Supposed to be good.

“They were supposed to be good.”

Another frustrated client said this to me. 

This happens a lot. The client signs on a new agency / consultancy based on a combination of factors such as reputation, past works, awards, staff strength, geographical location, pricing and sometimes “a solid creds presentation by the founder”. One month into the project, cracks start appearing. 

The most common reason? Misalignment of expectations. The client thought they were hiring a brand consultancy that will deliver a well mapped out brand identity system that could anticipate future needs, and the client got a talented brand design studio that could deliver the visual solutions for today; the client thought they hired a UX company, and the client got a group of UI specialists who say they “also” do UX studies; the client thought they hired a content strategy company, and the client got a company with many writers (content production), but presented themselves as content strategists. Do take note: I am referring to a good brand design company, a highly respected UI company and a well-oiled, highly effective content company. The client hired them with the wrong expectations, and probably, the agencies sold themselves wrongly too.

“You should have taken up the project from the beginning!”

I didn’t because I wasn’t ready to commit to another long term project. A digital agency was engaged — good reputation, good team, etc. BUT, it was just the wrong agency for the job. And it became another one of those assignments in which I have to quickly gather a few experts to resolve a crisis together with that agency, because the client is hitting roadblocks, and the launch is getting delayed again and again. In fact, stepping midway into crucial stages of live projects to act as the problem solver / director / mediator between a client and an agency / studio has become a norm for me.

“You are like the family GP people run to.”

I will admit this — I am greedy. Not for money, but for the experience; and therefore I got myself into all kinds of projects in which I have no knowledge or experience. For example, designing products, designing live event spaces and stage, designing exhibitions, designing way-finding systems for a city, etc. In fact, it is this greed (or FOMOness) that has brought me the experience to be able to manage projects of various natures from various segments of the market.

Kyoorius Awards — First time designing an event in a stadium.

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have clients willing to trust me. I have also become really good at being a director for design projects — assembling teams of specialists to make things happen. Often I am hired for that role — to ensure all specialists are synced to deliver the best output. But the most important lesson I have learned is to say NO to jobs that I have absolutely no confidence in pulling off, despite my greed for new experiences. Or if the client insists that I take on those projects, I am very upfront about my lack of knowledge or experience. 

“Let’s start with something small and see how it goes?”

I was watching a few of Chris Do‘s videos. He passionately argues about pricing and value, and lays down a few rules on the types of clients he won’t work with. Summary — anyone who can’t see the value of the work he is doing, and not willing to pay the price.

I reflected back on the relationship I have with some of my best clients. Many of them started with a really small assignment — a brochure, a web banner, a social media campaign. 

Up until today, I still get requests to start with a brochure. 

This will probably come as a surprise: one would think that with a creds deck that boasts of a range of well-known projects that cover all disciplines of design and content, it should be an easy sell for me to grab clients with large-scale projects. But the truth is, many clients have been through bad experiences dealing with other consultancies with an impressive body of work – they entered a relationship with high expectations but ended up watching the project fall apart.

Outside the design world, one’s reputation – whether it is a sizeable studio or a freelancer – really means nothing to a buying client. An impressive Behance site, an array of awards and a 50K Instagram followers page doesn’t guarantee a fruitful working relationship. Starting with something small is probably the safest bet to test out a working relationship. At this stage, one can forget Chris Do’s sermons on pricing vs. value, and ask a simple question:

“Is this client worth investing my time?”

An insignificant brochure for an insignificant amount of money. To do or not to do? I have done many and I have walked away from many. 

Relationships and trust take time to build. That’s the difference between “they are good” vs “they were supposed to be good”.

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