Imagine you’re at the restaurant. The food is OK, nothing special but not bad either. But the waiter somehow remembered your name from the last time you visited.

What’s more, he helps you order by suggesting his favorite dish, and brings your food right away. Sounds like a nice place, right? I’m willing to bet that despite the average food, you’d be happy to go back.

Now imagine a different restaurant. The ingredients are fresh, the food tastes amazing, and everything would be great except you had to wait almost 30 minutes to get it. Also, the waiter was overworked, rude, and he messed up your order on top of that.

Would you go back? Probably not.

Even the best food can’t make up for bad service.

From Doctors to Designers

You can make a similar argument about doctors: apparently, doctors who get sued the most are not the ones that are incompetent, but the ones that aren’t nice to their patients.

You can see where I’m going with this, right? If this holds true for restaurants and doctors, there’s a good chance it’ll work for designers, too.

So it always amazes me to hear about designers who have outstanding design skills, yet are still amateurs when it comes to how to treat people, and especially clients.

So although these things will sound obvious (I hope) to the vast majority of you, here are a few pointers on design professionalism.

Be on Time

Missed deadlines happen to all of us. And everybody knows that estimates can be very inaccurate, especially for something as subjective as design.

But the thing is, when you’ve agreed to a deadline or given out an estimate, other people will use that deadline in their own calculations, and plan their schedule according to that date.

So if you can’t design that page in 6 days like you promised, the problem is not that it’s taking you too long. The problem is that you broke your promise, and now the whole schedule is delayed because of you.

The solution is pretty simple: warn the client in advance that you’re going to miss the deadline, in order to leave them the time to rework their schedule.

Don’t let your time run out while trying to make it at all cost.

Be Easy to Reach

Here’s a fun game: out of the following excuses, how many are valid reasons for not replying to a client’s email?

  • “I’m on vacation”
  • “I’m moving”
  • “My internet is down”
  • “I was sick”
  • “The dog ate my homework”

If you answered “none”, congratulations, you might become a successful freelancer.

In the age of smartphones, iPads, and cybercafés, I’m surprised at how many people think these kind of things are good excuses for not taking 5 minutes to reply to an email to explain the situation.

Seriously, you have no excuse whatsoever for leaving a client hanging with no explanation. Go knock on your neighbor’s door and ask for their wifi password or something.

Not an excuse.

Give Frequent Updates

Remember when I said that if you’re going to miss a deadline, you should let the client know?

In fact, you shouldn’t wait until something bad happens to make contact. If you really want your client to love working with you, you should even keep them updated when nothing happens.

Maybe something like this:

Hi! just wanted to say I haven’t forgotten about the project. In fact I’ve already thought up a few cool concepts, and I hope to have something ready for you early next week.

Contrast this with the designer who only responds after missing the deadline and letting two frantic client emails go by unanswered, only to explain that he got a virus and had to reinstall his whole system, so it’s not his fault, you see…

But I’m a Great Designer!

I suspect one situation when designers think they can get away with being unprofessional is when they’re actually really good: they receive tons of Dribbble likes, and new job offers fall in their inboxes every week.

So who cares if a client isn’t satisfied, there will always be a new project next month!

But after a while, word will get around. A single blog post or tweet about a bad experience can be dismissed as a coincidence, but two or three start to make a trend.

And on the other hand, if you always exceed expectations you can bet future clients will know about it, too!

What About Bad Clients?

Bad clients happen as well. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work at being professional, the client will still not be satisfied.

But the key point is that your relationship is not symmetrical. The client is paying you, not the other way around.

This means that when shit hits the fan, only one of you is required to act like a professional (i.e. by definition, someone who provides a service in exchange for money).

So my advice for how to deal with bad clients is to finish the project as well as you can, or even refund their money completely. In any case, remain professional throughout and then move on.

Conclusion

During the past couple years running Folyo, I haven’t witnessed many conflicts between clients and designers. But the few I did witness all boiled down to the same thing: the client felt the designer was unresponsive and hard to reach.

It pains me to see designers let their hard-earned design skills be overshadowed by their lack of professionalism, when all it’d take to alleviate the problem would be finding five minutes in the day to write a single email.

I know firsthand how tedious it can be to have to answer client emails and juggle multiple projects that are somehow always “urgent”. But you chose the freelancer life, and for better or for worse it’s all part of the job description.