Client pushback is an inevitable part of the design process.
As designers (many of whom, nowadays, also consider ourselves entrepreneurs), we think we know our client’s business needs better than they do and, sometimes, that’s absolutely true. When it is, it’s our job to explain why our design approach will produce more success—and ultimately more money—for their business.
Often, though, in order to do that, we have to deal with a few fairly predictable kinds of pushback from the client, or stakeholder in the project, as well. Here are three examples of the kinds of pushback you can expect, and a few thoughts on how to stay in control of the design process when it gets tense.
This kind of pushback tends to go one of two ways. Once you turn in a design comp (hopefully on deadline), the client either:
- Wants to get you feedback “when they’re ready” — which means you’ll get it in an unspecified amount of time, and ultimately end up delaying the project; or
- They get you feedback within an hour of you having turned in the design, and expect you to turn around their changes just as quickly.
Of course neither approach is good business.
To respond to a client that’s not getting you feedback quick enough, tell them you have other projects to focus on (I’m sure you always have other projects you could be working on), and if they delay their feedback it will delay your response to their feedback. Give them a deadline to get you feedback. Be nice about it, but tell them you need their thoughts in 24 hours, or you’ll be forced to move on and focus on another project for a couple of days, thus delaying their final deadline.
To respond to a client that’s turned in their feedback within minutes of you turning in your comp and demanding the changes just as quickly, do the opposite: Tell them the changes are going to take a bit of time, but make sure to give them an exact time as to when they should expect another comp. “By 2pm tomorrow,” for example. A specific time is always reassuring to a client that wants their design finished “yesterday.”
Just make sure you keep your word and turn something in by 2pm.
Sometimes a freelance designer or firm is hired by a company to develop creative ideas alongside their internal design team.
In doing so, the client often (unwittingly) ends up pitting the external agency against their own internal team, as the client’s design team feels slighted by their decision to hire an agency instead of trusting them with the project. Believe me, I’ve been on both ends of this equation.
When this happens, it’s likely that the internal team is going to push back hard against any of your work because their egos within the company are on the line. After all, once you finish the job you don’t have to talk to anybody at the company ever again if you don’t want to. The internal team has to deal with those people every day, so it’s understandable that they’d want to maintain their standing as the company’s authority on “good design.”
That said, your job as a designer or firm coming in from the outside is to give them a new perspective—to offer a new take on their brand—which can be hard to do if you’re pushing back against the company’s design watchdogs (and their egos).
So how does one deal with this? Easy: Approach the project as a collaboration.
Make sure the internal design team knows you respect them. Involve them in your process. Show them un-finished comps before you send something formal to the project manager. The last thing you want is to bypass the internal design team during the process, only to have them be your biggest enemy around the conference table.
Of course, this scenario doesn’t only play out between internal and external design teams. Whether it’s the project manager, the assistant, or even the CEO, it’s almost guaranteed there will be someone on the client side who has a hard time trusting you. Once you identify that person, make sure to keep them closely involved with the project, and listen to their critique even if you do nothing with it.
Most of the time, people with a lot to say just want to be heard and do their job; nothing more.
Give that to them, and check your own ego at the door.
For most clients, the primary form of pushback you’ll receive will relate to the budget. They want something done well and they want it done cheap, so they keep pushing to get more work out of you.
The most common way I’ve seen this happen is for the client to request new functionality—or to add pages to a brochure, or request more comps because they’re not happy with the current direction—within their feedback. It’s sneaky, but it forces extra work out of designers who are unaware that it’s happening by getting them to agree to work that wasn’t originally within the project’s budget. So you do extra work, they get more work, and you end up getting less money than you deserve.
It’s a raw deal.
So keep tabs on your hours, and keep tabs on what was included in the project’s original scope of work. This means you should make sure to contract out the job in detail before you start working to make sure your responsibilities are clear.
Added functionality means more time, which means the client will need to increase their budget. It’s that simple.
In addition, never forget that commercial graphic design is a business tool, one that—if done right—should make your clients money. We all know the value that good design brings to businesses. It makes their product or service more desirable, which helps them sell more.
Make sure you position your skills as an investment for your client, rather than simply as a necessity.
These are the most common forms of pushback that I’ve seen. What have you experienced, and how do you deal with it?