The Art of Client Wrangling

July 07, 2008

Posted in Small Business and Web Industry.

(or How to get your clients to do what you want)

Not long ago, lawlessness ruled the land. Clients did whatever they wanted and the customer was always right. Projects often missed deadlines and the team bemoaned the dreaded “scope creep.” This was a painful time, overtime was part of life, and burnout was a weekly occurrence. Yes, there was a time when I was at the mercy of the client. But no more.

Those were the days when I was distant from the client. As a developer, I suffered the brunt of the fickle client who changed the requirements just days before launch. But as I moved on, I became the project manager and client liaison. I worked directly with the client and decided the fate of my team’s reputation. And I learned how to achieve the dream: on time, on budget, and everyone’s happy.

I’d like to share these lessons. Let’s look at a website redesign project for the Cray Z. Corporation, or CZC.  Welcome to the art of client wrangling.

Be the Authority

You have to know what you’re doing, or at least have some expertise. Many clients think they know as much or more than you do about what you do. If the client really does know more than you, you’re going to suffer through a lot of micromanagement and pain until you get yourself some credibility. But most of the time, you are the expert and they’re paying you for your expertise.

Start off the project with authority by laying out your process and setting the client’s mind at ease. Show respect for the client’s time. Come to meetings with an agenda and run the meeting efficiently. Always end meetings with a restatement of the agreed-upon action items and next steps. Set dates if you can, or follow up by email.

It’s in their best interest

I always force projects to address information architecture and content planning first. This doesn’t mean they deliver the copy, fully approved, but it certainly means we know what content will be on the site before we even start thinking about design. And like many clients, CZC wants to see the pretty pictures and says they’ve got the content taken care of. Or that they’ll just plug it all in later.

In this case, I’ll tell CZC that this is pretty typical, but that the content-first approach actually speeds up the project. It lets us overlap content with design: writers and editors can work on content while the designers produce the mockups. It also lets us avoid costly revisions that come from changing major parts of the content plan after the design is approved. This isn’t a choice – it’s the best way to run the project.

Get to the heart of the matter

Every project has weird requests. It’s your job, as a project manager/marketing guru/therapist to determine the source of this request. Sometimes clients make conflicting demands. You can decipher such puzzling requirements by paring them down to simple pieces. If the requests are vague, ask the client to elaborate their point. When the requests are unreasonable oddities, direct their attention to whatever principles are driving the request.

Listen, listen, listen!

“I want an animated flying monkey that swoops in and drops the letters C.Z.C. into our logo.” This is a cry for help. And trust me, it’s not an affinity for flying monkeys. The key here is listening to the client carefully and looking a lot deeper than the actual words they say.

I get this kind of request sometimes. A lot of clients think that animation adds “sizzle” and makes the site more attractive. The desire for the letters to come in is actually not uncommon either, but it usually takes the form of “make my logo bigger.” What I would suggest is that we consider whether the branding is really strong enough; sometimes the design is distracting and can diffuse the effect of the branding. But usually I ask the client to decide if it’s more important to draw attention to the logo or if they want people to buy something.

Changing Minds

Remember how I said you were the expert? Well that only goes so far. Sometimes your recommendation goes unheeded and the client chooses a different path. That’s fine, except when it’s a show-stopper. The client might ignore your advice, believing some random blog article or even a complete stranger’s comments.

You can counter these situations with other viewpoints, expert opinions, or research that proves your point. This can be risky, however, because the Internet has no shortage of opinions and “facts” to back up your own position. It works both ways, and clients can set themselves even firmer against your suggestion. This erodes the respect they have for your expertise, which leads to even more difficult scenarios.

It’s their idea

When you find yourself on opposite sides of a point, you need to begin manipulating. This sounds mean, but it’s actually just a personality trait: some people are stubborn and aren’t likely to change their mind. They trust their intuition more than they trust you, no matter what appeals to data or authority that you might have to support your point.

One day, late in the project, CZC brought up the dreaded Fold. That is, they wanted to make sure the entire homepage was visible within the browser screen without needing to scroll down. This is one of the most common fights I experience, from clients to users to even our own managers. So I’ve had a bit of experience with this. One way I win this argument is to bring the client around to my side by giving them the pieces and letting them come to the logical conclusion. When you come into a conversation with all the answers, some people get defensive. But when you offer another view, do it by asking questions. Offer subtle hints, such as “what size monitor do you use?”, “do you want to support mobile users?”, “which content do you want to take off the homepage?”, or you can mock up the design to match and then open it in a much larger resolution screen. Ultimately, we want CZC to realize that the fold is actually in many different places and isn’t very predictable. When this happens, the objection begins to dissolve and can even turn into a decisive, “well, people know how to scroll anyway” type of conclusion.

Threaten the client

There are two methods you can use that scare the heck out of clients, and you should be careful about how you use them. These are hard-ass tactics, where you must be resolute in your position. These can be very effective, but can also damage the project and your reputation. You don’t want your customers spreading negative press about you.

Three factors: schedule, budget, deliverables

I am fond of saying, “Good, fast, cheap: pick any two.” These are more accurately translated into schedule, budget, and the deliverables. Clients make this choice, often unconsciously. If you know that a client cares more about keeping the budget, off-the-wall requests can be easily handled with a “well, that’s going to add another x hours and y dollars.” Or it pushes back the timeline a couple of weeks. Or even make it a choice between one feature and another (which offsets the budget and schedule). These usually shut down scope creep.

Nuclear Option

If all else fails, and you’re at a point where you absolutely refuse to continue down a certain path, you can end the project entirely. I’ve only done this a few times, usually where the client breaks a fundamental rule such as drastically altering the designer’s work. I simply state, very calmly and professionally, that this is a deal-breaker and that our policy is to terminate the project and bill all work to date. Sometimes this needs to be stated in the project contract. But I leave it as a choice: the client can continue as they wish but the gravity of the situation usually causes them to step back and re-evaluate.

As I said, these aren’t easy tactics to use and they can certainly endanger both the project, the relationship, and your reputation.

Don’t worry, be happy

When you’ve got a solid customer relationship, you can make all kinds of mistakes and still be ok. Customers want two things: not to worry, and to be happy. If you’re the expert, can be a benevolent authority, are a thoughtful listener, offer positive viewpoints, and help the client see the light, then you’ll be a hero. The client will rest assured that they’re in good hands and even the most difficult situations will be easily resolved.

And Cray Z. Corporation will tell everyone they know.