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From Client to Partner

Starting a fresh, new project is a wonderful feeling. It is immaculate, filled with ambitious expectations, with an endless world of exciting possibilities that tingle our creative brains.

Even if the last project didn’t go so well, you learned from your mistakes, gained some more experience, and are now capable of foreseeing upcoming problems. All meetings with the new client went very well, you are in sync with their goals and they absolutely loved your ideas and your vision for the product.

You are eager to start… and then reality comes along, crushing your fantasy.

It’s only a matter of time until the first crack surges and the project is no longer immaculate. The client isn’t perfect and the first disagreement happens. You start feeling bitter and slowly, but steadily, you start losing your enthusiasm. The once clear, blue sky is now clouding your judgment.

Eventually you grow tired, and start thinking you can’t wait to start a new project, with a “better” client, where you’ll be more experienced and prepared.

If this sounds like you, then you’re stuck in a frustrating loop that everyone working in this industry has been through at some point in their lives. After being trapped for some time, you will begin to change. You will start being more pessimistic and skeptical, which will lead you to be less involved with projects, and ultimately, to do your job poorly.

What you’re missing out is that it is not the client’s fault. It’s yours. You won’t break free until you become aware of all the things that feed that loop and actually change what needs changing. At Subvisual we believe that the only way to avoid falling into this loop is to transform Clients into Partners, and I’d like to share with you how we do it.

Constants and Variables

There are a vast number of factors that contribute to the success or failure of a project. Some of them are constant, others are variable. It’s important that you learn to recognize them and understand which constant factors need tweaking. As to the variables, you’d do well to reduce their impact to a minimum while coming to terms with the fact that there’s only so much you can do to control them.

The constant factors are your team and your process and I’ve written a few times about the ways we’ve been working to improve these factors at Subvisual - Team-shared responsibility.

The variable factors are the client, the project, and the budget/time. To handle all these factors appropriately requires adaptability and sensitivity, as we feel that it is mostly the mindset that needs to change in order to handle all of them efficiently.

Understand their profile and background

One of the worst consequences of this loop is to start assuming clients are the cause of all problems. The frustration you feel at the end of each project will make you stop caring and become numb, and it’s human instinct to always blame it on someone else. Clients just turn out to be the easiest target.

Understanding where they come from and the risks they’re taking by investing so much money, time and energy into that project, helps us appreciate their determination and their courage. They put their money where their mouths are and that’s definitely worthy of our full respect.

Not only that, but they actually picked you out of a zillion other skilled designers/developers/companies who’d love to get the job. They decided to trust you with all of that because you’ve shown them that you’re a trustworthy and qualified professional.

As a professional, it’s your job to analyze your client’s profile and understand their level of experience with digital products. It’s very important that you take the time and patience to educate them towards your process - or don’t accept the job at all.

Analyzing the project

You’re hired as an expert so you’re expected to act like it. No two projects are the same so you need to ask more, and better questions in the first conversations you have with the client to make sure you understand what are their goals, assess all possible constraints, and manage their expectations.

Defining a clear, measurable goal for the first iterations of that project will do wonders to make sure everyone’s on the same page, but it will also serve as a guideline for all future decisions on the development process. It will become your barometer, validating your progress, and ultimately, your success.

Be pragmatic regarding the budget/time

If you did a good job understanding the client and analyzing the project, you should be equipped to assert if the budget/time is feasible. Be pragmatic and direct. If you believe the budget’s too short, just say it and come up with alternatives. Maybe instead of making the first version of that idea, you could just design a prototype to serve as a proof of concept that could attract possible investors. Or maybe you could just do a marketing site for the product without actually building it, to validate if the idea is attracting people.

Anyone who’s ever built a digital product knows that there will always be unforeseen complications causing a slight deviation from the initial planning. That’s absolutely normal. It’s your responsibility to detect it, manage the client’s expectations and make adjustments.

Transparency is key

You should never let the knowledge and experience that comes from complicated projects go to waste, and you should learn to spot and avoid problems up ahead. This is not a magical skill but rather the result of careful planning and transparency. At Subvisual, we adopted 2 simple measures that seem to work very efficiently:

Weekly Reviews

At the end of every week, we meet with the client and report on our progress, the problems we came across, and the budget status. This makes it easier to stay in control and take earlier action on possible budget slip ups. On top of that, we keep a very close relationship with the client, by adding them to some of our work tools such as Trello and Slack. That allows them to follow all the work and make timely decisions.

Project Retrospective

At the end of a project, the team gathers and discusses what went wrong, what could be avoided and what we should do more of. Then, the DRI (Directly Responsible Individual - a person that is appointed as responsible for managing the project) of that project compiles all of that experience and shares it with the rest of the company in a Friday Talk - read more about Friday Talks on my other blog post - Culture Design. We believe that writing these retrospectives and actually preparing a talk about them provides the necessary elements for better discussions and real learning to occur.

Final remarks

Clients play a key part in the future of the products you’re working on, and they’re the ones who believed it in the first place - so much so, that they’re investing their time and money to make it real.

You can’t do great work if you put your ego in front of the client, and keep them away from your process. They need to be an active part of the team. By being transparent and including the client in the whole process, you turn them into something more - you turn them into a Partner. That is exactly what they expect from you, even if they didn’t know it yet.



Have you heard about Mirror Conf yet? It's a conference for designers and front-end developers, taking place in Braga, Portugal in the 23rd and 24th of September. An amazing lineup, in a beautiful city, this is the perfect excuse for you to spend a few days in sunny Portugal learning and networking.

Check out all information about Mirror Conf in here: www.mirrorconf.com

João Ferreira

About João Ferreira

Believes Design is not about mastering tools but about mastering people. Passionate about music, movies and whisky.
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