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Taking the Heartache Out From Design Work

6 June 2023

Chris sighed, “Another late night.”

This is the third consecutive night in the office. Passionate about creating new designs and making something from nothing drove Chris into the design world. He has had a few exciting projects and is proud of his creations. However, the stress of towering client expectations and endless iterative rework has led to his whispering doubt, “Can I do this for a long time to come?”

Taking a deep breath, an idea crept into his head, “There has to be a better way.” He reached out his mobile to ping his mentor.

Over coffee the next day, he relates to his mentor, Pat, a veteran in this field. The client, a financial institution, is now ranked 30 in Vietnam and they want to be top 10 in 2 years' time. The quest is to redesign the experience to delight and thrill customers. They have come to Chris’ design house for help.

Through this project, Chris and his design team conducted ethnographic studies, site visits and reimagined how the experience will be different for the customers.

But when the team shared the current reality of the customer experience - 3 forms to fill in, 5 phone calls and 2 physical visits, just to do business with the bank, the entire bank’s management team turned quiet. Instead of sharing the design team’s excitement about the new design, the management team challenged, “How many site visits did you conduct? What is your sample size? Why this new design?”

To Chris, it felt like being caught in a crossfire from all directions. Feeling like their expertise was called to question, his team defended themselves with data and more data. They then became equally firm and strong-headed. Needless to say, the meeting ended on a sour note with the project facing an uncertain fate, despite the team pouring their hearts and minds into it.

Pat, listened and smiled wistfully. He asked Chris a few questions:

  • Who is your primary client?

  • What is your agreement with him?

  • Did you talk about what you need from him to do good work e.g. be open to feedback or alternative solutions?

  • How do you think the client felt when they heard the data? What is at stake for them?

  • Did you share what you thought or how you felt about working with the client?

  • How did you support the client when they were defensive?

Several light bulbs went up simultaneously in Chris’ head. The biggest one - taking the clients’ resistance personally. Chris realised his own need to defend his team got in the way, especially since some resentment built up two months ago when they had no choice but to take on more scope because of how insistent the client was.

Pat gazed at Chris emphatically and continued,

“It feels personal, but it is really not about us. Resistance is fear made visible. How about being curious to understand what’s underlying the “attacks”? Maybe acknowledge and support them to process their own reactions?”

Chris nodded in agreement, realising his team had 2 weeks to chew on the data, but the client only had a few minutes to process it before being asked for their response in front of their whole team.

Seeing Chris deep in thought, Pat paused for a moment. Sensing Chris is shifting forward, he added,

“In my experience, our leverage is highest during the contracting phase of the project. Not a legal contract, of course. But too often, we focus on the technical side of the project, budget, timelines, the client’s objectives, and we don’t say clearly what we want from the clients. What do you want from your client to do your best work?”

Chris searched his mind…scope creep…the team working overnight continuously…and his mixed feelings - happy that the client trusts them, but also frustrated by his inability to be firmer. “Maybe I should tell the client I need to discuss the scope when there are additions mid-way, so we will have a clear mind for research insights, instead of feeling helpless and resentful?”

“Definitely! And perhaps ask the client about their concerns and risks upfront, so you can take care of the relationship side of the project and pre-empt any surprises”,

added Pat.

Chris nodded in agreement and exhaled loudly, “Understand, in this case, I could have shared the results with the primary client first and gotten his advice on sharing these observations with the wider team.”

Pat smiled, sensing Chris knows what to do differently now. “Indeed, but the benefits are definitely worth it, you will build deeper partnerships with the clients, do better work and enjoy the process too!” With new insights and renewed energy, Chris plans his next conversation with his client.

Here is a summary of how your client conversations can be more effective using some concepts and skills from Flawless Consulting®:


Usual Ways of Operating

Conversations Based on Flawless Consulting®

During the initial phase of the project, e.g., contracting about the work

Not raising the issue of scope creep.

“XX, I want us to agree on the scope and if this scope changes, let us discuss how we need to manage. Is this agreeable?”

(Stating consultant’s want)

Prior to the feedback meeting

Not preparing or expecting the clients to be logical.

“XX, we have gathered the observations and some of them point to what’s not working well, can I share these with you and discuss how we share this with the wider team?”

(Stating consultant’s want)

Feedback meeting

Defending our data, debating with the client.

“XX, I noticed you’ve asked about the methodology a few times. Is there a concern?”

(Dealing with resistance)

Feedback meeting

Being distant, formal or technical.

“XX thank you for your openness in sharing your concern. I can now see how this would have a major impact on your work. Is there anything else?”

(Giving support)

Feedback meeting

Being distant, formal or technical or just saying superficially, “Thank you” at the end of the meeting.

“XX, I appreciate you sharing your concerns, I understand what’s at stake for you and how we can support you better.”

(Giving support)

We hope this can help inspire and challenge you to support your clients and stakeholders in more effective ways.

Case Study: Taking the Heartache Out From Design Work | Flawless Consulting®
Flame Centre | Future Skills Institute
Wendy Tan & Hong Khai Seng


If you're curious about:

  • How to build trust with clients, help and add value.

  • How to discover client needs, provide support and effective recommendations.

  • How to develop a collaborative relationship so you can achieve long-term partnership.

Check out the Flawless Consulting® framework, tools and skills.

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