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The worst client meeting…

… and how it was all my fault!

I’m Mark Vaesen and I’m the owner and founder of Tomango, a branding and website design agency near Uckfield.

This is the (painful) story of the worst client meeting I ever had…

It’s 2016.

We’re meeting with our client to discuss the planning of his new website.

Now just to be clear, this stage of the project is crucial. This meeting is crucial.

Not only is it really, really important to plan a website properly to make sure it delivers the best return on investment, but it’s also the “kick-off” meeting, where the client meets the other key people on the team for the first time.

All the conversations I’d had with the client up to that point seemed to have gone pretty smoothly.

Until today.

We’re sitting round the table, introductions having been made, and I ask a question that I come to regret. In fact, I haven’t asked another client since. Because basically it’s asking for trouble.

I say:

“Have you got any particular ideas for features the site should have?”

“One or two, yes”, he says, and he reaches down into his bag and pulls out one of those clear plastic wallets with the little popper fasteners on the front.

There are some pieces of paper in the wallet. The pieces of paper have sketches on them.

There are A LOT of pieces of paper.

I can hear the faint sound of four hearts sinking as we realise what’s going to happen next.

“I’ve sketched out some ideas I’ve had. Now I’m not saying this is necessarily how it will end up; they’re just to get the discussion going, really.”

Uh-huh…

We’ve seen this before.

This is the point at which there’s a high chance we’re going to lose control of the project. The client’s obviously been thinking about this for a long, LONG time, and these ideas are probably pretty deeply rooted.

The conversation that follows is going to determine the direction of the whole of the rest of the project. He’s either going to show us his ideas, take part in a sensible, objective discussion about them, listen to our recommendations and then make some well-reasoned decisions, or he’s going to dig his heels in, not value our input at all, and we’re going to continually battle with him about every little detail from here on in.

Who’s going to be in charge of this project – us, or him?

We tentatively start – and he gets things underway by telling us what he’s got in mind for the header area, at the top of each web page.

It’s a complete dog’s dinner.

It’s a collection of all the ideas he’s seen elsewhere on his internet travels, scooped up and vomited out into one hyper-busy, mind-blowing mess that would confuse every single one of his target customers.

I wait for him to finish explaining everything and then I say:

“So, we talked before about your customers, and we know that the vast majority of them don’t understand which one of your products might be right for them. In which case, what we suggest is having a clear, single point of focus for this section, to help them figure out which product they need, based on how many staff they have. That would work much better than all these elements you’ve got here. I think this will just confuse your customers. Would you agree..?”

Here we go then, the moment of truth. Is he going to place his trust in us and see the value of approaching this website project using logic, or is he going to just want to include everything he wants, because he thinks he knows best?

The few seconds of silence that follows seems to me like an eternity. Anxious glances are exchanged between the team as we wait for his reply…

“I hear what you’re saying but…”

Oh crap.

“…I think we should include these different features, because it gives the customer lots of options to find the information they need.”

Well that’s it then. We’ve lost him.

He’s not coming back. We can’t change him, or his point of view.

He runs a successful company and his ego’s so big and he’s had people say Yes to him so often for so long that we’ve got NO chance.

At this stage, I need to have the balls to stop the meeting, express my concerns that we’re not going to be the right fit for each other, and begin the painful but necessary process of how we can go our separate ways in the easiest way possible.

I really wish I could say that’s what happened.

But it wasn’t.

I had the balls to say something, sure. I expressed my concerns – but I said I didn’t think it was the right way to go, but it was his website at the end of the day and if that’s what he wanted, then it was his choice. Or something like that.

But whatever it was, it was weak. It was a big project and I didn’t want to lose it. In the end of course, I wished I had.

After another hour and a half of this nonsense, my colleague bluntly but politely said “Are you basically saying you want us to copy these sketches and make them look good?”

The client came out with the classic “Well, I’m not a designer, that’s what I’m paying you for” – but we all knew deep down that’s what he meant.

This meeting from hell is an example of Mistake Number Four on my list of the Top 5 mistakes people make when designing a website. It’s where the client positions themselves as the creative lead on a project, and can’t let go and trust the designer.

And it’s a recipe for disaster.

I’m sorry to say the rest of the project was pretty much a calamity.

The design process became an exercise in pixel-pushing and at one stage – I kid you not – the client insisted on sitting alongside our Creative Director, directing him what to do.

Everything was made worse because he was incredibly chatty. No phone call lasted less than 20 minutes, even to discuss a simple point. Meetings ran on for hours.

The project overran by six months, and we started dreading every time we saw his number come up when the phone rang.

We ended up losing loads of money on the project itself, not to mention the missed opportunities from other work we could have been doing instead.

But we learned our lesson.

What we do now is to establish much earlier on – right from the first time we talk to the client, if we can – whether they value what we do and want us to lead the project. We understand not everyone wants to (or can) and that’s ok – we’re not the right fit for everyone. If that’s the case, we walk away.

We don’t ask the client what they think the website should look like, or what features it should include. That’s what they pay us for. Instead we ask them questions about their customers, their products, and the issues people face when trying to buy from them.

We also have the confidence to challenge the client when it’s right to, although we make sure we take an objective view and back it up with logic, so they can see we’re only trying to make the best decisions for their business. It’s nothing personal.

At Tomango, we always look for ways to improve what we do. We want to do work we enjoy, and work that delivers the biggest impact for our clients.

So if you’d like someone to give you some honest straight-talking advice about how to plan your website for maximum impact for your business, get in touch or give us a call on 01273 814019, and we can chat.

I don’t expect it will take more than 20 minutes 😉