Why Agency-Client Communication Is Broken And How You Can Fix It.
By Ezequiel Bruni
Mar 21, 2016
Sometimes projects just disappear. It almost seems like there’s no reason for it because there’s no warning. It just happens, leaving you to wonder, “Wait, what actually happened, here?”
One minute, everything seems to be going fine. The client acknowledges every progress report and signs off on every step of the process. They tell you that the rest of the copy you need is coming. It’s all going great, right up until the moment they disappear.
Or maybe it’s the other way around. Every step of the process has been a struggle, at least once you actually started to work. Things seemed alright at first, but now, they just got back to you really late, for the 10th time that day, asking why you haven’t changed all the body text to 12px Times New Roman.
But when they first asked, you explained why your way was better. You made it clear to them; and they seemed to agree. So, why are they asking again? It doesn’t matter now, though. You just got a message the next morning telling you that, “they found another solution,” and don’t need you anymore. They’re gone.
Any veteran designer or agency has a hundred of these stories. Some designers are natural-born communicators. Others are not, but have gotten better over time. Still others are left wondering why this seems to happen over and over again.
Agencies and clients alike can get screwed out of a project (and money) this way and it really comes down to one simple factor: communication. But then, we all know that, right? Of course communication is key. We all know it’s key. But what does that mean, practically? Where do these miscommunication issues come from? How do we fix them?
Well, I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but maybe this article will help you identify some trouble spots on your own and guide you toward developing a solution tailored to your agency.
The Trouble Often Starts From Day One:
Listening to your gut isn’t new wave advice. Communication issues are most likely to arise right at the start of a project, even if you don’t notice them, or realize it until it’s too late. But then, they can arise at any point in the process. Here, we’ll go through all of the major steps and highlight the most common issues regarding communication in the design process.
While every agency’s design process is different, the individual steps can be loosely categorized like this:
This is the first step in getting to know your client, them getting to know you and everyone just trying to figure out what they want. It’s the part where you do your research, look at the competition, find out what your target audience is and how best to target them.
It’s also the part where the client might point at a competitor’s site and say, “Do it like that!”
Communication issues might arise when either the client, the agency, or both, start to plan out the website before they have all of the information. These plans are often based on half-formed assumptions, vanity metrics and are sure to be torn apart by reality in the not-too-distant future.
Well, this is the part where you’re supposed to do the planning. In an ideal world, this is when you and the client work together to define exactly what you’re going to deliver, and when, and how they’ll benefit from it.
More realistically, this is often the stage when you and the client realize that you barely speak the same language. Oh, the words sound the same, more or less. But each word in the language often comes with its own host of connotations, past experiences, embedded emotions and abundant range of interpretations.
The fun part! Right? You sketch out ideas and discuss them with your colleagues and the client. You take those embryonic sketches, incubate them in your gray matter and bring them to life with mockups, or better yet, prototypes. You get to watch as mere thoughts are transformed into real-world products.
Or… you mentally beg for mercy while your client asks for that bigger logo. Your team has trouble keeping track of where the project is and where it’s supposed to be. Also, who’s supposed to be doing what? Did we set up that Kanban system yet?
Right about now, you really need a coffee.
You stand back in awe as your developers take these visual concepts that your designers have produced and turn them into functional sites and apps. Their fingers fly, and you begin to recognize the shape in the browser window. That’s just too cool.
But sometimes, the developers don’t really understand what the designers intended (which most likely arose from a misinterpretation due to vague or unrealistic expectations). Oh, that element was supposed to be a repeating pattern? Oh, so this wasn’t supposed to be a background image…
All done! You’ve gotten your final payment and the site’s going live. The customer is happy.
Or they aren’t, and your pay looks like it might not show up…
To some, these might sound like newbie problems. If so, congratulations! You’re an extra-functional human being running a flawless design operation and we bow before your agency’s superior organizational/communication skills. For the rest of us, it can take a while to recognize the mistakes that were made and put processes in place to correct them.
Fixing The Communication Breakdown.
Well, that last section actually brings up two broad categories of communication: internal and external. Now, you need the same basic communication skills for both of them. I’m talking about the basics here, like:
Getting out of your inbox and jumping on the phone
Willingness to give the benefit of the doubt
The ability to save any name-calling and tit-for-tat behavior for when the job is done
Obviously, these things are necessary. You’ll have to go further than that, though.
Internal Communication: Getting Everyone on the Same Page and Streamlining the Process.
This doesn’t necessarily mean meetings. Meetings are just one tool for getting things organized. If held too often, they can do more harm than good, especially in regards to morale.
Sure, have one at the beginning of a project. Establish who the project lead is (if there’s more than one person who can perform this function or multiple departments), what everyone’s primary goals are and who to contact in case of emergency.
After that, most things can be handled by software. There is a wealth of project management software to choose from, as well as team chatrooms, project-oriented message boards and more. Give people a place to keep their work-oriented information. Keep that information updated.
Small teams might not think they need this sort of system. I can tell you from personal experience, however, that this is not the case. Even in two-person teams, I’ve often sent someone scrambling (or been sent scrambling myself) to find information that might have come in that one e-mail a week ago… and yeah, that’s a little embarrassing every time.
To further streamline this internal process, you may consider using web-based visual design software. On a simple project that may not actually need a developer, you could use code-free design software and have the designers build the site directly and present a fully-functional responsive version to your clients. Not only will this eliminate chances for misinterpretation and for aspects of the design to be lost in translation, it also saves on precious time and cost-to-development. If the project is more complex, consider presenting your designs as interactive prototypes with a service like InvisionApp.
The point is, that giving your clients a real-time demonstration, or, at least, a convincing approximation, of how the whole thing works can drastically improve communication. It can do the same for your team, simplifying the process through a smart deployment of technology, it will give your team a clearer way to present each junction to the next person to touch the project.
External Communication: Being Upfront and Staying One Step Ahead.
Evaluate Client Interactions.
First of all, some clients are just bad clients. Starting out, you might think, “Any client with money and a willingness to give me some of it is a good client.” You’re wrong. Some clients refuse to give up old ways of doing things. Others have an inflated idea of what you “owe them” just because they gave you money. Still others are just flaky and prone to disappearing in general.
And then, there are the clients who aren’t bad, just not right for you. There might be personality clashes, unresolvable cultural differences; or maybe they’re experiencing some difficulties and now’s not actually the right time for them to launch into a new project... but they don’t know that yet.
Heck, maybe they just want something you can’t actually deliver, or that you don’t specialize in.
It’s advisable to hold a get-to-know-you meeting with every client. If you, personally cannot do that, it might be a good idea to bring someone in that specializes in discovery. Assess their goals, their behavior, your compatibility and make a decision about whether you want them as clients or not. Yes, you have the ability to just say thanks but no thanks. Figure out whether they understand what you mean when you say things like “design phase”, “page header”, or “wireframe.”
I suggest reading this article about assessing a client’s fit; it’s a good place to start.
Create a Communication Plan.
If you don’t, you’re more likely to be hounded by your client over the phone, or by email. This is how people end up with endless requests for revisions and “one last thing.”
You should establish with your client how you’ll communicate. How many update emails will you be sending (if any)? What other ways will you be using to communicate with them, like chat or video conferences and if they feel comfortable with those mediums? Will they have limited access to your project management software? Do they feel confident using new systems of communication?
Then there’s the timeline: How long are you going to spend in the planning phase? At what point will they be expected to make decisions. When would you like to get sign-off on the design and get cracking on the development? Once a time frame has elapsed, you might want to enact a clause that after a specific numb the project will be put on hold subject to a reactivation fee.
Review and Revisions.
Here’s another important question: How can they see what’s been accomplished and leave feedback? Using some web-based design or prototyping software is a good start. Make sure you have a way for them to comment on specific parts of a design and a way to always see the latest iteration.
You might want to go over the changes with them because the less visually-oriented clients can sometimes have trouble telling what, if anything, has actually been changed. An alternative would be to do this through software such as Trackduck, which enables a visual solution to revisions and comments.
Whatever you do, though, have it planned out and agreed upon beforehand.
Eliminating white noise and getting to a point where clients' projects are aligned in terms of internal development and external expectations is something that will not only aid your work life but also your attitude towards the profession of website development.
Thankfully, in no small part due to technological innovation, there is a host of solutions that you can implement at any time. It’s simply about taking that first step.
Ditch Your Inbox.
The time you spend organizing yourself now is the time that you don’t have to spend looking back through e-mails later. Time spent on client communications is money. Don’t fall into the trap of unwieldy email threads and excused of missed email.
Here are a few helpful solutions to streamline your agency’s internal and external communications:
Stop Reacting, Start Managing.
If you feel that you are always one step behind when it comes to coordinating and tracking client projects, project management software is the way to go. While the monthly cost may be a detractor, it’s a small price to pay to regain your sanity and stay on top of your business. Take a look at this article on agencies' top pains for resources to get project management under control.
After getting acclimated to this type of software, you’ll realize additional benefits such as:
- Easily tracking internal and external goals
- A more organized system of content delivery and sharing
- Swift onboarding of new clients
- Standardized and predictable project workflow
- A simplified revision process
Oh, and if you’ve ever gotten to into a situation where you are left with approved mockups, half a website and 60 billable hours and a client is simply refusing to pay or falls off the face of the earth, take a look at this free eBook, by fellow designers and pricing experts over at the NuSchool, Pay Me Or Else!
These solutions may seem like they are simply adding to the equation of agency work, but they’re not. Look hard at the weaker points in your team’s workflow and try to identify if those resonate with any of the above points. If so, it’s time to sit down and assess what will help you break out of this cycle.
Forging New Patterns Of Communication.
Communication is hard. For web design agencies, it always seems to be one of the least obvious yet most egregious challenges. It’s something that affects both your company and your relationships with clients.
However, there are processes that you can put in place to make it easier, many of which you can implement by simply listening, clarifying and being courteous enough to go that extra mile and give your co-worker or client the benefit of the doubt. There are also quite a few tools out there to streamline your entire process, internally and externally. You’d do well to take advantage of these aids and integrate them into your agency and practices.
Just remember, that nothing beats having someone from your agency dedicated to sitting down with clients talking things out, creating a plan and sticking to it.
How does your agency or team communicate with each other? How are you managing client communication? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Ezequiel Bruni is a UX designer, writer and aspiring photographer living in Mexico. When he's not up to his finely-chiseled ears in wire-frames or front-end code, he makes mouth-watering tacos. Give him a should out on Twitter @ezequielbruni.
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