Twenty or so years ago, when designers of all kinds were trying to own a seat at the table of business strategy, one of our favorite ways to demonstrate our relevance was by insisting that clients were asking the wrong questions.
“So, you think you want a _________. Before I answer that, let me ask, what problem are you really trying to solve? Interesting…because there could be better ways to answer that. Why don’t we go off and do some bigger thinking for you before you jump to solutions?”
It was valid. Corporate teams were still adapting to a more technologically savvy society. That is not necessarily the case anymore. The past decade has seen innovation become the single most talked about contributor to a company’s ongoing success. How many times have you heard the phrase “[company name here] Lab” lately?
Today’s corporations are more than up to speed with design purpose and planning. Many of the most recognizable brands have been re-designed, re-staffed, and re-energized by agency-poached veterans who are labeling their groups “labs” and attracting top creative talent to their teams. It’s no longer about agencies owning creative know-how from on high. It’s about approaching validated goals from a balance of expert perspectives and measurable checkpoints.
The new question is “How can we do it faster? Better? Smarter?” In-house leadership is looking for agencies who won’t just come in with more questions. They need partners to educate teams in the latest creative development processes and keep their roadmaps “relevant,” “disruptive,” and “measurable.” Enough jargon for you?
Regardless of this shift, the old school “we know better than thou” attitude is alive and well at agencies. Resistance to listening and supporting a client’s expertise is destructive to building healthy relationships that move quickly through thoughtful decisions towards great design.
If we want to make better products, we need to establish a round table for solving problems, not high ground to battle over. Challenging and validating assumptions will always be key to the value agencies bring to any discussion, but we have the opportunity to guide leaner, informed, more purposeful conversations these days. It requires a deeper level of inquiry and empathy on our part.
We need to recognize what clients are capable of bringing to the table as the arbiter of their ideas, and stakeholders of their business model. If we fail to empathize with their pains and pressures then we can overlook, or worse, disregard, key benefits of their contribution to the success of the project.
Of course, clients have their biases against agencies, too. If they think we’re salespeople, they hear a sales pitch. If they think we don’t know what we’re doing, they hear rookie mistakes. If they don’t understand software, they hear a bunch of technical jargon that they quickly disregard.
Agencies can reset the tone of a relationship by leading through example. Every person on an agency’s side of the table has to be actively listening and assuming a level of validity to the ideas the client is putting forward. Effectively, it means that first conversation goes more like this:
“Great, you’ve told us what you’re solving for, why it’s valuable and how you want to solve it. There are a bunch of routes we could take to make that reality, and a bunch of questions we’ll ask to make sure we understand how these conclusions were formed. Our first step is to get up to speed with all you know and align on the story we’re telling. Then let’s get our teams together and brainstorm beyond initial ideas, get a spectrum of options mapped, test and prioritize them by value, impact, and, if you’re lean like us, create a roadmap to mvp.”
Provocations around understanding core values and goals are always important, but they’re table stakes today. We can expect increasingly sophisticated inputs and perspectives from our clients. Which, in turn, poses a new challenge to agencies: to hold onto our seat at the table by claiming our advantage as the little guy—and speed towards new ideas. It’s all based on building relationship of trust.
4 Tips for Building Trust with Clients Today
1. Listen first. Set aside your assumptions and your inner naysayer. Understand their product narrative and your questions will be more provocative and considerate. Empathize: Their position and goals matters. Take advantage of their strengths and factor in their weaknesses. And be honest about your own biases.
2. Fight the power imbalance. The agency/client model is inherently out of balance. Assume equality–that ensures you take them seriously while still giving you the room to be honest with them.
3. Share responsibility. Involve them in the process and trust them to complete tasks, not just make decisions. Take their contribution seriously, even if they didn’t approach it as you would have or the outcome is not what you hoped.
4. Make them the hero. Our job is to create a great product–but not at the sacrifice of our clients. If they are in a better position than when you started, you have not only succeeded, you likely have a repeat client.