Home » Designers: 6 ways to improve client conversations to (probably) nail it first time

As designers, we’ve never had it so good in terms of resources out there for honing our craft. On YouTube alone, there are enough tutorials to keep me going well into retirement (and beyond).

The downside of this is that there’s a lot of ‘noise’ to sift through, and in amongst that, important things get lost. Soft skills often aren’t as ‘wow’ or visually gripping in this age of short attention spans, so have you seen that one about getting the most out of client conversions? No? Cool. That’s why I’m here. It’s the kind of skill that, unfortunately, most of us end up learning the hard way (usually when things don’t go smoothly).

So to make my pain your gain, here are my six pearls of ‘client conversation’ wisdom:

#1 Be prepared

Not always easy, especially if you’re firefighting and dropped into calls last minute; however, it’s worth using any shred of time available to do your best to get your head around the client and their brand/look and feel. It might be a completely new client or one that either you, personally or your company, haven’t worked with recently, so need a quick refresher, but either way:

Generally speaking: What do they do? What differentiates them? Who do they work with?

On the creative side: What are the main design elements and obvious recurring themes? What work can you reference (either previous projects for a recurring client or any files you can find for a new one)? Any obvious things to use or avoid?

Getting even the basics in place will put you in a much stronger position to contribute confidently and make educated suggestions on the fly. And those credibility gains are huge at the start of a conversation/relationship.

#2 Listen (and react)

I’m now old and masochistic enough to watch the news regularly, and one thing I’ve picked up is that the best interviewers actually listen to what’s just been said (and learn from it), and tailor the next question accordingly, to get the most out of proceedings.

You need to channel this.

It isn’t about waiting for an opportunity to speak – it’s about processing what’s being divulged and, like a seasoned detective, lead your line of questioning and conversation off the back of it.

Definitely come armed with some notes of what you want to ask, but evolve the questioning on what’s being revealed. It seems obvious, but it’s easy to fall into a nodding dog routine of just taking notes, which often misses vital points.

#3 Admit when you don’t understand

Don’t worry, you read that right, and it’s true that I’m never going to be a subject expert for every presentation brief I go into. There’s a bit of a stigma towards not showing weakness or fallibility in front of clients.

But instead of being embarrassed about not understanding the finer points of the latest Cloud-based, multi-layered, flexible-platformed solution, accept that it’s ok to embrace the ignorance.

Clients can often be so immersed in the jargon and terminology that we mere mortals are left scratching our heads. And if the audience isn’t as au fait with these, having someone sense check in the early part of the process can save blank looks further down the line.

If it is the perfect language for the audience, then politely asking for a high-level explanation or recap typically prompts a better-explained and fresher take on the topic, which in hand helps us shape the end product to be even more engaging and understandable.

You might feel a tiny bit embarrassed asking the question (don’t be, it’s for the greater good), but it’s a hell of a lot better than leaving the call none the wiser and ultimately missing the mark.

#4 Challenge

There’s a danger that clients can be built up to be God-like in people’s heads, and conversations can lead to saying “yes” to any idea. After all, nobody likes to cause unnecessary friction, especially with a client.

The thing is, we designers are often approaching the problem from a different angle, trying to work out the practicalities of ‘how’, not just the ‘what’, so usually bring a new perspective to proceedings. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard, “Hmm. Good question”, followed by a silent contemplation over the years.

Keep asking “why?”, keep challenging (respectfully), and ultimately the end product will be all the stronger for it. You’ll find those clients you challenge keep coming back because doing so propositions yourself as the expert and they know that, ultimately, you’re getting the best out of them too.

#5 Get inside their head

Not as Freudian as it sounds, but getting an idea of what the client likes/is thinking once again can be a huge leg up on projects.

Sounds obvious again, but how many of us actually push this? It’s so useful in skipping a few time-sapping and expensive rounds of initial iterations.

Every designer has had a “I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want” client, and those projects can be a drawn-out, frustrating process. Even getting a few examples of projects they like, dislike or even just random bits off Google or stock websites can help you read between the lines and have a solid foundation to build on. There’s often even certain elements of their own brand that clients don’t like, so being armed with this knowledge helps get that first iteration as close as can be.

#6 Play it back

You may not even realise this, but every client conversation has its moment of destiny – the point when they ask, “does that all make sense” or “you know what I mean, don’t you?”

To answer in the affirmative is to chance that your and the client’s heads were in the same place. Take a moment (even if you’re pretty confident) to respond with, “I think so, but can I just check I’ve got this right?” before regaling an abridged version of what you think you’re being tasked with. You’d be surprised how successful this is at weeding out misunderstandings. Many a time, my understanding before uttering those precious words is very different to at the end of the conversation.

So, there you have it – fifteen or so years of learning the hard way (I told you I was old) whittled down into one meandering blog—nothing revolutionary, but many often forgotten. There are undoubtedly many more tips and tricks out there, but hopefully, this helps you get to what we all want; the best-designed stuff as efficiently as possible.

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