Learning Through Client Challenges

If I ever catch myself daydreaming about a world where all clients are happy and all projects are frictionless, I remind myself of the valuable lessons I've learned from client feedback and project setbacks. Call me crazy, but I'd rather grow through tough moments than become weak over time without any friction.

All that said, I'm happy to report that last week ended strong with a win on a project marked by a series of ups and downs. Without getting lost in the details, this project is a website for a new brand. Throughout the process, it has been easy to point at the client's growing team and evolving brand as reasons for delayed progress.

"Client feedback isn't consolidated."

"Client keeps changing their minds on requirements."

"Client is not aligned on the purpose of this website."

I commend the team on all we've done to support the client on these roadblocks. While we've made incremental progress, the design process has felt like climbing a mountain that grows steeper with every step.

About a month ago, I prompted a call with the client to get their take on our collaboration thus far. Though they acknowledged their internal challenges, it was clear that they were not yet happy with our work. I met with the team to discuss, and we came back with revised designs, but in the client's words, the list of feedback kept growing longer, not shorter.

A couple of weeks ago, a different stakeholder reached out to chat. I wasn't sure what to expect, so I mentally prepared for every scenario. On the call, the client asked if we'd be open to switching the designer on the project. I listened as they described the diminishing energy on client calls and the feeling that they were on the brink of trying to dictate the designs. The good news is that they believed in us and wanted to make it work.

I'll cut to the chase and say that we onboarded a new designer a week ago, scrapped the designs, and presented new concepts early last week. To quote the client, the designs "helped us to see how our brand can shine through, and they inspired us to see the possibilities of what we can build together."

While this project tale has a happy ending, I always find it helpful to take stock of the lessons. In this case, there's a bunch.

As a team, it's led to conversations about client communication, our design approach, and how to handle tough client and team conversations.

As for me, there are a few personal lessons I'll be taking with me.

  1. Clients come first. This doesn't mean that the team comes last; it means unhappy clients = unhappy team. It is critical to make space for clients to provide feedback and feel heard, regardless of how the project seems to be going. Getting ahead of this builds trust and can make or break the relationship down the line.
  2. It's okay to get your hands dirty. Given the project timeline, we not only had to turn the designs around but also do it quickly. On the morning of the big presentation, I noticed the designer hadn't yet reviewed the feedback I shared the night before. My mind wandered to what might happen if I waited for them to address it just hours before the presentation. I decided it wasn't worth the risk, so I jumped in and made the updates myself. Part of me worried about overstepping, but in the end, my help seemed to relieve stress and avoid last-minute scrambling.
  3. Ask: what's the hard move we're avoiding? In hindsight, when I learned that the client was unhappy with the designs a month ago, I wish I paused to ask myself, what's the hard move we're avoiding? Instead, I gave direction to the team and leaned on them to see it through.

    Looking back, all of the signs that the designer was losing steam were there, but we kept plugging along. When we let them know we were taking them off the project, they agreed with the decision and shared how "they didn't feel like themself anymore" on the project, more concerned with addressing the client's nitpicky notes than trying to understand the client.

    Changing resources on a project is not always the solution; in fact, I had a similar client request years ago but knew it wasn't the right move and things worked out. In this case, I think we knew it could benefit the designer and project, but subconsciously avoided the move.

This post originally appeared in Edition No. 086 of my newsletter. Subscribe here.

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