Andy Rutledge, articulate as ever, puts some figures on the idea of pricing-by-client (about which I know I’ve read more recently, but can’t for the life of me find again) in "Calculating Hours - the Client Factors".
Client A is a really good client… You will seldom get a call from Client A. Most often it is Client B who calls on you for a project.
I love articles like this for the same reason I love conferences and meet-ups - the reassurance that there is no magic project-management pill, no super-agency super-power, that saves everyone else from the nightmares that attend many a web or design project. Andy’s list of “client characteristics” will be frighteningly familiar to anyone doing client contact agency-side.
If you are a client, do you recognised in yourself any of Andy’s Client B Characteristics? If so, it’s costing you money. Worse, at a time when good web firms are booked up months in advance, if you hit any of his (1)s, (2)s or (3)s - those behaviours which, for Andy, trigger a level of concern which has him considering not taking on a project - you may struggle to find an agency at all.
Apart from the obvious - being pleasant to deal with - Andy identifies a number of characteristics around the fatal flaw of “not properly understanding your own business”. These are real red flags. No matter how pleasant and co-operative and willing to take advice this client may be, the project is probably doomed.
- Client is not sure what they need and/or knows little about the target audience(s)
- Client cannot clearly and concisely describe their brand to you (*1)
- Client is not sure how the application should work or what all the components should be (*2)
This client does not just need a web designer, or not in a simplistic pixel-pusher sense. They need a consultant. A web consultant in the latter case, probably an experienced designer or developer who can help them work out how their application should work. In the former two cases, what is being revealed is a wider business, marketing or branding problem which will cripple any website project before it starts. If they are lucky they may find a web designer or agency who can be these things. Most of the time they will not.
And this brought me back to another article I was also reminded of just today:"Designers: You’re So Intelligent" by Michael Bierut. Designers, Michael observes, long to sit at the strategy table with the big business boys. We want, as he says, “to be seen as more than mere stylists, we want to set the agenda, to be involved earlier in the strategic process”. We want to wade in and get our hands dirty with clients’ business and marketing and branding problems.
In fostering this desire, he says, we are deluding ourselves. Via way of an amusing write up of the Problem Definition Escalation Technique which any designer will get a snigger out of (“The problem isn’t your logo! It’s world hunger!”) he tells how:
I found myself at a design conference listening to still another demand that clients give us designers that coveted place at that legendary table where all the big decisions are made. Sitting next to me was one of my favorite clients, someone I treasure for her levelheadedness and good humor. “I’ve spent hours at that table,” she whispered to me. “It’s not that great, you know.”
The desire for a place at the strategy table is not necessarily merely a plaintive longing for love and respect as Michael thinks (though it may be that too). It is also an inevitable reaction to Andy’s “B” clients. The client’s inability to articulate - or worse, to even grasp themselves - their own business strategy, to define the business context within which a design needs to work in order to be effective, leaves the dilligent designer little choice but to wade in and attempt to do it for them.