5 Sneaky Ways To Figure Out Exactly What Your Clients Want

The great thing about clients is that they give you money. Other than that, I’m at a bit of a loss.

Fine, that’s not fair. Thing is, clients can be fantastic. When you find the right one, you can create this amazing symbiotic relationship where the two of you feed off each other and make beautiful music together.

And then there are ones that could be amazing to work with, but you just can’t figure out exactly what they want. If only there was a way to suss out the interesting goodies from their domes so that you could turn their dreams into reality. Well, as it turns out, there is. And we have the secrets to turning that shaky client into a rockstar by becoming a #clientwhisperer. And it only takes a few simple steps.

Interview the Client

Now I imagine all of you do this already, so it probably seems like this is a dumb first step in this whole process of becoming the ideal #clientwhisperer. But there’s a point to this, so bear with me.

Clients are going to come to you (or you will go to them) from all walks of life. One of them may have never hired a designer before, and as a result, they may be intimidated by your knowledge and skills. Or, they could be a corporation that’s been down this path before, and they have a very specific process to go through. What you need to do is figure out how they want to operate, and work around that, while still educating them on what works for you. Make the new and intimidated client feel comfortable by meeting for coffee first and keeping the conversation casual. Discuss the terms for both sides with the corporate client so they feel safe as well. Talk to your client face-to-face so that there’s no issue or miscommunications. You’ll work out contract stuff later; this is just a good time to get to know each other.

What you want to do is start to understand their personality, as well as what the corporate culture is like at their place of business. You’ll be able to figure out things like color preferences, style concepts, and so on, and having that information on hand helps a lot if your client is mute on how they want things to look.

Engineer Your Questions

With my company, I have the ability to cut stickers in any one of hundreds of color combinations, and yet I only offer 12 out to the public. Why is that? It’s analysis paralysis, and the basic concept is that if people have too many things to choose from, they may pick none of them because it’s just too overwhelming. Think it’s any different dealing with a client? Of course not. So here’s the sneaky way to get around that.

Ever been to an eye doctor before? If not, here’s how it goes: you sit in a chair, and they have you look through this giant contraption with lenses all over. They flip between two of them and ask, "Better with A or B," and the process continues. You need to do the same thing with your clients. After trying to suss out some of the basics, ask the questions that specifically limit their choices.

Let’s turn this into an example. Say your client comes to you and they’re interested in starting a marketing campaign, they just don’t know where or when. First question: "Do you want to do this in print or online?" Let’s say they want to make it an online campaign. "Alright, great. Do you want to push a social media campaign or advertise on websites?" They want social media. "Excellent. Do you prefer Facebook or Instagram?" See how that works?

The idea is to engineer your questions specifically so that you limit the responses you can get back, removing analysis paralysis in the process. And by drilling down further and further, you can get the specifics just by asking a few questions.

Keep Things Goal Oriented

I talk a lot about The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, because not only is it a great way to learn how to be more productive, but it also has some cool tips about marketing. In particular, there’s a story about toothpaste, and although it’s a fascinating tale, the idea behind it is pretty simple: what’s the goal for your product? How do you want the person to feel?

Let’s apply this to the client situation. At some point you need to nail down what their goal is and why they came to you in the first place. Say they want you to design a website for them. Why? Is it just because they think they need one, or is there a specific reason? For me, I started my personal website back in the day because I wanted a way to get my writing out to the world. Your client may want that website to sell widgets or promote their brand. Whatever it is, you need to ask pointed questions to find out.

And remember, it’s important to figure out what the feeling is that they want the customer to have when they see the product of your work. Is it a warm feeling? Safety? Happiness? Try to nail down some emotional connections and that can help with the overall process.

Make Them Feel Like a Genius

You’re in a precarious position as a creative. You’re the expert in your field, which is why your client came to you to begin with. But they know their business inside and out, so they obviously are experts on that topic. What I’ve seen happen, however, is a client tells me what I need to do to make a design look good, when I clearly feel they’re wrong. How do you sort that out?

This again comes down to planning. I usually make a few rough mockups of a design, whatever it is, and pitch them to the client to begin with. I’ll limit their choices, but I’ll typically have three to choose from: one that’s their style (or as close to it as I dare to go), one that’s my style, and one that’s in between. I ask them to pick one, not telling them which is which, and see where they go. And when they choose one — no matter which one it is — I heap praise on them for picking the "right" one. They walk away feeling like a design genius.

The key here is to not show the client anything that you wouldn’t be proud to put in your portfolio, and that can be hard, particularly when they’re horrible at design. If you work hard at hitting that mark, you’ll be better off in the long run. There’s one other bonus: if your client doesn’t like any of them, you can ask them why, and that will help eliminate objects or things for a fourth revision. Yeah, that sucks, but it does get you to the end goal of knowing exactly what they want.

Ask Them What They Hate

My wife and I have this running argument about what to have for dinner. I ask her what she’d like, and she says, "I don’t know. What do you want?" Around and around we go, until eventually I say, "Well what don’t you want?" And that’s what narrows things down to a reasonable point, and we end up going out for dinner at In-N-Out Burger because they’re awesome, and if a Double-Double is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

If your design clients are anything like mine, they don’t know what they want, and probably don’t have a clue. But they likely do know what they hate, and that’s where you can lean in and get some good info. So they hate text that has "that glowing thing" going on? OK cool, no radiant glows for them. Certain colors are off the chart bad for them and their brand? No sweat, make sure they’re not included. Bob from accounting hates it when web pages have popups? Well Bob is a jerk, so who cares about that guy. Popups on every page!

Anyway, you get the idea. If you know what they don’t like, then you can eliminate those things from your design and get closer to something they might like. You’re still shooting in the dark, but at least it’s an educated guess — and that’s something.

Go Forth and Whisper

Have you ever heard the story of Sisyphus? He was punished because of his lies by the Greek gods, and in turn had to push a boulder up a hill just to watch it fall back down, and repeat the process for eternity. Sometimes working with clients can be just like that, particularly when you don’t know what they want. And that’s frustrating. But hopefully some of these tips will help you weed through the mess and pull out a beautiful flower — or at least not have to push the boulder up too many times in the process.


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