To be blunt, the real problem is NOT your client.  The real problem is YOU.  Yes, I know that is harsh, but it is actually very good news because you can’t do anything about how your clients are, but you can do quite a lot about you!  Clients are who they are, and they will never really change.  Some are great and some are not so great.

All of your problems stem from two root issues, failed communication and failed leadership.

Failed Communication

Yes, this may seem obvious, of course there was failed communication, but surprisingly few do anything about it when the next website project comes around.  The solution isn’t just to communicate more.  The volume of communication is not the problem or the solution.  More bad communication does not make for good communication.

What we have here is a failure to communicate!

Good client communication is planned, purposeful, and proactive.

You wouldn’t build a house without a plan.  You shouldn’t build a website without a plan either.  When you are creating a website for a client, you can’t just make a plan on your own; you have to work with the client to create that plan — so, you need a plan to create your plan.

You need a well thought-out strategy of how to work with your client to decide on the overall plan for the website.  Like I said, you need a plan for your plan.

Of course, any plan needs to have an end-game in mind, an overall purpose and goal that you wish to achieve.  You may pack your bags for a trip, change the oil in your car and gas it up, but if you don’t know where you are going, then you may end up driving in circles.

Good communication is also proactive.  Proactive is the opposite of reactive.  If you are not proactive, you will constantly be reacting to the changing needs of your client, like a reed swaying in the wind, blown about whichever way it chooses to bend you.  If you are proactive, you head off problems before they emerge.

Being proactive means that you anticipate your clients needs before they realize they have them.  When you are just starting as a web designer this can prove difficult because you don’t have the experience to know what your client will need. But if you pay careful attention, you can quickly get to a point where you anticipate their needs before they realize them.

Failed Leadership

Most web designers don’t think of leadership as part of their job description, but if you don’t lead, then who will?  Yes, that only leaves the client to lead, and when the client leads, you are left at the mercy of their leadership and communication skills.  Sometimes that can work fine, but most of the time it creates a mess.

Everything requires leadership, and if you don’t agree, try getting four different people to agree on a place to eat.  Website development is no different.

Contrary to popular belief, leadership isn’t about having all the answers; it also means asking questions. Not just any questions, but the right questions.

What kind of questions are the “right” ones?  Again, just as you trip preparations must go in the right order, so must your progression of questions be orderly, from broad or general to narrow and specific.  More on that later.

There is a decent chance that you will find that the client doesn’t have a very clear vision or understanding of what their website should be.  They may have a few vague ideas of what they need it to do or what they want it to look like, but that isn’t enough to give them, or you, what they really need.

One major goal of your questioning is to find out as much about their business as possible.  What are their primary services, who are their customers, what are they planning for their future?

Through understanding their business or organization, you will know what they need for their website, and by taking the time to ask questions and listen, you will build the trust with your client that will be needed for them to follow your leadership and believe in your professional skills.

The cliche that nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care holds true in website design.

After understanding their business, find out what they want their website for.  What is the purpose of their website?  If they don’t know, you better have a good reason for them; your’e not trying to talk them out of it.  Next, ask what websites they like, and try to get at least three examples. If they can’t think of any, be prepared to show them some sample sites.  Then, ask what they specifically like about these sites; colors, layout, fonts, images, content, etc.  Narrow it down to specifics.  Don’t stop asking questions until you are relatively certain that you could create a Photoshop mock-up in line with what they want.

 Suddenly, far from being a hindrance, you’ll find that most of your clients are becoming key participants in getting your projects done right!

Don’t stop asking questions once you start on the project.  Too often designers board themselves up in a room and don’t see the light of day until they have created the website, only to be disappointed by the client’s reaction.  Step out into the light of day and keep the lines of communication heavily greased throughout the project.  Stop making assumptions, and instead walk the client step by step through the creative process, getting their explicit written approval each step of the way.

In getting as much info up front as possible, actively communicating with your client, and requiring their sign-off regularly throughout the project, not only will you find yourself more confident, but your client will be much more satisfied as well.  Suddenly, far from being a hindrance, you’ll find that most of your clients are becoming key participants in getting your projects done right!

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This article is an excerpt from my up-coming web design project management book. Sign-up here to find out more about it.