Trust and Client Relationships
Posted July 9, 2009on:
I had an “ah-ha” moment recently. The moment was spurred by Josh’s talk at Refresh Boston in combination with my endless job search at the moment, and general self-reflection. I realized two things, which might be seem simple but have actually taken me 3 years to truly understand at an intuitive level, versus just a conceptual one.
1) Although any job will always have times when you might manage difficult conversations, many difficult conversations with clients can be avoided all together if there is a healthy amount of trust.
2) The UX field, either knowingly or not, sends a message that we are the experts. We know best because we talk to the user. This might have come about from the UX field struggling to get accepted as a profession, but has now proliferated so widely that it imbues a lot of work (and discussion lists) and gives newcomers to the field a false sense of righteousness. Theoretically, this might be true (and I would certainly like to believe it), but practically it just does not fly. Our job is not to dictate, but rather to listen, guide, communicate, and facilitate. We do not have all the answers, we are not always right, and we should not take this position when working with stakeholders. One gains much more trust in the service role than in the dictatorship role. I have personally made several huge mistakes by adopting the wrong attitude, which I thought was appropriate for my role as UX designer. I am now thoroughly humbled.
In order to re-educate myself a bit further, I reached out to some of my colleagues – Jeff Parks, Joshua Porter, Steve Baty, and Mark Sloan – and asked them for advice on gaining trust with a client. Here was some of the advice I was given. Most of the information below are quotes from emails.
- Listen. Listen for new insights, listen to understand the clients problem, listen much more than you talk. Ask questions to clarify and repeat back to the client what you have heard. You gain trust by assuring the client that you really care about their problem and are truly listening to them; rather than “pushing a square peg into a round hole”, that is trying to force your framework or mental model onto the client (Jeff Parks)
- Repeat and reiterate what you are working on. This allows clients to feel more confident that you are paying attention and listening (Josh Porter).
- Become a subject matter expert, build a good reputation locally and also within the UX community. Steve Baty suggests writing articles or giving presentations, answering questions in public forums and the like. Clients will cut you some slack when (inevitably) difficulties arise if you have a solid reputation. Also, you need to constantly deliver, so that when things do go wrong, clients know its the exception not the rule.
- Show insight early. Most clients show some misunderstanding, making assumptions about users and their behavior. The idea is to gently push back on that notion by providing insight into user behavior. This shows that you are a subject matter expert and that you can be trusted to make good decisions.
- Be honest. Learn to say “I don’t know” (Jeff Parks), and also be upfront about what you are delivering and when (Steve Baty).
- Plant seeds, and give them time to come to fruition. Know that it takes time for people to learn and make good decisions. What took you a week to decide cannot be related in 10 minutes in a meeting. Plant seeds of ideas and let the client mull it over (Mark Sloan).
- Use terms like “we” and “us”. Anything new will always get some pushback, sit back, take notes and don’t react right away. This will help curb some defensiveness that might come out (unintentionally). The pressure to come to a decision right away is usually the biggest trigger for anger and distrust. Say something like “we don’t seem convinced one way or the other, let’s capture this as an issue, think about it another
day or so and then resolve it”. Using “we” and “us” reinforces the idea that you are working together
and will help both you and them keep the right mind frame. (Mark Sloan).
Do you have more insights than what I listed above? Feel free to comment, I would love to know more tips and tricks!
ETA: I found some relevant articles which bring additional insights to this topic
Understanding Critical to Being Understood by Jeff Parks, Johnny Holland
8 Strategies for Successful Relations with Clients by Jeff Gardner, Smashing Magazine