Taking care of your in-house clients

Isometric office illustration (original by Gleb Tagirov)

Today I’m going to be focusing on the relational-end of in-house design. I know some creatives are less than enthusiastic about this part of the job, but without happy "clients," we have no work. "Thanks for stating the obvious," you say? But no matter how large your company, really consider the impact of losing one client, when your client-pool is limited to just your fellow employees.

It happens to all of us. Some personalities just clash too much. And sometimes expectations are too misplaced. But one unhappy voice echoing down office hallways can reverberate farther and longer than a dozen happy ones.

AIGA reminds us... "Inside a large company, it's often easy for client focus to fall by the wayside. Don't let that happen—apply the same diligence and consideration to client service that an outside supplier would."

If you've worked in both the agency and in-house realms, you're probably intimately aware of this attitude change. Agencies are constantly selling to our companies. Every interaction they have with our coworkers/clients is an opportunity for them to win more work. As internal resources, we tend to sit back on our laurels assuming the work is readily ours, but I'm here to break the news: it's not guaranteed.

You may be cheaper and more geographically desirable (you know, the next cube over), but if your attitude stinks and/or your productivity lacks, why wouldn't they use vendors? Outside your office walls, they will be swooned, coddled and dazzled. By the way–in case you didn't already know this–vendors often care very little about following your corporation's rules. What they care about is making their (ahem...your) clients happy.

"Your goal is to become recognized as an important ally and trusted advisor. Ultimately, your involvement should be sought out to the extent that clients wouldn't dream of starting an important project without you."AIGA's "Managing In-house Departments" article

We need to change the paradigm. Let’s make clients who scoff at the thought of paying an outside vendor, because their internal team is just as qualified and more trustworthy.

According to a Harvard study noted in this emotional intelligence clip, customers come back to people they like. When explaining why they return for repeat business, 80% of people said it was about personality, while only 20% said it was skills. You have to have the ability to do the job, but you have to be liked to get the repeat business.

So how do you get clients to demand you for future projects?

Well, you have to start by getting to know them. And funny enough that does not mean the same thing for every person. Not every client wants you to know their kids’ names. Knowing them professionally means knowing how they like to work. It’s actually a shallow view of the person: how they project themselves; how they like to operate and what they expect from you.

For this, I like to employ some training I received years ago on Tracom Corp's Social Styles. Now this is a pretty intense curriculum which I am not qualified to teach. So I’m only going to summarize the top-level stuff you can find for free on their website. If you're hungry for more, check out their purchasable tests and content. It's great!

We’re not looking at an in-depth personality survey, because that’s not what’s important at this stage. We need a simpler barometer.

Social Style is a very, intentionally superficial evaluation of your clients’ behaviors for the goal of better tailoring communication and winning trust.

I ask myself two questions at the beginning of any project with a new client. And depending on the answers, I know how I’m going to proceed with them.

1: Is this client an asker or a teller?

2: Are they controlling their emotions or are they emotive?

The answers to these questions provide four potential results. Your client’s social style is either: Analytical, Driving, Expressive or Amiable.

Social Style quadrant chart

So is your client emotive or controlled? And are they an asker or a teller?

An Analytical client asks for what they want and controls their emotions. They are focused on accuracy and are super detail-oriented.

A Driving client also controls their emotions, but they tell people what they want. They are usually assertive leaders, managing the situation.

Expressive clients tell people what they want, but they are also emotive. So they’re quick to offer opinions/perspectives and often get a thrill out of brainstorming/improvising.

Amiables are the emotive, askers. They’re often considered the most friendly and warm personality, but they avoid confrontation at all cost. So critiques can be very difficult.

Social Style quadrant chart populated

Let’s look at some questions you could ask your client to quickly help you figure out where they stand on this spectrum.

Asker versus Teller

"What is the approval process for this project?"

An asker is not going to want to make this decision without back-up. A teller, on the other hand, will likely be self-assured and eager to get on with it. You might also get a teller who says something like, “Once I think we’re set, I’ll show it to my manager. But I don’t expect her to make a lot of changes.” It’s the tone, the assertiveness you’re looking for.

Ask versus Tell chart

Controlled versus Emotive

"There is some ambiguity here; how would you like me to proceed?"

A controlled-emotions person will not generally care for ambiguity or guessing. They don’t tend to like surprises. Even though they are cool-headed under pressure, they’d rather not get to that point. An emotive person is not generally averse to surprises, and would be more likely to be swept up in the moment. It’s the “I love it, so why wouldn’t everyone else?’ tendency.

Control versus Emotive chart

Need more to work with? Here are some easy questions and ice-breakers that often identify if your client is a controlled or emotive social style.

  • “How are you today?”

  • “You’re from New York? I love the city, especially this time of year…”

  • “You must be very busy with this new launch…”

  • “What is the approval process for this project?”

  • “Do you know the developers that will be building this?”

A controlled person will answer these questions out of obligation, but will probably be brief and ready to move on to business. They most likely won’t have well-developed relationships with team-members that are two-or-more degrees of separation from them. For instance, they might know that a team in Mexico is developing their site, but they probably won’t tell you, “Yes! Miguel is great. I love him.” An emotive person, on the other hand, might get completely off-track telling you about the weather where they are from or even about Miguel’s violin prowess.

And here are some good questions for helping to identify if your client is an asker or a teller.

  • “What are your goals are for this project?”

  • ”Would you tell me a bit about the event?”

  • “What is the status of your content?”

  • “What is the approval process for this?”

  • “Who will be building it?”

Askers often defer to their superiors for final decision making. This sometimes works laterally too. If they don’t feel like an expert in something, they may be the first to bring a large batch of cooks to your kitchen. Askers like to vote democratically. And many times they will answer questions with a question. “What is the approval process for this page?” Might be responded to with, “What is your typical process on other projects?” Or “What has worked well for you in the past?”

A teller, as you might assume, will not be doing any of this. Tellers tend to work more autocratically. They like the role of leader and even if they need to get a second opinion, they often do it one of two ways. Either they spontaneously invite someone to the conversation, ask them for their input and then quickly thank them for their help (thus excusing them from the rest of the discussion). Or they sidebar with their counterparts and get back to you.

Social Style quadrant chart

What to do with this new information?

So, once you derive where your client falls on the spectrum, you can move forward knowing they are either Analytical, Driving, Amiable or Expressive. For what it’s worth, this seems oversimplified because it is. It’s obviously not an exact science, but human interaction never is. This is simply a clue of how to get started building trust with your client by catering to their work preferences.

Below is a breakdown of my lessons learned; best practices I've honed both from the Social Styles training as well as my two decades of working in-house.

Your client is an Analytical...

  1. Be prepared

  • Don’t ask a question until you’ve exhausted your own resources.

  • Don’t come to a meeting without having done all of your due diligence.

  • Study up on your area of expertise.

  1. Ask questions, but give time to respond

  • You will probably need to ask a lot of questions to get all the info you need, but do not expect immediate answers.

  • Give your client time to respond, so they can research and answer confidently.

  • Never corner them for a best guess or gut reaction.

  1. Don’t offer personal anecdotes

  • Unless asked, assume your client doesn’t want to know about how your hockey team did last night or even why you are clearly congested and talking a bit funny.

Your client is a Driver...

  1. Be alert!

  • These clients tend to appreciate efficiency and productivity. So be on your game.

  • Do not make them repeat themselves.

  1. Be articulate

  • Speak your mind, but do it clearly and concisely. Get to your point quickly.

  • Do not talk over their heads or ambiguously. If you’re trying to explain something complicated or technical, simplify it as much as possible and then offer to follow up with a more detailed email (for example).

  1. Don’t guess. Know.

  • Even if you actually don’t know something, be proactive about it. “I’m not certain about that, but I know who I can ask. I’ll have an answer to you before lunch.”

Your client is an Expressive...

  1. Have thick skin

  • These clients tend to love to debate. It’s not confrontation. It’s fun.

  • They will give you their opinions and they expect you to share yours as well. Again, it’s almost never derogatory (in their minds).

  1. Be passionate

  • These clients usually love their work and they appreciate others who do as well.

  • Your enthusiasm, vigor, even assertiveness will be viewed as merits.

  1. Speak up and keep up

  • These clients like to brainstorm and improvise. If you aren’t part of the game, your opinion will be disregarded.

  • They will also monopolize the microphone. So many times if you don’t force your way to the podium, you will not be heard.

Your client is an Amiable...

  1. Be friendly

  • Always start the conversation with a personal check-in. “How are you doing? Is your daughter enjoying her Mandarin lessons?”

  • Offer personal anecdotes when appropriate.

  1. Listen carefully

  • Trust is key with Amiable clients. They want to know you heard them and that you care.

  • Give them a chance to speak. They’re likely not going to demand it.

  • Be careful not to overstate your opinions, because they may “resign and resent.”

  1. Prepare to crowdsource

  • Amiable clients typically don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so they will get everyone’s vote. They will also likely want ALL of their managers to be happy as well.

There is a lot to absorb here, but the real key is: pay attention to your clients–how they communicate, how they operate–and simple shifts to your workflow and interactions will encourage them to trust you even more. Don't let your skills be outweighed by the charm of another designer or agency.

And if you'd like to hear more about what to do when things go awry anyway, please read Part II.

Thanks and happy creating!

#Design #Clients #Inhouse #Customersatisfaction #SocialStyles

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