How to guide clients when you don’t feel like a leader

I think I give the impression that I’m more put together than I really am. I have my client process to thank for that. Seriously. I initially rejected the idea of creating a documented process. Up until about 5 years ago, I had been a “fly by the seat of my pants” designer. I kept…

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I think I give the impression that I’m more put together than I really am.

I have my client process to thank for that. Seriously.

I initially rejected the idea of creating a documented process. Up until about 5 years ago, I had been a “fly by the seat of my pants” designer. I kept everything in my head. The thought of “making it official” felt formal and stifling to me.

Fast forward a few years. I honestly did not realize it at the time (or I would have done it sooner) – how much a process, or lack of one, affected my ability to guide my clients to the best design solution.

I’m not a naturally strong leader.

I just really like doing the work, thank you very much. Just let me design. A few confused clients later – who had invested quite a bit in me – made me realize that what they really wanted was leadership from me.

When I say lead, I’m talking about leading-guiding, not dictating. Staying out in front. Staying off that slippery slope of micro-management that clients turn to when they start to lose trust.

You know that turning point when it feels like you are suddenly on the defensive? I know it, I’ve been there. It’s hard to recover. When projects shifted – the feeling of being dragged along by my client would always strip me of my passion for the project.

So how do you lead when leadership doesn’t come naturally to you?

Leadership starts before you commit to each other

Looking back, I can see where I lost control of certain projects before they even got started. ANY inquiry that asks you to bend your rules or standards will hinder your ability to lead.

  • “Can you rush this?”
  • “Can you lower the price?”
  • “Can I have a different payment plan?”
  • “I don’t want to use your communication tool.”
  • “This other designer messed up, now I’m in a rush.”

Can you see how your process can be manipulated before your client has even made a commitment?

If you are going to make concessions, don’t reduce your rate per hour. If you are okay to rush the project, add a fee and parameters. If you lower your price, then be sure to decrease the scope. It’s okay to stretch out the payments but ask for a larger retainer (or first payment). Don’t let your standards slide.

We lose control of projects without realizing it. We are just trying to be nice. We end up being dragged along behind a client who is calling the shots, then we end up resenting them for it.

Tip: Create a standard for the kinds of projects and clients you will take on (before you get on a call). What kinds of projects will get beyond your own red rope?

Let your process lead YOU

Documenting a client process felt like doing my bookkeeping after months of neglect. I’d rather vacuum out my car or clean the litter box. But once it’s done, I promise you this: You can relax and let the process lead YOU.

Falling back on your own process is a great way to collaboratively guide when you aren’t a natural leader. You can relax and do what you do well – design. Conversations and task lists are already created. Timelines and milestones assigned. Your client knows what’s coming and when.

This is all done for you in the Designing to Delight course, get on the waitlist here.

Tip: Start writing it down. Creating a process is simpler than you might think.

Put yourself in your client’s shoes

Empathy goes a long way. I often forget my client is investing a lot of money in a life-changing, business-altering project. I’ve been doing this for years, it easy to forget this is NEW to them. They will forget things and need to be reminded. They will misunderstand what a wireframe is for. Trust is built in honest, layman-terms type conversation.

Have you ever purchased something large for your business? for yourself? Unsure or nervous of the process? This is what your client is feeling. A good leader guides with compassion.

Tip: Stay on top of communication, don’t shy away from it. Be overly clear. Repeat yourself even if it feels weird. If you’ve documented many of these conversations over past projects, you’ll only have to copy / paste and tweak.

Remember the dog whisperer

Okay this is a little bit of a weird one. I’m a Cesar fan – one thing he has said over and over – stuck with me.

The essence of it is – You are a leader or a follower, you can’t be both at the same time.

Not to compare clients to dogs, but think about this – if you aren’t out in front guiding the client – then you risk being dragged along behind it.

You know that tipping point where you lose control and go on the defensive? It’s for one of two reasons – you took on a client that should not have gotten past your red rope, OR something broke in your process.

Do you consider yourself to be a good leader? Why or why not? Comment below.
How to guide your clients through a design process, even when you don't feel like a leader.
How to guide your clients through a design process, even when you don't feel like a leader.
How to guide your clients through a design process, even when you don't feel like a leader.

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Author: Christine Thatcher

Christine Thatcher is the founder of Christine Marie Studio, a boutique design agency dedicated to helping visionary entrepreneurs infuse their personalities into profitable virtual platforms. She combines 27 years of design experience to guide her clients through the web design process. Also the creator of Designing to Delight, a brand dedicated to teaching designers how to build collaborative client relationships so they can charge more for their work.