Nurturing a communicative relationship

Paul Boag

Too many client relationships are like something from a bad romantic comedy. In this post we look at how working with clients is much like dating. Marcus and Paul are the love doctors laying down principles for the perfect relationship.

If you have been following this series, hopefully you can now see a way for you and your client to fall in love with one another (metaphorically of course!)

You have realised their hidden beauty and convinced them that you are the web designer of their dreams. However, like all the worst romantic comedies things can still go horribly wrong.

Like all men, I despise romantic comedies with a burning passion. I hate the inevitable scene when the couple have a big bust up over a misunderstanding. I find myself screaming at the screen, my face red with fury and veins bulging on my temple. Why can’t they just talk to one another? Why can’t they be honest with each other?

Unfortunately these kind of farcical situations often occur between web designer and client too. In this post I want to look at how we can prevent a breakdown in our client relationship by learning to communicate better.

I once saw a tweet from an exasperated well known web designer who shall remain nameless. He wrote:

Client hassling me for constant updates. Does he want me to build him websites or send him email?

Although I can associate with this persons frustration, the reality is that his client justifiably wants both.

In my first post of this series I explained that we do more than build websites, we also offer a service. This means that regular communication is a fundamental part of the job.

Rather than just communicating more because that is what the client wants, lets take a moment to consider why the client is asking for updates.

Why the client wants to be kept informed

Part of our problem is that we feel there is a lack of trust when the client asks for updates. Although there may be an element of truth in this (especially if it’s a new client, who doesn’t yet know us) it is not the only reason.

It is human nature to try to control what we do not understand. With many clients unfamiliar with the web design process, it is unsurprising they feel a need to be constantly updated.

Person looking anxious

Anxious man with questions from Shutterstock

It’s important to remember that for most clients a website is a major investment. They are under considerable pressure to make sure it is delivered on time and in budget. Combined with a lack of control this creates significant anxiety.

Communication combats micromanagement

Anxiety leads to a desire to control. This is where micromanagement comes from.

Many web designers mistake micromanagement as a character trait among clients. I don’t believe that is the case. I believe micromanagement often arises because the client lacks confidence in our ability to deliver.

One way of giving the client the confidence is to establish yourself as the expert (as discussed in the last post). Another is to keep communicating with them. That way you demonstrate you are in control and that progress is being made. This will reduce their anxiety and their desire to micromanage.

Regular communication doesn’t just prevent micromanagement. It also protects your profit margin.

Communication protects profit

Clear and regular communication does two things. First, it avoids misunderstandings and second it prevents surprises. Both of these problems can have an impact on your profit.

Think about why you lose money on a project. It’s either because there is a difference in expectation, or because the client didn’t like what you produced and forced you to start again.

We like to take a brief away and work on a solution. Only once we have finished the work are we happy to reveal it to the client.

Unfortunately this approach dramatically increases the chances that we will either misunderstand the client’s requirements or produce something that the client simply does not like.

How then do we communicate better?

The best way to communicate

As web designers we are comfortable with online communication. We regularly communicate through email, twitter, IM and Facebook.

Despite this we still misunderstand each other which often leads to “flame wars” and other online conflicts. Without tone of voice and body language, communication is difficult even with experienced users.


That is why when it comes to communicating with clients (who are often less experienced in digital communication) we need to make the effort to meet face-to-face or speak over the phone.

That said, it is important to document conversations with clients. Following each phone call or meeting, email the client with the key points. This not only gives you a written record of what was agreed, it also helps flag potential misunderstandings.

Example email to client

Communication is all well and good. However, it has to be honest and built on trust.

Building honesty and trust

For fear of over-stretching the relationship metaphor, just like some marriages, too many of our relationships as web designers suffer from a lack of trust.

This is born from bad experiences suffered by both parties. Clients have often endured web designers who have been less than honest, while web designers have been taken advantage of by previous clients.

One example of this lack of trust is design iterations. Many web designers limit the number of iterations. This is because they have been burnt by clients demanding change after change.

Tweet from web designer talking about endless iterations

However, limiting iterations sets the wrong tone for the relationship. It says you don’t trust the client to be reasonable. If the design process is handled sensitively there is no need for these restrictions.

Another area where trust and honesty can be lacking is in how we handle problems. When we come across a problem we tend to avoid discussing it with our clients.

Although confronting problems can be painful, it is better to bring potential issues to the clients attention when they arise. Better to please a client by overcoming a potential problem you have warned them about than surprising them with a sudden crisis.

This also requires us to be honest with ourselves about potential issues. Often, web designers convince themselves that a project is possible because they want the work. How often have you agreed to an excessively tight timescale or squeezed pricing to fit a budget?

Cartoon of web designer suffering from impending deadline

Our tendency to deceive ourselves ultimately leads to us deceiving our clients and creating conflict and a lack of trust.

We need to have the courage of our convictions and talk honestly with our clients (or prospective clients) about what is possible. This might mean losing work, but sometimes things don’t match up and we should walk away.

Building a client relationship on anything other than honesty and trust will inevitably lead to finger pointing. When things go wrong (which they will) there needs to be a safe environment for discussing the problems without threats or blame. If you are not honest from the outset that is never going to happen.

Not that I am suggesting there can never be disagreements. Part of being honest and trusting each other is that you can have healthy, passionate discussions.

Having healthy disagreements

Often we are afraid to disagree with our clients. However, as I have already said, being willing to challenge is a big part of the job.

A client has hired you for your expertise. They expect you to stop them going down the wrong road and suggest alternative approaches.
How you do this is crucial. I have already talked about the need to avoid confrontation. How then do you have a healthy discussion without it descending into an argument?

Argument over twitter between client and web designer

A big part of a healthy debate is that it requires give and take on both parts. As a result you cannot expect to ‘win’ every disagreement. Sometimes you have to ‘lose a battle to win the war.’

There will be some issues that you feel passionately about and others less so. On the less important issues give ground so that they will know you are serious about the bigger ones.

Finally, when it comes to disagreements, I always give them the “I am the client” card. I make it clear that although I will present my viewpoint they are more than welcome to overrule me.

Client showing a I am the client card

Interestingly this rarely happens. Although the client likes to know that I consider them in control, they are also keen to have me on board and are willing to compromise to make that happen. Once a client views you as an expert they are unwilling to ignore your advice.

This leads to some interesting scenarios where the client is desperate to convince you of their position rather than play the “I am the client” card.
I think it is important to let the client know you recognise their right to do as they please with their own website. The client must feel free to make the final decision.

Next actions

I began this post by flippantly comparing our client /designer relationship to a marriage.

A marriage has moved beyond the flush of first love and is maintained through communication and trust. With that in mind I would encourage you to:

Communicate regularly

Embrace working with clients, rather than working around them. This means recognising that regular engaging communication is as important as coding and design.

Be open and honest

Keep the client informed about any potential problems when they arise and openly discuss differences in opinion about the right approach.

The final part of any good relationship is getting to know your partner. In web design this means understanding your clients business. This is what we are going to look at in the next post in this series.

A transcript of this episode is available here thanks to the guys at Pods In Print