Working as a Web designer can suck sometimes. This is especially true when you don’t get to work alongside the client. Unfortunately this scenario is more common than you would think. Many organizations have been carefully structured to keep the Web designer and the client apart. But is that really sensible? Would projects run much smoother without your account manager or boss acting as the middleman?
This issue came to my attention following the release of my latest book “Client Centric Web Design.” In this book I provide advice about how to work more effectively with clients. However, I had made an assumption in the approach I presented, an assumption which turned out not always to be true. It assumed that the Web designer and client can work collaboratively together. Following the book’s release I realized that for many Web designers that this is not the case.
Image credits go to Brett Jordan.
Whether working in house for a large organization or as part of a Web design agency, many Web designers never get to interact directly with their clients. Instead, the client’s requirements and comments are filtered through a middleman who manages the project.
In this post I examine why I believe this is damaging to projects and what can be done to rectify the problem. However, before we can answer these questions, we must understand why this way of working has become common in the first place.
Why We Have Account Managers
I want to make it clear that I believe that both project and account managers play a valuable role. There are good reasons why they are part of the Web design process and I am not suggesting they should be removed.
It is the role of account managers to provide outstanding customer service. This is a vital (if often overlooked) role of any Web design agency—we are not here just to build websites, we are here to provide a service to our clients. That means making our clients happy by communicating well, meeting deadlines and delivering within the budget. Our project managers regularly receive gifts from our clients thanking them for a job well done. This is how close the relationship between client and account manager can become. By lifting the responsibility for customer service from the Web designer, account managers allow us to focus on the job of actually designing and building websites—a luxury that many freelancers envy.
The account manager also deals with the plethora of organizational tasks which keep a project running smoothly, not to mention protecting us from the endless comments and questions from the client. I have had the misfortune of working on many projects where we have been drip-fed feedback from multiple stakeholders almost continually throughout the project. If it wasn’t for the account manager, I would have very quickly lost control of what needed to be done on the website. Lets face it, they also protect the client from us, as we sometimes have an overwhelming urge to rant at them uncontrollably (or perhaps that is just me). They also act as interpreters, taking our technobabble and translating it into a language that the client can understand.
In short, a good account manager ensures the client is happy and that the project remains profitable. Those are valuable roles and one that a designer would struggle to do on top of their other responsibilities. Just ask the average overworked freelancer.
If then the account manger is so valuable, where is the problem?
So Where Is The Problem?
Although having an account manager is incredibly useful, things often get out of hand. The role of account manager transforms from being a part of the project team to the sole conduit between client and designer. Instead of facilitating a smooth running project they become the bottleneck through which all communication must pass. This funnelled approach to communication prevents collaboration between the client and the Web designer. This kind of collaboration is essential to ensuring a happy client and a successful website.
Without collaboration, educating the client is difficult. Unsurprisingly most clients don’t know much about the Web design process. However, by working alongside the client throughout the project, the client learns the best practice for Web design and why certain design decisions are made. This educational process works both ways. The client will learn a lot about the Web design process, but the designer will also learn a lot about the client and his business. When the Web designer understands the nuances of the project, business and client, they produce better websites. Without that understanding they are much more likely to go down the wrong road by wasting time and money, while frustrating the client.
This isn’t just limited to designers either. Like many Web design agencies, we excluded developers from client meetings for a long time. Their time was precious and we didn’t want to waste it in meetings. However, we eventually discovered that when the developer understands the details of a project, they produce more elegant solutions and often suggest directions which nobody else had considered. When all communication has to pass through a middleman, the chances of misunderstanding and mistakes are further increased. Like a game of chinese whispers, what is said by the client or designer can be distorted by the time it has passed through an account manager.
I remember experiencing this regularly when I worked for an agency in the late nineties. A passing comment made by a client would become a dictate from the account manager that I had to follow. Instead of being a designer who could bring my experience to bear on a project, I became a pixel pusher. Because I wasn’t hearing directly from the client, I could not judge the strength of their feelings and so had no opportunity to challenge them over issues I felt passionately about.
Finally (and probably most importantly), without the client and designer working together on a project the client feels no sense of ownership over the design. The projects that inevitably go wrong at my agency are those where the final decision-maker is not actively involved in the design process. If a client has been involved in the design process, commenting and working with the designer at every stage, they are less likely to reject the final design—they will feel the design is as much their creation as that of the designer’s. However, if their feedback was through an account manager, they won’t have that sense of hands on involvement.
Fortunately, we can have the best of both worlds. We can have the benefits of an account manager, while still allowing the designer to work closely with the client.
The Best Of Both Worlds
At Headscape the role of the account manager is not to control all of the client communications, but to act as a facilitator for those communications. This provides all of the benefits of having an account manager and none of the drawbacks.
For a start, the Web designer and developer always attends project kickoffs, so they meet the client at the beginning of a project. This also ensures that they get all of the background on the project firsthand, rather than via the account manager. The Web designer also works directly with the client discussing ideas and presenting design. This gives the designer the opportunity to present their work in their own words and hear the feedback directly from the client. They can also work collaboratively with the client on some aspects of the design, such as wireframing, to help increase the client’s feeling of ownership and engagement. This also has the added benefit of allowing the designer to question and challenge the feedback they receive, engaging in a much richer discussion with the client.
The account manager is still very much a part of the process. He is still the client’s primary point of contact and remains responsible for ensuring the project stays on time and within budget. Also, whenever possible, he should be involved in discussions between the designer and client, to ensure he is fully aware of everything agreed upon. Where conversations take place without his involvement, the Web designer should report back to the account manager on the content of those discussions.
This all sounds great in theory. However, in the real world of company politics and long-held working practices, you may meet resistance when implementing this approach. In such situations it is important to proceed carefully.
Getting The Support Of Your Account Manager
None of us like change, especially when it involves others telling us how to do our job. It is therefore hardly surprising that you may well meet resistance from your account manager if you suggest the approach that I have outlined in this article.
The key is to not to get frustrated if you meet resistance. Look at it from their point of view: how would you feel if they came along and told you to design websites in a different way, or worst still, suggested they should be more heavily involved in the design of client websites?! No doubt you would be horrified, so take the time to empathize with your account manager and seek ways to make the transition easier.
I occasionally encountered designers who complain to me that they have tried to implement my approach and had been shot down by their account managers. Inevitably the reason behind this failure has been because they have tried to rush the transition. If you go in all guns blazing, the idea will be rejected. Instead, start small and build up over time.
One starting point that has worked for others I have spoken to is to sit in on key meetings. For example, if you are not normally part of the kickoff meeting, start with that. Or if you don’t get to hear the client’s feedback firsthand, ask to be involved in that call. Reassure the account manager that all you want to do is sit in so you can hear what was said. That way they won’t worry about what you might say in front of the client. Once you are involved in those meetings regularly it becomes easier for you to start slipping in the odd comment.
I also recommend thinking carefully about how you present this approach to your account manager. It would be easy to focus on why you want to do it. However, you will have much more success if you present the benefits the approach provides for them. Remember, their primary concern is to ensure that the project is delivered on time and within budget. Therefore, when suggesting your heavier involvement with the client, explain that this will reduce the chance of misunderstandings, leading to a faster sign-off. This in turn will mean less iterations and higher profits on the project—all music to the ears of your average account manager.
Finally, point out that if you work directly with the client it will ultimately mean less work for them. Everybody loves the sound of less work! If you present the idea of direct collaboration with the client as having benefits for the project (and for the account manager personally), the chances are you will meet a lot less resistance.
I confidently believe that allowing the Web designer to work with the client ultimately leads to better websites, happier clients and a greater sense of job satisfaction for the designer. However, I am also aware it has its challenges. I would therefore like to see more discussion about how to best get this collaborative relationship working with organizations that traditionally keep these two parties apart. Perhaps the comments are the place to kick start the conversation.
© Paul Boag for Smashing Magazine, 2012.