Insights from the In-house Client Management Panel at DesignThinkers Toronto 2022
Moderator of the In-house Client Management panel from DTTO 2022 and Creative Strategy Team Lead at Bruce Power Kathleen Scott RGD shares takeaways from two of the panelists; Hector Crespo, Head, Strategic Design, RBC Ventures at RBC and Wendy Millard RGD, Director, Design Services at Empire Life.
There once was a time that I associated in-house client management with mostly negative things — rush deadlines, difficult personalities, confrontational conversations, being the brand police and explaining for the umpteenth time what I actually do as a designer. Managing in-house clients can be challenging. They may not be familiar with the design process or may even think they are designers themselves. But over time I’ve learned that having some solid processes in place and working on our client relationships can make things a lot easier.
On the first day of DesignThinkers Toronto, our In-House Client Management panel discussed strategies for strengthening these relationships and getting to the best possible design outcome — together.
What are some typical in-house client behaviours that can be roadblocks for your design team or lead to frustrating outcomes?
Hector: I find in-house behaviours are really no different than what you might encounter with an external client and they’re generally the type of less-than-ideal behaviours that can make any working relationship difficult. Lack of context for the project is one such roadblock. Creatively, all designers work better if they know the purpose of the project and the bigger goal of the organization. Second, getting the designers involved at the last minute or giving compressed deadlines. The team lead should be the one driving that optimization with the team and not internal clients.
These behaviours often stem from lack of understanding and appreciation for what is required to deliver thoughtful, differentiated and beautiful work. The best way to deal with such behaviour is either through educating your internal or external clients or by learning to effectively say 'no' to such requests. Laying boundaries avoids continuous negative behaviours and bad outcomes.
Wendy: The "hurry up and wait" projects or projects submitted as urgent due to lack of planning are major roadblocks to producing impactful work. Honestly, there should only be a handful of projects that require a "fire drill" approach because it was unexpected or unavoidable but if there's a consistent stream of requests coming at your team marked as rush or urgent — there's a larger problem at hand!
If this is the case, then proactively address the problem with the team or individual who you find this challenging behavior with and provide your team's turnaround times for each type of work request. Share stats on how often projects are coming in late and reinforce your turnaround times for each project type.
What are strategies that you use to build strong client relationships? Do these strategies change for different levels within the organization?
Hector: Our first strategy is to remove artificial labels that exist within the organization and which can impact how we work. We do not refer to non-design teams as "clients". We're all working towards the same goal and are dedicated to producing good work at all levels. More specifically, we’ve introduced a new role — Head of Design. For our business ventures that are large enough to have an entire team of designers dedicated to that business, we hire a leader (Head of Design) to foster community building for that dedicated design team, help connect that small community to other designers across our organization and to be a senior leader on the venture to ensure design has a ‘seat at the table’. This has worked quite well. Designers get the support and inspiration they want and our businesses get a well-run team with a leader who ensures the work we do is topnotch.
Wendy: As much as possible, develop a collaborative working relationship with each individual based on mutual respect. When a new person joins the company and you know they will be working closely with your team — meet with them 1:1 and invite them to one of your team huddles to get to know each other and break the ice. Provide them with the tools and resources they need to work with your team and be responsive to their questions as they navigate the new workplace.
Meet on a regular basis with the full team to discuss their projects, priorities, roadblocks and upcoming work. Don't just talk about work - build camaraderie at every interaction.
How does your team receive work? Does the way work comes in help with client management?
Hector: The CX and Design team at RBCx is made up of 4 core groups — CX Strategy & Research, Product Design, Creative & Copywriting and Web Development & Design Operations. Each group has a slightly different way of receiving and managing work, but all our the intake process is through Asana, a project and work management platform. The intake form on Asana helps to get work on our radar. For marketing and creative work requests (say for a new marketing campaign), we have an inbuilt creative brief option that gives us all the foundational data we need for a new project or program. Most of the time, marketers can submit an intake form or a creative brief on their own, but we also have resources within our design ops group that can help to ensure work requests are as clear as possible. Beyond our digital workflow through Asana, our design ops group does a good job of regularly working and meeting with our venture businesses to get line of sight to the work coming down the pike, which ensures we’re prepared and staffed up to support. It is not a perfect process, but we're always gathering feedback from stakeholders and spending time evaluating how we work in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our team.
Wendy: Every request comes in through our online project management tool. We use Adobe Workfront which helps our business partners to submit the work through a request queue and variable question form. If you're looking for a digital ad vs. a flyer, it will ask you specific questions related to the different types of work. Once the form is submitted, we have a traffic coordinator convert the request to a project and various team members are assigned to support the work which includes not only a designer but compliance, translation, etc. It estimates the projected completion date and is very transparent to all team members. This project management also helps us to ensure the priority work is at the top of the list, share metrics and know what our resource capacity is for the upcoming weeks ahead.