When Your Clients are MIA

One of the most difficult things to deal with when working with a client is when they’re unengaged, absent, missing, and seemingly disinterested in the work you’re doing.

Developers and designers people crave recognition. We love hearing “this is wonderful”, whether it’s from a peer, client, or anonymous blog comment. Most of us want our clients to be eager to validate and review the work we produce immediately. After all, they’re spending a lot of money on you and staking a lot on your success or failure – shouldn’t they be obsessed?

If you’ve been freelancing for a while, you know how dangerous an unengaged client can be. A while back, one of our clients provided a laundry list of changes as we were ready to deliver him a finished product. The month leading up to delivery was a month of tacid approval and nodding of heads. Where was this coming from, and why are we just learning about it now?

Contracts are Bi-Directional

Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t slaves of our clients. We’re professionals who render our services, and part of what allows us to be succesful is the constant vetting of what we produce by whoever ordered it.

So how we do we get our clients to be more engaged?

When we don’t get feedback quickly (I call this the “feedback loop”), we risk the possibility of diverging from our clients. If I’m thinking Camry, and my client is thinking Porsche, that’s a huge disconnect. And the cost to meet in the middle (or get to where the client thought we were going) becomes expensive, both in the time it takes to adjust and the passive aggressive blaming between both parties.

So how we do we get our clients to be more engaged?

This is a tricky question, because the majority of your clients might be a little too engaged! But the risk of an absentee client far outweighs anyone glued to their Blackberry, eagerly waiting for your next status email.

1. Set Expectations Early

Clients respect us when we outline a process. It makes it look like you’ve been doing this – successfully – for a while, even if you haven’t.

Let your clients know that at the end of each day you’ll be sending out an email detailing what you worked on and what you need them to review ASAP. You could even come up with a penalty if they don’t answer your questions within a 48 hour window.

The goal is to get as much feedback, as rapidly as possible. It’s in your best interest (it’s demoralizing to need to backtrack or redo work) and it results in a better project with less time and money spent. What client is going to argue with that? We love this process so much we’ve built it into our project management app.

2. Be Clear in Your Delivery

Not every client is going to be around during your working hours to answer questions or provide feedback. And the more time you spend bouncing messages back and forth with your clients, the more time you’re wasting and the more room there is for divergence.

Have you ever built something and thrown it over the wall to review, only to hear back a few hours (or days) later with, “How do I test this?” or “What does this mean?”

Always remember you’re the designer, the architect, the developer. You built what you’re asking your client to review, and we sometimes take it for granted that not everyone is going to know how or why it functions or looks the way it does.

Never make assumptions, and be clear about what you’re showing. If you’re developing software you might write:

“Login as an administrator, click the ‘Pages’ link in the top navigation bar, now click ‘New Page’, type in your content and click ‘Save’. Now, logout and go to the home page. You should see your new page.”

Doing this might save you from a bewildered email when you start work the next day.

3. Fight Battles, Not Wars

When you’re working on a lengthy project, it’s really easy for a client to want to wait until the end to start getting serious about their project. I mandate a weekly planning meeting with my clients, and come up with a mini-project for the week where weekly goals and weekly deliverables are defined.

This lets me tell my clients, “Hey! I’m going to get this done this week and I need you to support me in this.” When we think about anything more than a few days out, we start thinking in abstracts and lofty ideals. The immediate is concrete and tangible. Set weekly milestones for yourself and your clients, and you’re almost guaranteed to get them motivated and involved.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by hitdelight.

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