There are businesses who seem to burn through creative talent faster than their dirty socks. People on the job hunt need to be wary of companies who post job ads too often. They may be growing, or their employees may be leaving at a fast rate because the workplace is toxic.
And then there are business owners who stick with their creative service providers for years, recommending them to anyone who will listen. The latter one is just beautiful when it happens. You can’t force it, but you can do your best to encourage it—whether you’re a client or a freelancer.
The long-term professional relationship dynamic
Some of you may know that back in the day, I studied electrical engineering. I was bored by the majority of classes (which is why I dropped out), but one thing stuck with me until this day: visualizing concepts through graphs.
When I was thinking about the dynamic of professional relationships, one specific subject from university came to my mind, and it inspired me to formulate a theory of stable professional relationships.
Let me show you my (totally unscientific) professional relationship graph, and explain how it works.
The horizontal axis is time. On the very left is the initial meeting, then goes the onboarding process (which can take days, weeks or months). Then the actual project begins, and subsequent projects follow afterwards.
The vertical axis represents the “surprise factor”, and has positive and negative values. Positive values represent pleasant surprises, and negative represent the unpleasant ones.
The example of a pleasant surprise for the client is: “Wow, this looks way better than I expected!”
The example of an unpleasant surprise is: “I didn’t expect this would cost so much.”
From the freelancer’s standpoint, the pleasant surprise is: “I love that the client gives me full creative control”, and an unpleasant one: “I really wish they didn’t call me on a Saturday”.
In this graph, as the time goes on, the system moves toward stability, eventually achieving balance.
After the initial rocky period where the client and the designer are getting to know each other, testing each other’s boundaries and using this information to adjust their expectations going forward, the trust between them grows, and their bond gets stronger.
Now, here’s the interesting part where science and business intermingle: not all systems are meant to reach equilibrium. An illustration of an unstable relationship would look something like this:
The line never converges toward the baseline. The quality of the relationship forever remains chaotic and unpredictable.
You might wonder, “But hey, doesn’t that flat line in the top graph suggest that the relationship has become void of pleasant emotions?” No, because the graph doesn’t represent general emotions, it represents surprises. As both parties come to expect that things will go well, there are no surprises when they do. While yes, pleasant surprises may induce stronger positive feelings, a stable relationship is continuously moderately positive, with very few dips into the negative feelings.
We can try to go above and beyond to continually surprise each other, and that can happen (like that time when my client told me to double the invoice I’ve sent them). It just becomes more difficult to surprise people when they already expect only the best from you.
How do you know if a relationship has the potential to become stable?
In electrical engineering, there’s a formula used to calculate whether the electrical system is stable or unstable. Sadly, in relationships we can’t rely on exact numbers, but we can use our experience, and what I like to call a “Client From Hell checklist” to prevent unstable relationships from even forming.
If we’re diligent in only accepting to work with clients who are our Right People, the relationship dynamic will become stable over time. But why does it work out this way?
Clear expectations bring balance to the “surprise factor”
Setting clear expectations from the very first encounter with a client is the single most important thing a business owner can do. These expectations refer to your:
- skills and capabilities
The point is to get these expectations across as soon as possible, so that the other party can decide whether working with you is good for them.
Having a polarizing brand definitely helps with that, but it’s not enough. This is why I’ve prepared “Welcome Guides” that I send to anyone who inquires about working together, and my services pages tend to be very detailed, beyond what’s common in the design industry.
Even with all of these precautions taken, there are some things you cannot explain to people in advance, that can only be experienced. That’s especially the nature of creative services like graphic design, where you’re trying to translate abstract concepts into visuals, and at the same time trying to make the client and their customers happy. That stuff is hard, and each project with a new client reminds me of it.
Any client relationship will have a bit of back and forth at first.
The difference is that in stable relationships, the back and forth will settle as you both accept your roles in the collaborative process. In unstable relationships, the surprises never stop.
What relationship growth looks like in a design project
Here’s an example of a somewhat typical relationship dynamic between a designer and a client over time, potential pitfalls in each of the phases, and how I address them in my own process.
1. The onboarding phase
The beginning is uncertain for both parties, since the designer is only learning about a client’s business. Without detailed input from the client (a.k.a. the brief), the designer can’t do their job, so it’s essential that both parties put in a lot of effort in clear and thorough communication.
If the client has never worked with a creative professional before, they may feel lost and unsure about what their role is. They may default to the “boss” role, treating the designer as an employee, instead of a consultant that has their own methods and processes. For this reason, the designer needs to create a structure for the project, and explain what will happen at each stage, so that the client feels more comfortable, and doesn’t sabotage the collaboration out of fear.
This initial period may be challenging for the client if they didn’t expect they’d have to answer so many questions, work so hard on delivering content, and provide feedback so often. Even if the designer warned them of all that—which I try my best to do—they still don’t get it until they experience it for themselves. That’s just a normal human glitch called the optimism bias.
2. The design concept phase
As the designer finally gathers all the information they need from the client, they can start working. In my case, I start sketching ideas on paper, and produce dozens or even hundreds of different concepts before I find the right one.
As much as I’m tempted to disappear into a hole as I’m designing early concepts, being communicative in this period is important, because the client may become worried if the designer isn’t responsive. They may fear that the designer ran away with their advance money. Anything designers can do to pacify the client in this early phase, before they see any creative output, will help immensely in growing mutual trust.
For this reason, I started submitting a deliverable in the very beginning of the project called the brand mood board. Years ago, I used to work without a moodboard, but I’ve realized that creating it was helpful in my process for several reasons:
- I’m able to pinpoint the client’s preferences and expectations before I draw a single sketch.
- The client gets validation that we’re making progress on the project.
- The client’s expectations of my skills, and understanding of their problem and their goals are confirmed.
A couple of pages from my brand moodboard proposal for Incon logo & brand
After approving the first deliverable, the client feels more relaxed, since they know that I have invested into this relationship—the moodboard is a physical proof of that. I can then set the expectations on how often we’ll communicate in the future. Waiting two weeks for the logo proposal isn’t a big deal anymore, as they’re confident that things are cooking behind the scenes. If the waiting period on the very first deliverable was two weeks, they might feel a bit insecure.
3. The first feedback session
The first design proposal can make or break a relationship. If the client feels that the designer doesn’t get them at all, or if the quality of the proposal is far below what the client expected, the project can turn sour.
If the first proposal is well within the client’s expectation, or exceeds it, then both the client and the designer have a reason to feel good about their relationship and continue it on a high note. Even if the first proposal is not 100% spot on and the client requests a revision, being on the right track means so much to both parties.
The first feedback session is the most difficult for the designer. No matter how well prepared we are, and no matter how much research we did, presenting that first proposal is always nerve-wrecking. Designers simply can’t predict how the client is going to respond. After that first feedback session, designers learn how the clients communicate their concerns and desires on concrete examples. There’s a huge difference between clients who share their concerns with an open mind and respect towards the professional, and ones that speak as if they’re experts on the subject themselves—in prescriptive, demanding terms.
If the designer doesn’t appreciate the client’s manner of providing feedback, they can guide them toward a more constructive way of communication, by providing examples. My “Welcome Guide” includes an entire chapter on providing feedback, and I’d recommend that designers don’t wait until the first feedback session before they teach their clients how to do it.
A page from my Welcome Guide, outlining examples of useless and constructive feedback
To learn more, watch the video or read the transcript of my talk How to encourage constructive design feedback, which has lot of advice for designers and project managers.
4. Moving towards the completion of the project
If the first proposal and the first feedback session went right, the path toward project completion should be clear, and shouldn’t take too many revision rounds. Unfortunately, if we don’t address communication problems in the first revision round, they won’t resolve themselves, and may in fact get worse.
The challenge of the last part of the project is that sometimes, there may be small issues that keep pushing away the finish line, such as constant demands to add this thing, fix that thing, or change another thing. If the scope of the project is not clearly defined in the contract, fixing and changing may never end. Here it’s necessary for the designer to draw the line and say: “I have completed everything we have agreed to do as a part of this project, and I’ll send you the invoice. If you wish us to continue working on this project, let’s hop on a call to discuss your needs, and I’ll draft a proposal.”
This is difficult, especially if the client is very kind and enthusiastic. We feel mean when we have to say “no” to people. But setting a boundary around how much we’re able and willing to do for a certain amount of money is also an expectation we’re setting for the future. If you let the first project slide way out of scope, it will become harder to keep future project within scope, because the client comes to expect freebies.
The first time we draw a boundary, it might come as a negative surprise to the client since this whole design project thing is new to them, but then the client will adjust their expectations for the future. If we wait until later in the relationship to address boundary issues, the surprise will catch the client off guard. They’ll think they know how we work, but then we’ll prove them wrong. The more we wait with asserting boundaries, the worse it will land for the other party.
5. Project completion
When the client is happy with the results, and the designer has delegated all requests for additional work to a future project, the current project is completed. The completion often involves:
- Client paying the remaining invoice.
- Designer delivering the final design files.
- Designer delivering additional training (optional).
- Client providing feedback on the project (optional).
The question here is does the designer submit the files first, or does the client pay first?
I believe that, since the client has already seen the results (a low-resolution mockup), there is little risk in paying the invoice prior to receiving the final files. The designer has no incentive for keeping the custom designs they’ve created for this client—it’s not like we can sell them to someone else.
For the designer, there is great risk in sending off the final files before receiving complete payment, as the client might just disappear. I’ve heard many stories of this happening, especially in Croatia, so I know it’s not beneath some people to cheat in professional relationships. We all hope that our clients are not like that, but the truth is that we never know for sure, until we give them the chance to prove it.
Since the advanced technology enables us to send money and digital files to other people in seconds, this exchange can happen very quickly. This reduces the time the client has to wonder “When will I get my files?” to a minimum. If at all possible, us designers need to deliver our final work within one workday of receiving payment.
6. The postpartum period
If both parties are happy with how their first project turned out, they’ll want to collaborate again. If the first project was bumpy, one or both parties may feel unsure about continuing the relationship.
If the designer and the client weren’t able to resolve their differences in the first project, I don’t think the second or the third project will have a happy ending. If the relationship is frustrating from the start, it will remain frustrating until the end.
To those clients who weren’t pleased with the first designer they hired, I suggest to keep looking. Someone else may be a better match for your needs and communication style.
To designers who feel like their clients were not a good fit, I recommend thanking them for the opportunity, and referring them to someone else. It’s tempting to continue the relationship because you need the money, and you may hope that it will turn better. It won’t. In fact, you might get increasingly annoyed by all the small things you’ve ignored in the beginning, and get resentful of your client—that’s not doing them a service. Let them go so they can find someone that will appreciate them as they are.
Both parties should evaluate the relationship and decide whether continuing it is the best decision for you. If you’re having any doubts, the answer is likely “no”. If you just love working together, this is a great foundation for a long-term professional relationship.
Long-term collaboration is the key to “mind reading”
Once the client and the designer survived that first project, the future is looking bright. The designer has already learned a lot about their client’s taste and way of thinking. They know the client’s business inside out, and can anticipate their needs before the client is even aware of them.
The client, on the other hand, knows exactly what they can expect from the designer in terms of their style, skills, and how they communicate. If the designer uses a project management tool, the client has become comfortable with it, and may be actively using it to request more work from the designer.
The designer becomes confident that they can deliver whatever the client needs, and the client’s confidence and trust in the designer rises. They have a proven track record.
With each consecutive project, the client needs to provide less and less guidance. As the building blocks of the brand have assembled, the path becomes clear. The benefits for both sides keep increasing:
- Emails and calls become shorter.
- Briefs consist of the content and size of the final piece, and the details are left to the designer.
- The designer completes the proposals faster.
- There’s fewer or no revision rounds—proposals are often approved immediately.
- Overhead gets smaller, so both parties profit more.
The client isn’t even questioning the designer’s competence and prices, because they don’t want to bear the stress of starting over with someone new. The designer may become more relaxed about contracts and payment schedules, now that they know that the client won’t run away, as it’s in their best interest to preserve the relationship.
The designer will happily advise the client about their options without charging them for consulting, knowing that when it’s time to implement, they client will come back to them. The client can truly feel someone has their back, and they can relax.
Happily ever after?
Unless something seriously disruptive happens in the client’s or the designer’s life, the relationship will likely remain stable for years to come.
If you’re serious about growing your business, both as a professional and as a client, long-term relationships are key. Being in a long-term professional relationship means you can simply delegate some of your worries to the person whose job is to care about them.
But some businesses have difficulty setting up long-term relationships. They keep pursuing new clients, instead of easing into the benefits that working with familiar faces brings.
I’m not a fan of retainers or engagements that resemble employment, so I’ve created a different path to inviting clients to come back. My situation may be unique as I have a diverse set of skills, but I hope it might serve as inspiration to other creatives.
How I’ve set up my business to facilitate long-term relationships
I’m very pleased with the fact that most of my first-time clients become repeat clients. I’ve been working with some of them regularly since I started my business, which is over 4 years at the time of writing this.
In the beginning, I was offering a wide range of services: logo design, web design, graphic design for print, and illustration. In recent years I’ve narrowed it down, and created a clear path for all my new clients to follow.
In through one door
After realizing that my best client relationships grow out of the logo design and branding work projects, I decided to stop publicly offering graphic design and illustration skills, and instead focus on branding.
The path for my clients that I call the Branding Journey looks like this:
- Brand strategy consulting
- Logo & brand identity design project
- Website design project
- Other smaller graphic design projects (print or digital)
You can see how I’ve laid it out and explained on my Brand Identity Design services page.
This is the only available path for clients to work with me. They can’t skip to step 3 or 4 before we go through the foundational steps 1 and 2. This has brought more clarity and ease to my business. I now introduce myself as a logo and brand designer, not a generalist designer, because that’s what I want people to hire me for.
The order of services follows the logic of branding. There’s no point in creating the website and other promo materials, without the clear foundation of a brand strategy. If you want to do things right, logo design comes before website design.
(The exception to this “rule” is if you’re just starting out, and need a fast and cheap website to be able to test your services and get your first clients. I completely support this way of starting your business, but I don’t serve clients who are in this phase.)
Logos are among the most challenging design projects, if not the most challenging. If we get through this project with ease and joy, this means we’re a great match philosophically and creatively, and we can take on any project together.
After we’ve completed our logo design and brand identity project and we continue to collaborate, the clients get access to my other, exclusive services. This way I’m able to “niche down” without actually niching. I still get to work on a variety of projects, but it happens within the safety and comfort of my existing client relationships, so the projects are more enjoyable.
Apart from the services listed on my main services page, I have several hidden pages with special packages just for return clients. On top of that, return clients get:
- First taste of new services I decide to launch in the future.
- Ability to book rush projects.
- First dibs on schedule openings.
- Keeping old rates for longer as I increase prices.
- Bonuses and freebies when they order a large volume of services.
My repeat clients are the backbone of my business, and I try my very best to make them feel special.
It’s not just a business transaction for me—as I get to know them better, I start considering them friends. The level of honesty and transparency only increases as years go by, and some of my clients start confiding in me. In turn, I feel comfortable sharing my own challenges with them (to the level that’s appropriate), especially when I feel it might impact our work.
Business relationships are like any other relationship
When you boil down all relationships to their essence, they consist of mutual trust, respect and appreciation. Sometimes appreciation grows into love, as is the case with close friends, family and partners—but at the very least you appreciate the person for who they are, and for the value they bring to your life.
Business relationships are no different.
In the very beginning, trust, respect and appreciation are not a given. Both sides must work hard to earn them. Each action we take can either strengthen or erode our mutual trust, respect, and appreciation.
If you considered every blog post, sales page, email, meeting, document, or deliverable as a way to strengthen the client’s trust, respect and appreciation, would you do anything different?
And if you could disqualify clients on the basis of trust, respect and appreciation you have toward them, how many of them would you keep working with?
While long-term collaborations are wonderful, they’re not possible with everyone, just as you cannot be friends with every single person you meet. I believe that if you can’t see someone as a potential long-term collaborator, you shouldn’t bother collaborating with them in the short-term, either. The risk of staying in a dysfunctional relationship, hoping that things will change, is too great (see: optimism bias).
There are so many great clients and designers out there—don’t settle for anything less.