The Qualities of a Great Client

Longevity is a matter of context. The average NHL career is merely 5 years.1 The average duration of marriages in Canada remains around 14 years.2 While there might not be statistical data to validate the claim, having a client relationship for 18 years feels like rarefied air.

Since it was established in 2001, the Institute of Competitiveness & Prosperity partnered with H&W on all manner of design communications. An economic think tank focused on issues impacting Ontarians, the Institute undertook rigorous research projects to guide and inform public policy in areas of education, healthcare, taxation and workforce. Being supported by the provincial government, its funding was always under scrutiny come budget time. Word came down in the spring of 2019 that the Institute was to be defunded under a Ford-government cost-cutting measure. Over the course of 18 years, it had amassed more than 60 reports, hundreds of posts and a body of research that established the Institute at the forefront of its field. Reflecting on the years of collaboration, the Institute would easily take its place in our client pantheon – exhibiting the type of business characteristics that align with our own.

When we look at our longest-standing business relationships, some observations of what qualities make an ideal client come to mind.

1. Good clients value what you do. While it seems to be a no-brainer, good clients recognize that you have an expertise that they don’t possess – otherwise they’d do the design work themselves. But it’s more than just the technical craft, it’s the understanding that the designer can contribute in ways that elevate the project and provide perspectives that they don’t have. To them, you’re not just a production “wrist” to crank out something they couldn’t do in Word, but a valuable resource that provides tangible returns on their investment.

2. Good clients have a realistic budget. Speaking of which, good clients understand that the value you bring to a project comes at a price. They will have a pretty clear understanding of the project scope and a budget allocated to match. Often it is better to have a fixed amount and have them ask, “What can you do with this?” rather than give you a wish list for which they have no budget. This isn’t just for design. Clients need to consider all of the required inputs for copy, editing, photoshoots and production. 

3. Good clients participate in the process without disrupting the process. No matter how much we immerse ourselves in client discovery, the client’s insight is critical to guiding the work. They are able to define their needs, and commit the necessary resources to achieve the right outcome. That might be as simple as drafting copy or providing a logo, but more often it involves a clearly defined team with specific roles and deadlines to keep the process moving. These clients have a single point of contact or a small group empowered to manage the project. A lean chain of decision making means that clear milestones are met and there is continuity of purpose. Conversely, design by committee gets bogged down in differing opinions, conflicting directives or worse, watered-down design.

4. Good clients are open-minded. They approach you with a design problem instead of asking you to execute their solution. They value your input and are open to looking at new ideas, even if it challenges their viewpoint. The process should be an exchange of ideas. Good clients also recognize that sound ideas need time to develop, rather than the first thing off the top of your head. 

5. Good clients provide thoughtful feedback. We have discovered that we aren’t very good mind readers. Feedback in the form of “take it to the next level,” or “can you combine the two concepts?” lack specificity, often creating more questions than answers. Good clients take the time to thoroughly consider the work; compile comments and edits from decision-makers; and, provide feedback that informs the solution instead of dictating it.

6. Good clients are pretty easy to work with. When you can relate to clients as people, not just small talk, but genuinely connect, it blurs the line of client and supplier. You can mutually recognize that you have lives outside of work that can sometimes take precedent. Deadlines change, priorities shift. These things are easier to resolve when you’re not dreading calling the other person. These are the types of clients that move on to new opportunities and invite you to partner on those new projects. These are the calls you gladly take.  

When you boil it all down, the best client relationships are built on mutual respect. There is an investment of time to not just understand the business environment, but also in getting know the people you will work with. And that should be reciprocated on the client side. We have a extensive track record of working with all types of clients – big to small, public to private to not-for-profit – and our studio has benefited from the intelligent and collaborative relationships from many different sectors. Across this broad range of work, we have been fortunate to mostly have had good clients and built long-lasting relationships with many. Occasionally, some don’t materialize as you’d like. Not-so-good clients show signs of promise but ultimately become a footnote. Good clients embody most of these qualities. The best ones embrace them all.
 ESPN post of January 30, 2016
2 Source: M.J. O’Nions Lawyer & Mediator, posted November 9, 2018