In most parts of the United States, where I am from, we have officially hit the Spring season. Trees are beginning to sprout leaves, birds are nesting, flowers are blooming, and little by little, people are coming out of their homes and shaking off that feeling of hibernation that winter always seems to bring. But this isn’t just true with my neighbors. It seems that Spring also brings clients out of hiding. Suddenly, it’s projects that are blooming just as much as the flowers, and ideas are being sprouted everywhere.
Now, clients are in a good mood and excited about the start of new life just as much in their business as they are about seeing it in their gardens. And it’s about this time that designers everywhere, long starved from their hibernating clients, go into overdrive accepting any and every project that comes their way. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to encounter the blunders that happen with over-commitment.
Maybe you mixed up one client’s information with another’s. Maybe you missed a step because of a looming deadline. Or maybe, something got lost in the communication. Whatever the reason, you now have a confused or worse, unhappy, client email staring at you in your Inbox. When I was a little kid I was taught three simple steps of what to do in an emergency, for example, a fire. If there ever was a fire at your school or in your home you were taught to Stop, then Look, and then Listen.
Stop meant to stop any frantic movements or panic and still yourself and your mind so that you don’t accidentally hurt yourself or someone else. Look meant to look around you for any information that might help you figure out the situation – chances are there was always going to be an escape route somewhere. Then, listen for instructions from the person that is in charge. It may seem pretty basic, but these simple steps have been proven to ultimately save lives.
Now that I am an adult, I have found that these steps help me with my client emergencies and ultimately, save any projects that seem to be going down in flames. Should an unhappy client show up in my Inbox then I just Stop, Look, and Listen.
Step #1: Stop
It’s no doubt that an unhappy client can put you into instant panic mode. You can’t help it. It’s like a knee-jerk reflex reaction. It happens to all of us. You see or hear the complaint and your immediate thought is “OH NO!” and the human response of Fight or Flight will start to take over. You either want to write them back right away so that you can try to calm them with information and apologies, or you want to fight them with reasons as to why you’re not really the screw up that they think you are.
I’m here to tell you that either one of these ideas, is a bad move. Keep in mind that it’s not just your emotions that are running high, but so are your client’s. It’s at that exact moment of first reading that email that you should STOP even if it’s just for a moment or two.
Don’t respond, don’t act, just stop, breathe, and clam your mind so that you don’t accidentally hurt your chances of saving the project. In the heat of reaction we can often end up making the situation worse rather than better.
No client wants to get the impression that the person they hired is out of control. They want to know that you are calm, cool, and collected at all times. By taking the time to stop before responding, you are less likely to get burned by the project that seems to be bursting into flames.
Step #2: Look
Have you ever heard the expression “check yourself before you wreck yourself“? There is a reason it exists. But not stopping to check things out we can end up making mistakes, sometimes minor ones, but sometimes really major ones. And if you are a person, like me, that relies on happy clients to pay bills, then major mistakes can do major damage.
If a client is coming to you unhappy, there is most likely a good reason for it. Now is the time to take a good hard LOOK at the project and where it stands. Go over any project briefs, conversations, questionnaires, sketches, emails – or anything that you can find that is related to your client and the project. Look at everything you have from start to finish.
Backtrack if you have to, but gather as much information as you can that might help you to figure out where the project went wrong. Ask yourself, when is it that the project caught fire and what is the kindling that lead to the fire?
If we take the time to look at our surroundings, we can decide if we have the tools that we need to put out the fire or we can find an escape route. Oh, and by the way, if you decide to go with the escape route, meaning to end the project, make sure that your client isn’t left alone with their flaming project.
When there is an actual fire, we call the Fire Department to help us put it out. When there is a client fire – there is no shame in calling for reinforcements then either. If you need someone to help, just ask for it. There are designers everywhere that are willing to help.
Step #3: Listen
How much time do you spend actually listening to your client? Do you get the basics of what you think you need and then run off to your homemade office cave only to resurface when you believe all of the work is done? Or do you spend time getting to know the project details but not the person or people behind the project? A designer’s most important job, next to production, is to LISTEN.
A lot of times, clients won’t say things to you because they aren’t sure that the information they have is important. Instead, they will brood about the information in their heads and then throw it out to you in quips or one liners that you are likely to miss or misread. It’s your job to be so in tune with listening to your client so that you actually pick up on those quips and start asking questions.
The more time you take to really listen to your client, you can save yourself from countless wasted hours of work, as well as arguments. Learn to read between the lines of emails. It’s your client and no one else that has the information that you need to make the project go smoothly. Let them guide you and let them be in charge, even if deep down, you know it’s the other way around.
There you have it. Stop. Look. Listen. Three simple steps for keeping your clients happy and from keeping your projects from bursting into flames. Remember, just because Mother Nature is turning up the heat, doesn’t mean that you should be.