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Client vs. Product Design Companies: Two Perspectives

At SGW Designworks, we take great pride in our ability to work with clients of all types. In fact, the most successful product design companies are able to convey complicated concepts while truly understanding their client’s needs — then communicating accordingly.

This is a hallmark of how we do business, and it’s one of the most important tools in our arsenal because, without our clients, there would be no SGW Designworks. We don’t buy into the “my way or the highway” approach; it doesn’t help us make friends or grow our business.

But sometimes we run into challenges when communicating about our trade — as do most product developers, designers, and engineers. What follows is a breakdown of these challenges, perspectives of both client and firm, and our best practices for avoiding problems.

Expectation — and Reality

Working with a client is an incredibly important aspect of our work. It’s also one of the most challenging aspects of what product design companies do. (But we think that’s a good thing.)

Rarely does a client approach the product development process with a full understanding of what they want or what they need. And we get it — most product design companies don’t provide a highly defined menu or comprehensive list of services.

So, when a client asks, “How much will this cost me?” the answer is almost always, “It depends.” This is sometimes frustrating to someone looking for a more solid estimate.

To provide an accurate quote, we must work the problems for our clients — because we find that folks may think they know what they want based on the solution they’re seeking, but in reality they may not know what is required for us to achieve that solution. (That’s why we don’t want to estimate a project will cost $25,000 before we look into it.)

Some of this confusion is because many people do not understand prototyping, or they don’t know how to build things. But the biggest reason is because people often do not understand how product development is applied to business. (Again, this is where we come in.)

For many consumers, a car is something that just shows up to the dealer — as long as it runs well, they don’t need to know how it runs.

However, we believe our job is to educate our clients, even before they commit to working with us. To this end, we try and get to know our clients in the earliest stages of our professional relationship — before we start doing business with them. It’s critical to understand their business and product so we can do our job well.

If a client just wants advice related to their project, this likely won’t cost much and may take only a couple of days. On the other hand, if they want to bring an idea from the drawing board to store shelves, that will be more expensive and the process could take months.

Communicating our Trade

One of the major drivers for success at SGW Designworks is that when people interact with our staff, they don’t see the stereotypical engineer that is often depicted in the movies as a goofy (or arrogant) hyper-smart science nerd. Instead, they see regular people who have solutions to their problems.

(Just to be clear, we are hyper-smart science nerds, but we are also a team —and a people-driven business, at that.)

We know this: our clients want results. Whether those are physical results in the form of prototypes and parts, or information results in the form of analysis and specifications, they want a tangible product that they are paying money for.

So let’s consider things from both a client’s and a product developer’s perspective. Here is a scenario to give you a sense of what’s going on in both brains when we are presented with a project.

Scenario: From a Client’s Perspective

Imagine you work for a company that has been in business for 20 years. You are a repair technician for the company’s main product, a cement mixer for home improvement projects. And you know this product well, since it has been the same machine for the past 20 years.

The owners of the company (your bosses) are interested in modifying the cement mixer and releasing a new model. They also want to add features that will make the mixer safer to use. But the biggest change is they want to completely redesign the main mixing drum so it’s made of a lightweight material which will make the machine easier to use.

In this case, your budget for modifications will depend on the quotes you get from companies capable of doing the job.

The biggest problem your company faces is that a rival company will be releasing a similar product this year and you want to make sure your redesigned mixer is out first. Now, you don’t really know about welding and how mixers are made. But you know how they are used, and most importantly, you know what your customers expect from the product.

So when your bosses tell you to meet with a handful of product design companies to figure out how to modify these mixers, your priority is to make sure that, regardless of the changes proposed, it remains the same great product your customers have come to expect for 20 years.

So you have a couple of inflexible interests:

  1. The usability and quality of the mixer must remain the same if not better.
  2. The company doesn’t want to spend a lot, so you need to get a deal.
  3. You want to release this new model before your competitor releases theirs.

Scenario: From a Product Developer’s Perspective

We recognize that this is an experienced client who already has a sense for what they want. The people they have tasked with talking to us are not manufacturing experts but they understand the product well enough that it will be easy to convey ideas to them. This also means we will have a subject matter expert (SME) to help us do our work.

One task we strive for when working with any company, but especially an established company is to help bring value to our service. The client is going to want to know why they should work with us rather than another firm. Part of our interaction with this client is what helps them make that decision.

Odds are with a client like this they’re going to have a pretty good idea of what they want from the start, but the big question may be how best to get there. In these cases, we need to explore solutions to find an end result that works. In this scenario, we are not starting fresh in terms of product development but we are taking an existing piece of work and making it better.

Having a deadline (which is often the product’s release date) keeps things moving. This deadline affects many decisions we make, such as which vendors we select. For example, if we need parts fabricated, we will usually work with the vendor or partner who can produce the same part in days rather than weeks. (The less time we spend waiting for parts the more time we spend actually making a great product.)

These are just a few of our considerations we make before we begin working on a project.

Client Management

The above scenario demonstrates an example of a personality and situation we might encounter on the job, but there are an infinite number of variables we run into. So why do we bother thinking so hard about how we work with our clients?

Because the way we communicate concepts to those not in our industry is an asset. This approach gives us distinction because:

  • It is a part of our brand. We take pride in our work.
  • It helps us follow our guiding principles.
  • We are able to deliver value.
  • It opens doors to additional projects.
  • It helps us avoid surprises during the lifecycle of a project.

We call this client management. It’s a term used to describe how we interact with clients, and a skill that helps keep projects on track and ultimately involves a good product and pleasant interactions.

When it comes to client management, here are some potential challenges we run into, along with best practices we like to keep in mind when these arise.

Potential Challenges — And How to Avoid Them

Challenge: Miscommunication.

Communication goofs are probably the biggest and most common obstacle we face at product design companies. These can happen between the firm and a client, and they can happen among the team, but in all cases, they can cause expectations to get misaligned, and people’s scope of the project can get out of whack.

Best Practice: Regular updates.

We do our best to keep our clients up-to-speed on what is happening with their projects. Weekly check-ins are a reasonable benchmark, but some clients will want more updates than others. We also recommend flexibility and adaptability when it comes to communication channels. Some of our clients prefer email to phone calls, or Skype, FaceTime, and text messages over weekly visits. We try to find out how our clients like to communicate and connect accordingly.

Challenge: Confusion (or forgotten tasks).

As product developers and designers, we like to stay on top of our game, but sometimes we make mistakes and balls get dropped. It could be as simple as getting a spec wrong on a bolt or as major as not actually completing a minor aspect of a project. It’s easy to do, and it can happen to anyone.

Best Practice: Frequent reminders and internal updates.

Because oversights can complicate the work for everyone involved, product design companies can recommend their team members set up automatic reminders. We also like to make sure there is a liaison between the client and the person on our team who is working on each stage of the project.

Challenge: Scope creep.

Imagine looking at the project through the scope of a literal rifle. You may only see one little thing, but your client may be looking at something completely different through their scope. This can be an issue when a client thinks we will perform a different type of work than we are actually doing. This can result in unmet expectations for the client and could be potentially fatal to a project.

Best Practice: Clearly defined client managers and project managers.

To eliminate confusion as to who is doing what, we have clearly defined client/project managers who are responsible for verifying important details. It’s best for product design companies to communicate early and often with the project manager or client manager to make sure both the firm and the client are on the same page. Based on the original contract and scope agreement, we then work hard to keep a project on track.