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about design management

managing design clients

How we (almost) lost two clients in one week

Keeping clients is never easy. Even those you have nurtured meticulously for two decades.

What a week.

One of MBd’s “values” is to educate clients about the holistic role of design in an organisation.

The more we educate, the more appetite clients have for design, and the more confident they are to spread the word.

When it works well, others within the organisation see the value of a design and start to request designed collateral for their event/ workshop/policy release. As the demand for design increases, the demand on the communications team time and budget also increases.

Before too long, they can get overwhelmed and start looking for a solution and that may be an inhouse designer.

I’m not anti inhouse designers – in fact I like to work alongside a staff design team that can rollout a design I’ve developed – it’s often a perfect solution. It spreads the communications budget wider (because a salary is less expensive than our rate), and it lifts the internal design to the same level as external.

That said, when it happens to an existing client, it can mean a sudden downturn in work.

So let’s list a new threat for designers – being so successful at “design gospel” that clients embrace design and become DIYs.

That’s how we (almost) lost two clients in one week.

The first client I was proactive.

I watched as the communications team slowly drowned in requests from other departments. I could see the amount of work being generated inhouse and my briefings getting briefer, mostly verbal and with shorter and tighter deadlines because of the delays inhouse.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t’ handle the amount of work, it was the client a) didn’t have the time to brief me or b) tried to do it inhouse to save money and when that didn’t work briefed me on a tighter deadline and restricted budget.

Guessing what was on the horizon, I met with the client and put forward a solution – I would source and brief a designer that would work with them, inhouse, two days a week. Happy to have the problem resolved, they agreed immediately.

It wasn’t hard to source a designer I could trust, someone who loves the idea of a part time job and is happy work within existing branding guidelines.

It’s a win:win.

The client is happy because all they wanted was a solution.

The designer is happy because they are working with a great group of people on some really lovely designs – if I do say so myself.

I’m happy because I’ve not lost a client, infact in their eyes, I’m part of the solution.

Alas, while I was focused on that client, another client was in exactly the same dilemma.

At a meeting over a cup of tea they (very nervously) informed me that they had hired an inhouse designer to answer the growing number of internal design briefs, and, worse still, the designers wage was a large chunk of the budget that was usually allocated for external design – AKA my budget. In this case, I had completely lost control of their design management.

They are a very long term client – their 2014 annual report would have been the 19th we had produced for them – and it’s because of that relationship that they were kind enough to buy me a cup of tea to break it to me gently.

But all is not lost. I have been asked to work in a more strategic advisory mode, mentor the new designer and use the intellectual property I have in their product to work on the strategy rather than on the computer – so it’s less hours at a higher hourly rate. It’s a win, but it could have got ugly.

So the moral to this story is to take a proactive rather than reactive role in your client’s design management.

If your client has more work than they, and their budget, can handle, you start the solution discussion.

If they do talk of needing inhouse skills, try to be part of that equation. I’ve known solo operators happy to work inhouse at a major client’s for two days a week — even at a reduced rate, it’s regular work that pays for overheads without losing too much flexibility.

I’m sure there are other solutions for other situations. The important takeaway is to be proactive so the solution suits you as well as your client.