Are you listening to your clients?

By Chris Macmahon

Posted on Friday, June 25th, 2021

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Skillfully dealing with clients is arguably the toughest, yet most important, ability a working artist can develop. It could mean the difference between getting the job and losing it, between sufficiently profiting and getting burned and, most importantly, between succeeding in business or not. Fortunately, the customer will tell you everything you need to know about the sale, but you must listen with an astute and sensitive ear.

Most bring simple ideas

People want to feel that they matter and that you respect their ideas. Even knowing this, it’s very easy to steamroll over the client’s original concept as your mind fills with cool techniques and effects you’ve been dying to try.

In our defense, we are paid to be creative, to take the loose fragments of a concept and form them into cohesive, effective designs. And it’s better for both the client and us if that design is also dynamic and eye-catching. The extent to which we are able to balance these factors is what separates the truly innovative sign artists from bland, pedestrian scribes. In the interest of staying creatively ahead of the pack, we push ourselves to integrate new layouts and concepts into our work, assuring ourselves enviable reputations and enjoyable careers.

Sometimes, though, (and this is where balance and sensitivity are imperative) the customer really does just want a straight-ahead, no-frills, keep-it-simple sign. I think the area you’re working in has a lot to do with this. It’s pretty conventional wisdom that you can sell the public on more radical ideas on the coasts, particularly California or in large metropolitan areas, than you can in small Midwestern towns, which often have a more conservative, blue-collar taste.

In an effort to make the product shine, you can blaze ahead with an over-the-top razzle-dazzle design, but may not get the positive response you would have with the simple design the customer requested. From their standpoint, getting what they wanted trumps lots of flash.

This can be a blow to “young tigers” feeling they have something to prove. Having to produce something painfully simple seems like downshifting our creative gears. But, on the other hand, a simple, bold graphic or lettering type can pack a lot more visual impact than lots of bevels and highlights.

It can also be a lot of fun to practice streamlining your layouts and color choices for maximum effectiveness—a truth the “old lions” have long known. Better to be on the same page with the client.

Talking price

If you give him the chance, the client will probably tell you what he or she wants and what he or she is willing to spend. A benefit to letting clients state a price is that they’ll often start higher than you’d have quoted. We’re sometimes guilty of taking what we do for granted and are concerned about keeping our prices competitive. To someone outside the business, with little or no pricing reference, getting custom artwork of any type seems mystical and they may just assume it’s expensive.

If the prospective client doesn’t mention how much he’s looking to spend early on, then go ahead and ask politely. That way it’s on the table early. If his budget is less or more money than creating his sign would require, you can offer ways to trim or embellish his design to fit the budget. If you show him other jobs you’ve done in the given price range, he’ll get a better understanding of your prices.

On the flip side, you’ll sometimes run into the customer who is looking for the quickest, cheapest product. To them, getting a functional sign immediately is more important than effects or details. This is often the case with yard signs and magnetic door signs—the type of sign that is often viewed as a necessary evil in the creative sign shop. You can explain the visual impact and benefits of a more colorful quality design, but they may just not care.

In both cases, however, we can benefit by listening as the customer tells us what we need to know. We save ourselves a lot of unnecessary talk and work, and may well get more money for our labors.

Dealing with customer’s design ideas

The customer often comes to you with a rough idea of what he or she wants, be it a specific lettering type, color combination or even a layout. Most times this is intended to serve as a starting point for you, the professional artist. Our job is to streamline and polish their concept into a working design that will fit their needs in an aesthetically pleasing way. Hopefully they will defer to your judgment and be willing to compromise in the hopes of coming up with a better finished product.

When you make changes, you will want to tactfully explain why you are making the changes and how the customer will benefit from them. Throughout the sales process, it’s important to talk about the benefits of the sign to the customer. Most customers can get more interested in what the sign will do for them than in the sign itself.

But occasionally you get a customer who, despite all of your polite protests and reasoned suggestions, insists on a design that you know is not going to be attractive or effective.

First off, don’t run down their design. They may not be professionals, but they put a measure of thought and effort into their concept. Don’t stomp on it. Explain what works in their design and what doesn’t, suggesting what might work better. Simplifying an awkward layout, changing even just the main copy, or substituting complementary colors for clashing ones will oftentimes do the trick.

At this point, I like to engage the customer while I offer more ways to enhance and embellish his concept. This is often a good time to show photos of past jobs and explain how similar problems were corrected. This demonstrates that I’m interested in his ideas and allows me to direct, to some extent, the design process. Oftentimes, just seeing that you really care about his project will cause the previously stubborn client to consider your suggestions.

Graphic design is a collaborative effort between designer and client. The client wants his vision brought to life through your talents, and it’s important to him that he gets what he wants—even if it is garish or stale. Something is lost for him when he feels denied the options he’d like.

You, meanwhile, have three main goals:

  • Get the work.
  • Produce something that makes the customer happy.
  • Make the finished product something you would be proud to have your name on.

This scenario forces you to evaluate what’s most important to you: getting the job (getting paid) and giving the customer what he wants, or turning it down so as not to have your name on something you can’t feel proud of. This is a decision only you can make.

If the client is pleasant and we are otherwise on the same page, yet he just really insists on having it his way, I’ll usually do it. The truth, for better or worse, is that one job isn’t going to make or break you.

What about difficult customers?

Now and then you’ll get problem customers. Thankfully, they’ll let you know early on what they are. By catching and processing them immediately, you can avoid much of the stress and the unpleasant, low-profit work that wears us down.

It’s mostly a difference of attitude. If he’s coming on strong, telling you how to do your job, and getting belligerent about your prices, you’re right to send him on his way. Also, if he’s badmouthing your competition, you might want to take this as a warning—maybe the other shop read this guy as a problem and chose not to deal with him.

These points seem obvious enough, but I think we often rationalize and choose not to listen to our instincts in favor of getting the job. Often, we get burned.
On the other hand, maybe this guy did get a raw deal elsewhere and is just wary. Maybe you can allay his fears and still make a good sale. Give him room to explain where he’s coming from. Maybe he feels out of his league discussing something creative and conceptual.

Maybe in his last experience with a sign shop he felt his ideas weren’t listened to or he was charged more than he had budgeted. His “attitude” may just be a way of making sure he is listened to. I’ve had numerous clients who initially struck me as potentially difficult that turned out to be my best and most appreciative repeat business.

There is a silver lining to working with each of these customers. When we’re forced to take poor designs and transform them into something that works, we exercise our creative muscles and approach our work in a new and unique way. Stubborn customers with unpleasant demands kick us out of our routine and break up the uniformity that may have crept into our work. Difficult customers keep our people skills sharp. Our diplomacy and problem-solving skills grow and our creativity improves.

We just need to listen.

Chris MacMahan’s shop, Aerografix, is in Elyria, Ohio.

SignCraft, November/December 2006