What We Learned From Failing To Meet Client Expectations
When I founded Research Retold, failing to meet client expectations was not exactly the first scenario I prepared for. This is probably because my brain was trying to protect me from a reality that’s not easy to confront. After a year of successfully managing and delivering 20 client projects, the day had come.
In the spirit of transparency and openness, in this blog post I will share the story of when we failed to meet client expectations, what went wrong, what we learned from the experience and the practical changes we made as a result.
Initial contact and consultation
This client contacted us because they were impressed with our successful collaboration with Dr James Harrison from Warwick University. We had successfully created two 4-page visual summaries for James and his research team (1, 2).
Their initial enquiry was done through our website. We learned that they were coordinating a policy impact seminar series and developing policy papers on aspects of EU equality law. The event would bring together academics, policy makers, and representatives of the third sector to discuss their proposals.
The first contact was made roughly 5 months before the ‘due date’ of the project (12 October 2017). As usual, we had an introductory call to scope out the aims of our collaboration. We agreed to produce a 4-page visual summary for policymakers, based on their 12-page policy research paper.
This was a perfect project for us: we would exercise our research communication and design muscles. We agreed to start the collaboration in late-September, given summer workload and vacations.
1. Research Consultation (Refresh)
Towards the end of September, we touched base again to confirm the details that we’d captured 5 months ago. This included the original research, the length of the final output, the audience and key messages. Once all this was reviewed and agreed on, we confirmed the process and details.
The 12-page policy research paper that we had to summarise wasn’t ready until the end of September, exactly 2 weeks before our deadline. In theory this should have been fine, since we had previously turned projects around in 2 weeks. Once we received the material, on Sept 29th, we began the first stage of our process.
2. Research Summary
The first stage of our collaboration was summarising the 12-page policy research paper. The paper was underpinned by 2 research articles and the wider expertise of the authors. They were making recommendations for how the EU equality law framework can be improved.
Clearly the topic was technical and complex. Yet, the 3 feedback opportunities in our process give researchers control of the final text version. Feedback is key to ensuring that the summary accurately reflects the original research messages.
The text of the brief was finalised on October 3rd. We had another call to go through the changes and agree on the edits and format. Things were going smoothly and the researchers were happy.
At the end of this stage, the research project went from this (left) to this (right).
3. Design Guidance
The design stage started on October 4th. Our designer was ready to go and had been briefed on what the final product should be. Within 24 hours, our designer had created an initial draft to act as the basis of discussions. In hindsight, I think we put mouse to paper a little to early, and we should have take at least a day to scope out the design vision.
Alas, below is the first draft that we created, of only the first page, to see whether we were heading in the right direction. We explained that this was an introduction to the visual concept we had in mind for the paper. We resonated with the idea that equality lifts – therefore we picked this motif of the balloon, with fluid and circular elements. Our idea was to preserve the balloon motif throughout the brief.
The general feedback from this draft was that the design was slightly juvenile, with too many colour palettes and graphic elements. We went back to the drawing board and within the same afternoon, we updated the brief to incorporate their comments. We reduced the colour palette and worked with a light purple, include a diagram they suggested in a more stylistic form, removed the icons of people and kept the balloon themes, preserving the metaphor for ‘lifting’ and ‘equality’.
After sending this version the feedback was that ultimately the colour scheme and the balloon metaphor didn’t work. We had a Skype feedback call where they indicated a preference for more conservative colours (red/blue) so we offered the options below.
They decided to go with the salmon red and green version and we went ahead to design all 4 pages.
Although we had used up all of the feedback opportunities outlined in the process, it didn’t feel like we’d made progress or that we were hitting the right tone. The deadline was pressing and although we were trying our best to modify things, we had reached a critical point in the collaboration. The design process halted and abruptly ended at this point.
My colleague and I have spent a lot of time thinking about this collaboration. This reflective process was productive and led us to the following insights.
4 Lessons learned and 10 actions implemented as a result of failing to meet client expectations
1. Increase delivery time => Our process now takes minimum 3 weeks
We have extended the time in which we produce a visual output. More time helps researchers familiarise themselves with the text and the design iterations. Two weeks was not enough time. So, if applicable, we always ask when the deadline is and reverse engineer 3 weeks or more for the entire collaboration.
2. Align design visions => Design questionnaire, colour palettes, design outline and full design draft for review
a) Design questionnaire
Before we begin collaborating, we now send a short questionnaire with key questions about the research and final output. This enables us to indicatively capture the look and feel of the design.
We include questions such as: What 4 adjectives/words would you use to describe your research? Or Is there any item in our client portfolio that you like in particular? This helps us get a sense of a general design direction.
In the future, we want to create an aggregate anonymous portfolio of all of our 8 design associates. This selection can help customers select the visual direction they like most.
b) Colour palettes
To make the design process smoother, we now send three colour proposals after producing the summary . Te colour palettes can easily help clients decide what works and what doesn’t.
c) Design outline
In addition, we now send a rough document outline of the elements. This helps the client imagine the position and flow of the elements on the pages.
We are looking to further improve this stage by choosing a particular paragraph in the brief and visualising it in 3 distinct styles. These examples would steer the brief’s design and further clarify client preferences.
d) Full design draft for review
Having gone through points a, b and c above, we no longer just send only one designed page for review. It’ better to send a fully designed version so the client forms a holistic opinion on the output.
3. Emphasise the value of honest feedback => Active encouragement during our process and feedback form
a) Active encouragement during our process
We’ve learned the value of honest feedback the hard way. Throughout the process we now encourage our clients to be brutally honest about what they think. We highlight this point in our client communication, and, if things do go wrong, as they sometimes do, we take it as a learning opportunity.
b) Feedback form
We now conclude our collaborations by sending a feedback form. This offers clients the opportunity to evaluate our service and offer recommendations for improvement.
4. Build education not frustration => Not taking things personally, showcasing expertise and clearer contracts
a) Not taking things personally
As the founder of the business, project manager and quality control, I take great pride in what we do. My team and I invest time and energy to create products that delight and achieve their function for social impact. However, when things go wrong we’ve learned to not take things personally and be proactive to continuously improve our service.
b) Showcasing the expertise of our associates
We currently work with 11 research communication and design associates across the UK to deliver our projects. I now actively encourage our associates to explain their process and showcase their expertise. We add explanatory notes to the drafts we send clients, and as a result, our process is more transparent.
c) Clearer contracts
We have also made changes to our contracts. For example, we clearly outline: our process, the agreed number of feedback opportunities, the scenarios of what happens if clients dislike the design, what counts as a reasonable change, and an hourly rate should we exceed the feedback opportunities. We strive to make our process transparent and to over-communicate what clients can expect from us.
This may sound strange, but I’m happy we had this experience sooner rather than later. It was a test for us in terms of resilience and adaptability.
In terms of this particular client relationship, I expressed my apologies again and shared this blogpost. Above all, I wanted to show that we care, reflected on our mistakes and improved a great deal as a result.
What do you think of the new changes we made to our process?