We’ve had a lot of amazing clients over the years here at Filament. When your day-to-day job is to design creative projects that help people, you wind up meeting a ton of incredible people. But it’s not always rosy- making learning games is a risky, strange process with a lots of twists and turns. Ideas fizzle, problems emerge, and deadlines can slip. It’s natural that maintaining an open, collaborative relationship between our clients and dev teams is paramount to a successful project. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that relationship breakdowns are the number one cause of turning a project that *should* feel like a creative adventure into a headache and a heart ache. Relationships with clients aren’t the only thing that can go wrong on a project, but they are the most important thing.
A simple metric for relationship failure with a client is if it turns adversarial. By that I mean that either side of the client-Filament relationship has broken down so much that the answer that makes the most sense (on either side) is the application of force. So essentially:
If the client becomes convinced that we are the enemy that stands in the way of getting what they want,
or if the team becomes convinced that the client is standing in the way of making something successful…
we’re gonna have a bad time.
Is this sometimes the client’s fault? Sure. Is it sometimes our fault? Absolutely.
Chief Technical Officer Alex Stone and I worked out some training material for our teams on how to think about constructively handling client/team conflicts. We’re rolling it out along with some exciting in-house roleplay training for different types of difficult client/team challenges. I thought I’d share some highlights.
Key Question #1: What can I do to change the situation? We’re only ultimately in control of ourselves. We can’t enter people’s minds, alter their thoughts, and get them to submit to our wills. It’s more practical to assume that 99% of the time, people *do* *what* *they* *want*. They do what they want.
So the trick is not to force clients to do what we want, but to understand what they want, and use our expertise to demonstrate how they can get what they want by trusting us. If the client trusts us to make a great thing, and they want to make a great thing, then they give us more and more freedom. If the client does not trust us, then they see us as an obstacle or necessary evil to get what they want, and ultimately the project will end in some form of failure- either they wind up unhappy with our work or we resent the project...usually both.
Building trust is of course tricky. Breaking it is easier. Brandish your expertise as an authority to not be questioned, and you are deemed a bully. Agreeing to every idea without warning the client of possible dangers makes you look incompetent. Not including the client in the creative process, even with the best of intentions, makes them feel cut out and insulted.
To actually build trust, you have to understand what the client wants. And you have to give them a voice that lets them articulate that trust in a way that empowers them. That means a lot of listening, but sometimes also coaching.
#2: How Can I Use Clarity and Questions to Better Understand the Problem? A client wants us to make them something great. They have a powerful and essential voice in our process beyond the obvious of being in meetings and sending payments. But not every client wants to participate in the same way, and not every client understands how to participate in a constructive way that fits with how we work.
But if you’re a team member and you see a problem, you can help!
Spend time to understand your client’s expertise, and how they feel they can and should belong on the team. Some clients for example want to feel like they’re in the thick of it, making dev decisions shoulder to shoulder - others want to feel like they’re providing critical expertise to make the project succeed. Others still just want to make a cool thing and see what happens. Blend your questions and answers to find how clients *want* to interact with the team and then empower them to feel like they’re trusted as participants in the process.
Ask tons of questions. Follow interesting anecdotes. Share stories of success and failure with the client candidly and honestly. When a client provides input that helps, make sure they get positive feedback that they’re on the right track and helping a ton. When a client gets offtrack or is steering into dangerous waters for development, don’t shut them down, but ask more questions to see if you can find their core motivation behind their suggestion- often if you can understand their goals and reframe them with a better solution, they’ll be excited they were a part of the team that solved a tricky problem.
#3: How Can I Overcome Really Big Problems? Sometimes the problem seems too huge. Sometimes you want to say “the problem here is that your idea is going to ruin everything.” In these cases, take some time to think. Don’t die on the hill right in the middle of that phone call, say you need some time to consider the solution, and work on it.
Put together your reasoning. Look for evidence of your concerns, ideally based on experiences or projects you’ve been on or witnessed first hand. It can be based on design or philosophical concerns as well, but be prepared to enter into a design or philosophical discussion that has to be of higher quality than “you are wrong and I know better”.
A key strategy is to remember that just like people aren’t their khakis, they also aren’t their project problems. You can talk very frankly about a project problem as long as the client doesn’t feel like you are framing THEM as the problem. If you’re concerned about alienating them, talk first about what the obstacle is, why the obstacle is there, and how you understand their perspective. This can be as blunt as you need- just keep track of the client’s understanding of the problem as you proceed, and make sure you are both on the same page. I’ve always liked this short video about how to candidly discuss a problem in a client/employee relationship:
Sometimes big problems can lead to flared tempers. Sometimes clients lose their cool. Sometimes we lose our cool. In these cases, you’ve entered probably the worst possible time to make critical project decisions. Either find a way to defuse the tension (possibly even finding an opportunity for frank discussion that can build trust), or take a breather and come back to it.
#4 The Problem is Bigger Than That... “It’s not that simple”, you’ve almost certainly muttered at least once while reading this. Of course it’s not. People are not pamphlets. Working with clients is not a LEGO assembly book. Most people, including myself, are in some fashion insane. But working with clients is absolutely 100% critical to being a professional in a creative field. Professionals need to see themselves as always needing to got to get better at relationship management- it’s a skillset with no ceiling.
So...practice. Talk to your coworkers. Heck, talk to your client, tell them what’s bugging you. You might be surprised to find out that they’re worried about the exact same thing, or understand a facet of the problem that you didn’t understand.
Sometimes clients have issues bigger than a tricky project. Sometimes clients are scared about what they’re making, or face internal struggles on their *own* teams that force them into bad spots. Sometimes clients have very real philosophical issues that differ from our own in terms of what makes a learning game good or bad. These are tough things!
But we’re a creative company, and creativity means collaboration, and taking your teammates and building something together. And clients are teammates! If you look for candor, empathy, and creative problem solving, you can find a way. If you treat trust as the most essential pillar of a creative project, even the hardest project can be an adventure you’ll look back on fondly, and proudly.