Who are you?
When someone promises to do great work for you, you want to know who that person is. But to clients, a UX team is often completely anonymous.
Successful UX work for clients depends on two things:
- Understanding: You have to be able to engage with the client1-on-1, to truly understand their needs.
- Trust: Clients have to feel that they can trust you, and rely on you to do great work for them.
For UX to truly understand the client, you can’t rely solely on second- or third-hand information. You have to ask questions, and allow the client to explain things to you. Many times, solutions are defined in direct conversations with clients, and vice versa: mistakes often occur through misunderstandings due to a lack of communication.
For the client to trust you, they have to know who you are, get a sense that you understand them, and be able to interact with you directly in order to feel confident that you know what you’re doing. There is little reason for a client to trust the UX abilities of an agency based only on interactions with Account- or Project Management.
The UX Engagement – opening or closing?
When you can demonstrate that you understand the client’s needs, it expands the client engagement.
When the client feels you don’t understand them, it reduces their trust in you, and the engagement starts to shrink.
When the engagement is wide, you have a productive, direct and collaborative relationship that fosters more trust, and yields stronger results, possibly leading to more business opportunities.
When the engagement is narrow, the communication suffers and more mistakes are made, causing more distrust, which puts the entire client relationship at risk, possibly leading to a loss of business.
How can you improve?
If you are noticing signs that the client engagement is shrinking, you need to act quickly and decisively, analyze you we think this is happening, and take action to improve the situation.
Here are some suggestions:
POSSIBLE CAUSE: Your work is inadequate. Depending on the amount of disagreement you’re getting from a client, you have to consider the possibility that the work you’re producing is simply not good enough. If this is indeed the case, you need to be honest about that, and talk about what can be done to get better. If you never talk about it, you cannot improve!
SOLUTION: Reassign people internally to optimize your staffing on the account, and note where you need to improve through future hires. You can also consider bringing in contractors if you have enough lead time, and can identify specifically which skillsets are lacking. However, it should be understood that there is often an inertia inherent in this approach, if there are financial barriers to hiring, and/or a lack of visibility into upcoming projects. Also, UX resources are very much in demand at the moment, so securing premium talent can be very costly.
What UX can do: Engage with you to identify the competences that are missing (or lacking), and determine whether reassignment or hiring would be the most appropriate action.
POSSIBLE CAUSE: You fail to ”sell” the client on your solutions. You may not be engaging with the client in a sufficiently convincing manner when you are presenting, and in trying to explain why you have chosen a certain solution.
SOLUTION: Agencies often tend to either send over deliverables via email, or present via screen-share and conference phone. This is far from ideal when you need to win the client over for a specific solution. Where you need to assert confidence, instill trust and convey enthusiasm about what you have to present, you should be there in person. If you can’t be, then you need to at least ensure that our presentations are solid, and not rushed through in 30-minute phone calls (which is the industry rule rather than the exception).
What UX can do: Help you develop a convincing presentation, and present to the client.
POSSIBLE CAUSE: You fail to properly explain the solutions you’re proposing. It is possible that you are devoting an insufficient amount of attention to explaining how you intend for your solutions to work. (Also, see #4 below)
SOLUTION: (see #4 below)
What UX can do: Help you produce write-ups that document our proposals better, and supply visual presentation materials to better clarify the solution. We can also assist you in presenting directly to the client as needed.
POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client simply does not understand. It is also possible that the client, due to issues on their own side, simply cannot relate to what you’re trying to present. This could be a lack of prior experience with these solutions, or a lack of focus on what you’re trying to solve for, or possibly a lack of buy-in.
SOLUTION: You may need to educate the client better on what you’re doing. For specific purposes, where you need the client’s buy-in on a more complicated solution, you may need to prototype functionality, or provide the client with a reference URL to a similar solution. At the very least, you need to have a solid write-up of how you intend for the solution to work, and Account would be well within their rights to request that UX produce such a write-up. It is a mistake for Account to undertake this task themselves, not just because UX is better suited for it, but because UX’s absence in the rationalization of our solutions may actually make the client extra skeptical (see #5 below).
What UX can do: Produce more detailed write-ups. Research similar solutions and supply more background materials, to make the solution clearer, and put your recommendations in context.
POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client does not trust you as subject matter experts. The client may compare you unfavorably to other agencies they have worked with, or they may simply be untrusting: their internal dynamics may cause them to not want to trust external partners in general.
SOLUTION: First of all, you need to continuously iterate how well your programs are performing, if there is no reason to suspect that your UX solutions are leaving a lot of conversions on the table. Second, you need to affirm that you see your role as being strategic, and consultative: it is your job to offer recommendations. In particular, to ensure that the client doesn’t feel like you’re just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, you should strive to support our solutions with reference examples from other projects, and also share insights outside of the cadence of regular projects. It is also important to leverage the expertise you have in-house when you present. The person who develops a solution is usually the best one to present it, or at least speak to it. An “outsider” cannot always adequately speak to the rationale behind a solution, or imbue the presentation with the same belief in the solution as one who actually worked on it. Building respect for your abilities with the client has to start with internally respecting the professionals behind those abilities.
What UX can do: Help connect the dots between the goals and the results, and remove some of the subjectivity.
POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client likes to micromanage their agencies. Not all clients are collaborative by nature, and some may simply feel more comfortable directing what you’re doing to a greater extent than other clients. This is not necessarily a problem, if the required direction actually materializes, and is clear and intelligible. If it’s not, you’re basically stuck with a client who knows what they want, but is not very good at articulating what that is, which may cause you to go back and forth an excessive number of times to get things right.
SOLUTION: This requires some coaching, to get the client to commit to what it is they want – preferably in writing, by requiring more formalized creative briefs, but also by requiring consolidated feedback, in a pre-defined number of rounds (see #7 below).
What UX can do: Provide tools and deliverables with which to manage the review and approval processes, and ensure the fidelity in what is presented in the early stages, so that it is also reflected in what is delivered (example: prototypes). For this reason, I recommend not relying on mock-ups, since they will inevitably be less accurate and cause discrepancies which may further cause doubt and uncertainty.
POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client changes their minds a lot. It is possible that the client is not thinking through their responses prior to delivering them, or that they are not all on the same page, or that they simply have a hard time making consistent decisions, for whatever reason.
SOLUTION: This problem requires a more formalized approach to reviews, possibly using formal approval documents that require the client’s signature, and you also need to express clearly how many times the client is allowed to ask for edits, and what the costs are for edits that go beyond that limit. If there are no costs, or if those costs are not clearly communicated, the client is not properly incentivized to keep rounds of revisions down, and may continue to revise indefinitely.
What UX can do: Provide more structure in how you manage feedback and rounds of revisions, with the aid of a task management and issue tracking system. Push back when feedback is incomplete or inconsistent, and point out where you need more details, or have questions.
POSSIBLE CAUSE: You don’t always present to the right people. In many cases, clients may bring in other people to weigh in on what you have presented after the fact. Such is usually the case with client brand- or compliance teams, for instance. In other cases, you may only get to present to a few of the people who should have been present for the presentation.
SOLUTION: You should be more deliberate about who you need to present to, and not allow presentations to happen when there are notable absentees on the client’s side. You have to be able to hold them accountable for feedback when you, in return, are spending time producing things to review. You’re well within your rights to ask that presentations be rescheduled when the right people can’t be present. You also need to ask that you be allowed to interface directly with brand- or compliance teams, because they often get to have a disproportionate say over what goes on, especially when they’re involved by proxy. These are people with a mandate to demand changes if things are not aligned with their standards, but they are also the very people who can assent to a compromises when that is appropriate.
What UX can do: Engage with client brand and marketing teams to ensure you’re speaking the same language.
How can UX help?
UX teams typically have a broad menu of services and activities that can be used to address many of the challenges you might face with a client. It is for you to inform yourself of and review those activities, and decide which initiatives would be beneficial to the relationship with the client, both in a strategic and in a tactical perspective.
What can you do?
As an Account Manager, build bridges – don’t create silos. Partner with UX and project management, to engage in a more open dialogue, and facilitate a mutual exchange of understanding and trust. Don’t restrict client access. Champion your internal capabilities. Celebrate your successes. Everyone wins as a team.