Who’s your favorite client? What’s the best project you’ve done? I get questions like this all the time. My answer? Great work is the product of great relationships. It really doesn’t matter who the project is for. Seriously.

Anyone who has spent time in the design field has had this experience… You land a new client, their product or service is amazing. The team is excited about the potential... oh the creative possibilities. As the project rolls on, expectations begin to shift. Sound strategic planning is left by the wayside, groupthink and subjective decisions rule the day. Death by a thousand paper cuts. By the project launch, the end result falls dismally short of the promise.

But what about the inverse? Ever work with a brand that’s unfamiliar, in an industry few know about, yet you absolutely love? Why is that? I’d bet there’s two massive qualities at play – trust and challenge. Take a look at this chart, then I’ll walk you through it.

1. Low trust, Low challenge
This where you typically start as a one person shop, a contractor or even as an unproven team. How you might know:

  • Feedback is disproportionately executional for what’s at hand
  • Tasks feel more like one-off request or busywork rather than strategic problem solving
  • The work quality is just okay

2. Low trust, High challenge
You or your team may have a solid portfolio or come highly recommended but you’ve yet to build rapport with the stakeholder. This could also happen with a long standing client who’s promoted or moves on, replaced by a new (and/or inexperienced) stakeholder.

  • Revisions seem endless, inconsistent or erratic; business goals may change throughout the project (typically the result of decision by committee)
  • Stress levels escalate with each round of revisions or the closer you get to the launch date 
  • No one on the team is looking forward to meetings, check-ins or emails
  • The work strains morale

3. High trust, Low challenge
You’ve been working with a client for some time. Or maybe you come highly recommended, the client is overloaded and they’re just happy to have some help. This might look like...

  • Initial direction is incomplete or haphazardly compiled, there’s a lot of blanks to fill in
  • Tasks get done quickly with little revision (approvals may not happen at all)
  • The team cares more about the outcome than the client 
  • The work may be able to be improved, but everyone is generally pleased

4. High trust, High challenge
Now we’re cooking! Your team and your client have built a mutual respect for one another. Everyone is on the same page, encouraging one another to deliver amazing results.

  • The strategic goals continually guide decision making
  • Revisions make the project better and better
  • Your team stops at nothing to overdeliver
  • The work feels important and rewarding

Some clients come to mind… how do I shift our relationship into another quadrant?

Your best bet is an amalgamation of time, truth and grace. Think of the folks in your life that have earned your deepest trust… they’ve stuck with you for a while, right? And how is trust won? It’s won through a steadfast commitment to being truthful, particularly when it’s uncomfortable. 

Look, you’ve been hired to strategically lead your client, not to stroke their ego. But don’t forget to show compassion. UX designers gush about empathy for their users, but what about empathy for the stakeholder sitting across the table? It’s so much harder to champion empathy when the “user” is a real person you’re collaborating with daily. Why? Because the behaviors of that user impacts your happiness. Oh wow, it almost sounds like a RELATIONSHIP. That’s a BINGO.  

Just because a brand isn’t instantly recognizable, doesn’t mean the work won’t be groundbreaking for that industry or a delight to work on. When you can earn mutual respect with a client, you’ll put things into the world that create a difference for that brand and its users. And isn’t that why we do this thing in the first place?

Interested in moving to the JAMstack? Let's talk.

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