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Tuning into your ‘3rd’ ear

Posted on February 04 2016 by Sue Fabian

Clients can see their vision in their mind, they have an idea of how they want it to look, and a price that they are willing to spend, or what they think it is worth. And, it is because they can’t draw it themselves, (that sketch on the back of a napkin) that they come to a design agency. And, our role is to help them realise their ideas, into a design that will work for them, and in the case of retail, for the environment that they are going to be selling in. The difficulty is extracting this information from them, and that is where your 3rd ear has to be tuned in.

Establishing the goal posts: We all acknowledge that the goal posts will move during the meeting. This is usually due to the fact that the client will come in with either no idea of what they want, or a definitive idea. Rarely will they have thought of the knock on effects, particularly within a retail store, where space and location are key, and volume or exclusivity maybe the driving force. As a designer, we have to listen hard to the unspoken questions, and provide answers. Budget usually comes under this heading, and in the case of certain retailers, a ‘cheap’ shop fit, simply would not be acceptable. This does not mean not being innovative within the design and making the best of a small budget, but orange boxes painted blue are simply not an option when Selfridges are offering you a great space, even for an organic company!

A brand has to be upfront with their budget expectations, and a design company has to be equally honest as to what can be built for that budget, and explain why. For example, to stand up to the extremely hard wear and tear within a store, a cabinet carcass will be spray painted a minimum of three times before being hand finished to a durable quality finish.

Glass will have to be made to a very high standard, usually hand cut and hand finished, often curved, which equals expensive. So what started as a ‘bells and whistles’ idea in your clients head, may end as a simpler, but beautifully finished piece of design work, but able to portray the brands identity as the client saw it in their minds eye.

Getting the information: It helps when you have built trust and a long-term relationship. When the client feels uneasy with your suggestions, you can instantly read it in their body language, and you may need to adapt your style and questioning style to regain their confidence. If they have not told you all the underlying aspirations for their brand, you can spend too much time going in the wrong direction. You can tell that there is a problem, and you need to change tact.

Trust: Once a rapport has been established, it may help to meet informally, and discuss the project within a chatty atmosphere, over coffee. Your tone is really important, and you do need to get obstacles out of the way. This is usually money /fees. So get those on the table and ensure that there is an understanding right away of costs, and how those are made up. Some clients like full financial disclosure, some want a quote that will cover everything, so you need to be able to adapt to their needs, especially as they may need to justify this cost to a board. Design, like marketing is often difficult to explain in terms of return on investment. Then, when it comes to the design itself, your client has to completely buy into it, or they will never be happy with the result.

Remember to give them all the information they will need to make a decision, that will include the good, and the bad points.

Listening with your 3rd ear: Developing this skill by actually taking time to let your client do the talking, and explaining their problems. Take you cues from them, take notes, and allow the conversation to flow. Take note of their attitude to the design and their preferences, before coming back with your ideas and drawings. By targeting their concerns, you may motivate your client to take your advice, consider the bigger picture, and hopefully, be super happy with the final result.

Your 3rd ear is a vital tool within your business. Cultivate and encourage your colleagues to understand this skill, as it will always help you with your client / workforce relationships.