Whether you are a web designer or a website owner/client, you are likely working in a new business milieu – one that is only a few years old – wherein independent entrepreneurs and/or small businesses interact directly over large distances or across time zones. Even “local” jobs are often further than would make sense to commute for a meeting; most clients and designers never meet face-to-face. At the same time, website owners are also dealing with new technology suites for which they have no background for understanding.

Website owners, you didn’t grow up hearing from your parents how to negotiate these sorts of contracts; the vast majority of the technologies your site will employ didn’t exist the last time you had a site built 8 years ago, much less when you were growing up. This creates a context that obviously could allow for abuse, much as an auto mechanic might rely on the ignorance of his customers to charge three thousand dollars to replace a working head gasket when a thermostat is out. For website owners, this means you are likely to be on guard. Fair enough, but too often web designers spend large amounts of their and their clients’ time explaining to skeptical clients what they actually do need.

To increase efficiency and create a better working relationship, web designers should follow these four steps:

– invest some phone time up front

– choose the technology that fits your clients’ needs

– be clear about ongoing costs

– support what you say

One of the first steps to take when engaging a new customer is to build a trustworthy rapport. This means volunteering up some phone time. No you’re not getting paid for this, but neither does this have any immediate value to the client either. However, for both parties, a willingness to invest in a more functional and trusting long-term relationship is both wise and a positive thing to look for in the person with whom you are speaking. Know where your customer (or designer if you are the client) lives, what the weather is like there, if they have kids, what they do for fun. You don’t need to know their most intimate desires or if they prefer a normative to a positive ethics system; just make a genuine human relationship. This takes a bit of time, but it is worth it for both parties.

This human relationship should give the designer an idea of what kind of needs the client has and what kind of money they are capable of throwing towards addressing those needs – take these into consideration. Most web designers really want to work on big, expensive and cool looking sites with neat animated custom modules all over the place. That’s really great, but sometimes all someone needs is a picture, some text and a contact form. Choose the right CMS for your client (sometimes this is Joomla, sometimes WordPress, sometimes Drupal) and choose the right extensions to achieve their business goals, not your design preferences. Too often are over-ambitious website projects killed in gestation when overwhelmed customers realize they have walked into a money pit. Even if they can afford to build the website you want to build, they may not have the budget to maintain it.

Speaking of which, maybe one of the most important discussions to have with a new website client is about technology upgrades and site maintenance. What is obvious to a designer is often a huge surprise to their client: that a website needs regular maintenance and that the tools used to build a site last year now are no longer current. CMS upgrades are probably the most important thing to explain when getting started. Clients should know how long a CMS version’s lifespan is likely to be and how much they should have put away to upgrade when the time comes. They should also know the consequences of not upgrading (see last blog). They should know why they should have an SEO budget, that they need to pay for hosting and extension upgrades, etc., etc. Your trusting relationship and professional assistance in choosing the right technologies should help in making sure this does not become a problem.

Still, even though you hopefully have a good rapport, you can only help build it by providing links to support everything that you say. Keep a doc stored with links to official documentation or 3rd party designer blogs that explain everything that you say. After some time of fact-checking a customer will likely take a designers word as truth, but at first everything a designer claims should have a bibliography to it. Keep a link to a blog comparing and contrasting CMS’s; keep one explaining core updates for each of those CMS’s; keep one explaining the necessity of extension security management; keep one explaining the need for SEO if they want to be found; most of all, keep a link to this blog to show that you are trying to do what is best for them.

Just kidding.

Good luck building smoother client relationships.