Educating clients is the best work you’ll do

Reading Time:

This is for the freelancers out there, the small creative agencies and teams, and anybody else who has had a not so perfect client experience at some point in their life. It’s your fault!

That came off kind of ruff, let me try again. It’s our fault 99% of the time. It’s our fault the client got angry, its our fault there not paying, it’s our fault they’re acting like morons and want the logo bigger, or the website pink, or the project to be done in 3 days… It’s our fault.

Admitting we have a problem is the start to recovery

I know that may sound harsh, but I love you enough to present you with a hard reality and then hug you as you recover. Let me be the first to tell you

“It’s your fault, but it’s gonna be ok”.

I wanna make an argument today that so much of our pain as creatives, designers, developers, or anybody else that works hand in hand with people is a self inflicted pain. Sure there is that 1% of clients that have gone off the deep end and are crazy, but that’s the marginal exception. The large majority of the time they are just normal people who don’t understand and are therefore scared, panicked and pissed.


I am writing all of this not from a place of perfection but of failure. After years of client work I finally had a moment where I listed to Micheal Jackson’s sound advice and took a look at “the man in the mirror” and realized change needed to start there.

The realization comes when you understand that it’s not enough to be a great designer, or developer, etc… if your going to be doing client work of any kind you need to be a good teacher. Being a teacher to your clients will take your great work and make it amazing. Let’s look at the 5 things you need to do to be a good teacher to your clients.

1. Teach them what to expect
2. Teach them what they deserve
3. Teach them the process
4. Teach them what good is, and why
5. Teach them that they are creative people too

1. Teach them what to expect


Let’s not lie to ourselves, experience is important. If it wasn’t there's no way that the new fad of Nitrogen made ice cream would be a thing. People will pay $10 for an ice cream simply to watch there ice cream be made as an experience, but the thing about experiences is they need to be anticipated and understood, otherwise they won’t be appreciated. For instance if you walked into Baskin Robbins and ordered a standard double scoop and they doused it in liquid nitrogen before handing it too you what would you think? I would think “what the heck“ or “I didn’t order that”, maybe even “I wanna talk to your manager”. Clients are thinking and saying all the same things when you hand them something they were not informed about, even if it is a “better experience”.

“The key to frustration is unmet expectation”

This is more than a client brief, a look at your portfolio, or some general knowledge that you assume they should have gleaned somewhere along the line. Let me tell you something true, we as people get so wrapped up in our own little worlds that we fail to realize that there are other people and we know very little about the spheres they operate in.

So you don’t understand peoples lives and business, why should people understand yours? They don’t and they won’t unless you teach them.

Now what I do not mean by “teach them” is try and make them an expert at what you do, or feel sorry or impressed by your life and choice of career. What I do mean is give them the ability to not feel like an idiot in the dark. Empower them to know what they should expect and what they deserve. Be their advisor in their corner so that even if they don’t go with you for their project the next guy is screwed because of how well informed they are. Here’s a few ideas.

Practical Ideas:

  1. Run them through a case study of a similar project as their own and ask them how it could have gone better (like post mortem but pre)
  2. Tell them upfront that the hardest parts of a project are, stop selling for a moments and start preparing them
  3. Help them build a schedule to partner with you on the project, help them make the time to be a good client


2. Teach them what they deserve

This should help you with all those budget conscious clients out there. Let’s face it it’s scary to give your money to people. It’s least scary to do so when you know what your paying for.


If you take your car into the shop and your not a car guy/gal then when the mechanic tells you ”it’s $1500 for a new Tappet Head and a Harmonic Compensator” don’t you feel like your getting ripped off? of course you do, but a car guy doesn’t, why? Because knowledge is power and relationships with a mismatch of power are unstable at best.

While teaching them what t expect, tell them what they deserve for what their paying. You would be amazed at how varied peoples thoughts are on creative and tech costs. One person may think a website is a $100 dollar investment and they are flabbergasted by your 8K quote. While others may have heard such horror stories about professional creatives and astronomical prices that they don’t even ask, assuming it’s way outside there reach.(I had a small business assume a 1 page little basic website would be 30K to 40K)

Practical Ideas:

  1. Show some samples of work with a varied price tag
  2. Give them multiple options/levels, similar to how Prospero writes proposals
  3. Advocate for them to work within their price range, if they don’t have a great budget recommend Squarespace instead of your services.

3. Teach them the process


This is similar to point one but more focused on your execution. Show them how you do things. Explain to them why and how things get jammed up in the process and how it can be avoided. Show them your calendar, and your time blocks on your schedule. None of this is to make them feel bad about your horrible life as a creative, but rather to prepare them for the upcoming season they will paring with you in.

If you don’t talk about expectations and press in your kickoff meeting your project has not truly kicked off.

Clients just have no idea how long something should take. For all they know a website should take days not weeks. What’s so hard about drawing a logo or setting up a CMS they may be thinking, but don’t get mad at them, how are they supposed to know all of this? Remember this is your world not theirs. Your job is to be a tour guide of your world to the outsiders.

Also there should never be “tada” moments as a creative. Keep them updated during the process. Create milestones for the project so the client feels like they have buy in form start to finish.

There is a downside to this depending on how you look at it. You are creating a client that now can and should hold you accountable. They will know if you are lying about how long something has been taking, or the milestone you missed… Here’s why I think this is an upside and not a downside. Now you have a partner in the project, not a client. They have a decent idea of whats ahead so they can be on your side if something bad or unexpected actually happens.

Practical ideas:

  1. Show them examples of past projects with easy to understand breakdowns of the time and work involved
  2. Establish a milestone calendar that includes deliverables from them and you.
  3. Set the example by learning more about their business and process.

4. Teach them what good is, and why


Let’s face it, most people like bad design. They don’t realize they do, but they do. People respond to cheesy design, obnoxious colors, and oversized logo’s. We could talk all day about how this started and why it’s a thing but thats a separate blog post. The important thing is to accept the fact that the only people that care about beautiful design aesthetics are designers.

But this should not break you and change you to be a cheesy, obnoxious designer. There are legit scientific and proven reasons on why User Experience matters and why whitespace in your layout is so awesome. they just need to know it to.

Teach them that they don’t want to look like the cheesy, Teach them that they are better than that, teach them that it’s their brand at stake, Teach them amazing people and products always strive for better. There is a way to make a taco truck want good design, you just need to to teach them why they want it.

The Bible has a passage that says that God gives us the desire of our hearts.(Ps. 37:4) It does not mean expensive cars and millions of dollars. It means there are desires in our heart that we don’t even know about that God will help us to realize. The same goes with your clients. They want good design, they want it to be beautiful and powerful and impactful… they just don’t know it yet. Help them to know it

Practical Ideas:

  1. Show them comparisons of similar companies. Examples of both and good design
  2. Back those examples up with facts, statistics and data
  3. Ask them not what they want it to look like but what they want there brand, website, etc… to communicate to the world. Teach them how to speak about design.

5. Teach them that they are creative people too


I know, I know, some of you are gonna say that not everyone is a creative. That’s true, but although not everyone has the ability to be a creative, everyone is creative in nature. Human beings are problem solvers, makers, fixers, thinkers and helpers. Tap into their creative abilities because we all have some hidden away somewhere. I don’t care if they are bankers, accountants and lawyers… Teach them the joy of creating.

I am not saying have them design the project for themselves lead by you, the wise Kung-Fu like master. I’m saying ask them questions that allow them to participate in the project. Confirm their thoughts and implement them in a way they didn’t even realize they could be, and give them credit when there creativity accomplishes goals. You will never have a better client than the client who feels empowered.

Practical ideas:

  1. Ask them questions that you can translate into design solutions and give them credit for
  2. Listen to them and respond to what you hear in your process
  3. Give credit where credit is due, clients will surprise you so encourage them

Hope any of this was a help to you in your client work. Remember that your work isn’t experienced only when it’s presented at the end of the project, it’s experienced every time you speak to your client. What kind of work are you doing today?


Leave a comment

comments powered by Disqus

Contact Me