Q: I don’t think my client likes me anymore. What did I do wrong?

A: You can be a hard person to like.

I can guess at the situation you’re going through, friend. You landed a new client, and in the beginning everything was roses and cheerful emails. That was six months ago and now the relationship is slowly turning frosty. Emails are terse and phone-calls don’t get returned. Why don’t they love you any more?

This is going to sound crazy, but it helps to think of client relations as what they really are — relationships. Successful relationships need tending, attention and care. Like just about everyone who gets blindsided by an ugly breakup, you probably haven’t noticed but you’re not the easiest person to be in a relationship with.

You’ve got issues. I’m going to outline them for you. This may hurt a bit, but hold the tears for later.

You think you’re so damned cool.

You’re a designer. You went to design school. You’re an artiste, and you don’t have to conform to normal rules. At the start of the relationship, this was kind of endearing. You swan in late, wearing all black, with a scarf jauntily slung around your neck. You’re the cool creative!

Just like in a relationship, this gets boring fast. When your client wants to have you present to their boss (think of this as meeting their parents) they want to make sure you don’t embarrass them or say anything to make them look silly for hanging around with you. You probably missed the signals at that first boardroom meeting, but they were certainly in the air. It would have been better if you’d dressed up a little, but you didn’t because you were too damned cool.

You’re unreliable

Because you’re a creative (and please never ever call yourself that again) you’re not confined by clocks or calendars. As long as you deliver a result, as long as you drop work that’s impressive, then the client should be happy to have you, right?

Well, no.

The client asked you for the comps at close of business Wednesday, and you delivered them at 10am Thursday. What’s the difference, eh? How could that possibly be a problem? Well, think about how you’d feel if it was your birthday Wednesday and your boyfriend gave you flowers on the Thursday. No matter how good the flowers were, there would still be a bitter taste in your mouth because near enough isn’t really good enough for some things. It doesn’t seem like a big thing, but if that became a pattern, you’d be looking out for eligible men next time you were at the bar. And that’s what your client is doing right now.

You don’t communicate properly

This is a big one. Good relationships between people are founded in trust, and a fundamental element of trust is open and honest communication. You need to talk about the good things, and the bad. Importantly, you need to learn how to listen to your partner’s needs instead of talking about how damned great you are all the time.

And when things go wrong (and they always will have a chance to go wrong) you need to let people know in advance and you need to own up to your mistakes. I’m betting you’re not doing that with your client, are you? When it looks like the proverbial is going to hit the fan, you hide yourself from the spray while your client gets in there with a mop and bucket. I’d leave you too.

You‘ve got a wandering eye

Back at the start of this relationship, you were all about pleasing the client. You made sure you were attentive to their needs, asked them about themselves — and you listened.

Now you’ve landed them, though, it’s not quite the same. You’ve got what you wanted, but it’s time to look for the next big fish. You’re focused on what gets you a better client, and this is cruelling the relationship you already have. Nobody likes to be at a restaurant when their partner is ogling the wait-staff. So cut that out.

You let yourself go.

Remember your first few dates with your partner? You shaved or waxed or whatever, wore your best clothes, and probably even wore some cologne (tip — Encre Noir by Lailique is a great fragrance for a designer to wear bcause it smells like printer’s ink and hard work).

Six months down the track you’re wearing sweats, eating pizza out of your lap, and your gym membership card is lost in the couch cushions.

That’s a relationship killer right there.

“Eventually your client is going to realise they’re getting the rest of you, not the best of you.”

Your relationship with your client probably went the same way. First few meetings, you presented nothing but your best work and your very best attitude. Then on the third or fourth project, you started just throwing in ideas hoping that the client would accept it, or worse that you’d be able to get things past them. Don’t pretend you’ve never done that — we all have. But when you start doing that, things have shifted in your relationship, and while it’s initially imperceptible, eventually your client is going to realise they’re getting the rest of you, not the best of you. And that stings.

Ultimately, you don’t respect your relationship, and it shows.

Relationships thrive when there is communication, a little dose of mutual admiration, and a whole lot of respect. If that respect dies away, then relationship is immediately on shaky ground.

Ultimately you need to stop wondering why the client doesn’t like you and make sure you are someone they can respect. Be on time. Deliver good work. Respect the client’s role in the relationship (and the process). Communicate better. Pay attention.

Essentially, stop being a damned jerk.

When you do, I guarantee you’ll find relationships built on respect last a lot longer than those that simply rely on being liked.

Ross Floate works in Melbourne at Floate Design Partners helping clients build sustainable digital capabilities, better products, and damned fine publications.

This post originally appeared at Dear Design Student, a great publication about growing into the field of design, no matter how old you are.

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