’re doing is in line with what the client really wants.
Without any sort of feedback from the client — the person who knows the message, mission, and vision for the project the most — it’s hard to make sure you’re keeping true to the project’s objectives.
Every once in while, it’s really nice to feel that shadow falling over your shoulder and hear a throat clearing behind your workspace.
The Issue with No Supervision
One of the biggest reasons why being a freelancer is awesome is that you’re your own supervisor.
You don’t need to quickly minimize your web browser when your boss is about to walk by so she doesn’t see you’re on Reddit. You don’t have to wear headphones so that you don’t disturb anyone (and so they don’t disturb you) as you listen to your favorite music while you work.
Most of the work I do for the church contract is done remotely from the comforts of wherever I want to work at.
There are times where I will work in their office, and they have graciously provided a workspace for me to work at. The times when I do work there, I will see no one else unless I walk by their offices.
It isn’t that they aren’t friendly or talkative or nice, far from it. It’s that I get to work with very little/no supervision.
And you know what happens?
My mind wanders.
I pull all-nighters.
Unless I’m asked to create something that they need to have in hand for a meeting in an hour from now, I’m doing anything and everything — rearranging bobble heads, reading blogs, watching YouTube videos. And you know what? Sometimes none of those things have anything to do with the project I’m supposed to be working on. (I have never, and will never, charge a client for idle time. That’s just wrong.)
Just knowing that there is supervision, knowing that someone will hold you accountable for what you did for the day, helps you with productivity.
You work, you create, and you make something that needs to be made faster when there’s some form of accountability external to yourself.
Whether it’s a colleague or a client, it helps to know someone’s there giving you some form of supervision.
I’m a kid at heart. I never say it out loud but, yes, I do need supervision sometimes.
“I Need [This]. Good Luck. Have a Nice Day!”
Usually I’ll be approached by the assistant or one of the department heads in order to be told what is needed for a specific project.
Every once in while, I’ll be called on by the head person-in-charge and be asked to create something.
Usually what happens is that I’m called into the person’s office, they tell me what they’re thinking of doing, and then I’m left alone to make it.
At first, this was awesome.
But after a little bit, not so much.
When you’re given the vaguest of instructions, you’re left wondering all the way up to when the client sees it if you’re indeed producing something even close to what they’re expecting.
If you aren’t given the intended objectives and message a project is supposed to deliver to its users, it can be difficult to produce something good.
It’s like the telephone game (Chinese whispers) but there’s no one else there to play with you and you still lose the game.
A lot of times, when you sync back with the client about the project, you wind up having conversations that start with, “I like it, but I don’t love it” or “Oh, I was thinking you would do something else.”
Or my favorite: “No.”
Just “No” and nothing else. No new direction, ideas, or feedback that you can work with. Just “No.”
The problem is there wasn’t an ongoing conversation while the project was still a work-in-progress. There’s no back-and-forth. There’s no back-story to reference.
It can be nice and liberating to get the minimum of input, do pretty much what you want, and guide the entire public persona of an organization all by yourself.
But that isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
How to Create the Perfect Client
If you’re fortunate to find yourself in a similar situation, make sure you take care of things from the beginning.
When the client offers you complete creative control, thank them for their trust in you and your experience, but also state that you will still need to approach them from time to time to get their input.
Guide them in what you need in order to be able to give them what they need.
Here are some articles to read to help you solicit feedback from your clients:
- The Key to Successful Collaboration
- How to Manage Criticism Effectively
- 10 Excellent Feedback Tools for Web Designers
When the client gives you no supervision, you need to set your own deadlines and milestones. Tell your client when you will have something ready for them to see.
If you need to, motivate yourself to complete projects days or weeks before they are needed so that you have ample time for some back-and-forth.
Here are some articles that will help you plan your projects more effectively:
- 7 Common Project Management Problems (And How to Solve Them)
- A 6-Step General Process for Producing a Website
- Agile Web Development That Works
When the client tells you what they want with the barest of details, you need to ask questions.
Make a checklist or questionnaire that lists all of the details you would need. I guarantee that after the first couple of times, they will start giving you the information you need upfront without you even having to ask.
Some articles to read to help you ask the right questions:
- 60 Questions to Consider When Designing a Website
- 20 Questions to Know for Avoiding Website Project Disasters
- A Simple Guide on How to Effectively Talk to Clients
In short, communicate with your clients effectively. In doing so, you’ll create the real perfect client.