Are You Excluding Your Client? It’s Time to Stop!

Paul Boag

There is a worrying trend among agencies, freelancers and even internal digital teams towards minimising the involvement of clients and stakeholders.

Whatever our job, we all like to moan about clients and colleagues. Sometimes I think that is all we use our internal messaging apps for! They are certainly not the kind of place most want to include the client. However, that is a mistake.

Although I can understand the desire to have a good moan sometimes, it sets a dangerous precedent. It establishes an “us-vs-them” culture, which is damaging to the project, the client relationship and your reputation as a team.

However, worst of all, it leads to actively limiting the client’s involvement in a project. A behaviour that has become extremely prevalent with dangerous consequences.

7 Reasons You Shouldn’t Shouldn’t Exclude Clients From Your Projects

It seems to have become commonplace to exclude clients and stakeholders as much as possible from the design process in particular. The logic is that designers are the experts and so they should be the ones making decisions about design.

Although it is right to say that the designer is the expert, they cannot produce a good design in a vacuum.

It Results in Inferior Deliverables

Limiting the client’s involvement will damage the quality of both the design and the entire project.

It is important to remember that the client has a deep understanding of their offering and customers. To ignore that depth of insight will have a detrimental impact on the final deliverable.

Also, it is arrogant to claim that only designers have excellent design ideas. Yes, designers will have a higher success rate, but that doesn’t mean that a client cannot contribute. They just need a structure to lead them to better solutions.

It Reduces the Chances the Digital Service Will Succeed

I have already said that not involving the client can undermine the final deliverable. However, that is not the only reason that their exclusion reduces the chance of the digital service succeeding.

If the client wasn’t involved in creating the digital service, they aren’t as invested in it. Neither do they understand why you have created it in the way you have? That means they are not adequately prepared to run and evolve that digital service over time.

Ultimately the client is the one who has to live with a digital service over the long term. That means for it to succeed, they have to like it.

It Leaves You Dealing With Ignorant Clients

We complain that clients are ignorant, and yet we do little to educate them. By excluding them from the process, we give them no opportunity to learn and understand why we have done things the way we have.

You may argue they should trust you. However, that doesn’t help clients be prepared to run their digital service once you step back.

The Client Is More Likely to Reject the Deliverables

It is important to stress that involving the client in the process of creating a digital service isn’t just of benefit to them. It will make your life easier too.

If a client isn’t involved in the creation of a digital service and in particular the design, they have no sense of ownership over it. That means they feel free to criticise it.

However, if you involve them, then they feel they were responsible in part for creating it. That means clients are much less likely to reject it, as they think, at least to some extent, it was their creation.

The Client Is Less Likely to Defend the Deliverables

Of course, your client is often not the only person involved in approving your deliverables. However, if you succeed in selling a client on the approach, they will become its champion internally. They will understand it enough to be able to make a strong case.

What is more, if they feel they were involved in its creation, the client will feel like they are defending their idea.

It Is Less Likely to Lead to Repeat Work

Now if you work in-house, this probably won’t apply to you, but for agencies and freelancers, this is a huge deal. By minimising the client’s involvement in projects, you miss an opportunity to start the client thinking about future stages and the ongoing evolution of their site.

Also, working collaboratively in this way strengthens the relationship that makes it more likely the client will continue to work with you in future.

It Destroys the Working Relationship With Your Client

Unfortunately, all too often, excluding the client leaves them frustrated and ignored. That sours the relationship as the project becomes a tug of war with each side trying to control it.

However, hopefully, you can now see that involving the client more can have some desirable benefits. Unfortunately, doing so in the right way, is not always obvious.

How to Include Your Clients in Projects Safely

We have all experienced the pain of a client interfering in a project because we lacked a framework for managing them. We have seen micro-management, swoop and poop managers and endless iterations. However, it is possible to involve them without that happening.

I have found that doing four things ensures that involving clients provides only benefits, and we can avoid the pitfalls.

Treat Clients Like a Member of the Team

Client’s shouldn’t feel like second class citizens in their projects. That means they should have access to development servers, internal communications and documentation, like any other member of the team.

Add them to your internal messaging tools. Yes, I know that is where you like to moan about your client. You probably also use it to discuss other confidential subjects. However, a tool like Rivers IM, allows you to add clients, without giving them access to every topic.

River IM feature set
A tool like Rivers IM allows you to control what your clients see.

However, don’t stop at electronic communication. If you do daily stand-ups or have other meetings, allow the client to join via video conferencing tools like Skype or Zoom.

Not all clients will want this level of engagement, but at least by offering it you are making it clear you value them and their contributions.

That said if you can get them involved you should. Don’t hide your ‘workings” from the client because that is where they learn.

That is especially true for design. Too often, we only show the client an interface once we have finished it. However, as this design will almost certainly not meet their expectations (unless you are a mind reader), it will be a shock. People rarely respond well to that.

It is much better to gradually introduce the client to the design by showing them work as you go along.

Define the Clients Role From the Start

If you are going to involve the client as a member of the team, they need a role. That is helpful to focus them and stop them wandering too much into other people’s areas of responsibility.

I tend to focus clients on representing the business needs and the user’s perspective. They usually are better at the former than the latter. However, getting them to think about the user is always a good thing.

The other thing I do is focus them on identifying problems, rather than solutions.

Clients have a habit of asking us to implement solutions that they have created. Things like change the blue to pink.

However, that fails to make full use of our skills. We don’t know why we need to change it. By asking them to express the underlying problem that makes them think that the colour blue requires changing, then you can suggest alternative solutions.

For example, they might want to change the blue to pink because they worry their pre-teen girl audience might not like a corporate blue. If that is the case, the designer may agree it needs changing. However, they might suggest addressing the problem in another way, such as adding more unicorns (sorry I don’t know what pre-teen girls like).

Educate the Client at Every Opportunity

It is important to stress that although our role as digital professionals is to deliver a digital service, to do that effectively, we also need to educate the client along the way.

Clients are experts at what they do, but they often have things to learn about managing digital services. That means to understand our decisions and to run their services effectively; we will need to educate them.

I do this at every opportunity throughout a project lifecycle. I will regularly run workshop exercises that are not just designed to define the project, but also to introduce stakeholders to critical design principles.

However, I also educate at other times too. I often send my clients little videos of me talking through decisions I have made or approaches I have adopted.

Heck, even my proposals are as much about educating the client as selling my services.

Ask for Structured Feedback

The time when things often go wrong is when we ask stakeholders for feedback. That is because we don’t define the kind of feedback we want. We send emails asking the client ‘what they think’ or ”do you need anything changing”.

This kind of open-ended, vague request for feedback leads clients to start expressing their personal opinions, rather than making informed comments based on evidence.

Instead, ask questions that encouraged more considered, structured feedback. Questions such as:

  • Does this approach meet the business objectives agreed at the beginning of the project?
  • Does this approach meet the needs of users as defined at the start of the project?
  • Is this approach in line with previous decisions we made?

That focuses the client on the right thing. What is more, if they can answer yes to the above questions, then they have little grounds to reject your approach.

Overcome the Bad Experiences

I know we have all had bad experiences with clients. However, excluding them based on these experiences only makes matters worse.

I am not saying we should ignore past experiences. I am saying we should prevent history from repeating itself, not from excluding the client, but rather including them.

If we continue to push clients out, we replace one set of problems with another.

About Our Sponsor: River IM

Rivers IM is the next generation of messaging for digital teams. It makes adding your clients to the conversation easy, while still giving you granular control over what they see. You can bring your whole team together in minutes and start building a better relationship with your clients.

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