Do you know how to be a good client?

It sounds like it would be obvious, doesn’t it? 
The problem with writing is that we’re all taught how to do it in school. The result is that anyone who can write a shopping list thinks they can write a press release. And, that being the case, they question why they should pay anyone else to do something that they see as being easy.

The result is that that many clients hire a copywriter, PR consultant or a designer and then tell the consultant what the solution is. The only ‘right’ answer becomes the one that the client would have delivered had they done the work themselves.

This was discussed in the seventh of BBC4’s Timeshift series. In the programme in which Peter York charts the rise and fall of the British advertising industry Tim Bell, former front man at Saatchi and Saatchi, spoke of how, when the communications industry was on the rise, clients were trusting enough to allow the creative process to take its course.

Bell quoted Margaret Thatcher who, he said, had been a great believer in expertise.  He said that when Thatcher hired an expert “she didn’t double guess them; she didn’t ignore them; she let them be the expert.”  Her view was: “If she hired a plumber you let the plumber do the plumbing; you didn’t tell the plumber how to do the plumbing or question what they’re doing; they just got on with it.”

Communications agencies and freelancers the world over would love to have that sort of freedom now.  Times, though, have changed and perhaps with good reason. There's a need for client and consultant to get satisfaction from the process.

In the same programme Sir Frank Lowe, partner at ad agency Red Brick Road, described how, when times became more testing for the ad industry, the mood changed from one of creative arrogance. “When the client asked what time it was you answered by saying what time would you like it to be.” Lowe said that while agencies had, at one time, fired clients that didn’t like creative work, the stress had moved to keeping the client at whatever cost. “We kept the client, but I don’t think the work was as good,” said Lowe.

The situation now is that many customers realise they still need help with communications. But, ever aware of the money they’re spending, many clients are less likely to give a free-hand to consultants. While the clichéd joke was once that a consultant was once a person who would use your watch to tell you the time the case is now, perhaps, that clients will too often hand their consultants a watch and instruct them to read it back.

This makes little sense. I can see why there’s a need for compromise. In house marketing teams can be advanced and clever. Their research and knowledge is often good and they, more than anyone else, often understand their product, service and their customer.

However, I think that Thatcher’s comments still hold true. Client’s shouldn’t hire a communications consultant, and then write every word for them any more than Margaret would hire a plumber and tell them how to do it. 

So what’s the right way forward?

Here are some tips:

Spend time on the brief. Get it right.

If you’re the client use this as an opportunity about what you do and don’t want to do for yourself. Make it clear what you’re expecting. Are you hoping just to delegate a prescribed task or re you hoping for guidance and true consultancy. Make it clear from the start.

If you’re the consultant, use the brief as an chance to make it clear how you work. Are you happy to take a defined task or were you hoping to offer strategic advice?  Make it clear what you’re prepared to accept.

What is the objective of the project or working relationship? Tom Cruise’s missions might be impossible, but at least it is made clear to him what the mission is. Consultants often fail because the client didn’t know what they wanted as the outcome, or they changed their mind after the project started (and they didn’t, necessarily, tell the consultant).

Consider the mission and write it down. What are the criteria for success? How will either side know when the project is complete, or if it’s on track? Agree objectives, timescales and budgets and write it down. Ideally, the consultant should write this into a brief and the client should sign it off. In this way both sides understand the rules of engagement and the expectations.

Next, if you’re the client, let your consultant get on with the work. You might have an idea as to what you would like to see. You might know how you would do it, if you had to. But remember, always, that there was a reason why you hired the consultant. There was probably a reason why you hired this particular consultant; so let them do their work.  If you can’t trust them, perhaps you shouldn’t have hired them. If you do trust them, let them do their job.

 When the work is done it should be reviewed against the original brief. Was it on time and does it meet the agreed objectives?

If the work meets the agreed brief, all that’s left is for the client to pay in a reasonable time.

In summary

So, how to be a good client? Be clear about your hopes and expectations. Trust your consultant and give them the space to do the work. Take their advice. Compare their work, not to how you would have done it yourself, but to the brief that you agreed at the start. Did it achieve the objectives? Pay on time.