Monday, July 03, 2006

Your personality is your business - developing healthy business relationships

Over the past week, I've found myself involved in a series of conversations with various people in my network about business relationships. Whether you're just starting out in business or you've been doing it for 20 years, relationships are the key to any business, service or otherwise. Learn how to navigate them well, and make sure to treat people well, and you can build a solid base of support - something that any business needs.

To me, the most productive business relationships are those that involve a mutual sense of support, respect and trust between the individuals involved. As a designer, I need to know that the client I'm involved with appreciates my work and trusts me to do the best job possible for them. In return, I make every effort to do my best work for them, and I become a loyal supporter of their business, using the tools I have available, including promoting them through my website and word-of-mouth, to help their business succeed outside of what I'm able to do for them graphically. I am happy to say that I genuinely love working with my current clients, and I won't accept the work unless I can say that going in.

However, if I'm dealing with a potential client and I feel there's a lack of trust or respect there, I'll work to find a solution for it, and if that sense of respect isn't there despite my best efforts, I don't take on the client. It isn't worth it to me or my business to work with someone who isn't going to respect what I do for them - a client who doesn't value what effective design can do for their business, or who will make blanket negative statements about design or designers in general, isn't going to commit to their end of the client relationship, and will often turn out to be a) more trouble than they're worth, and b) a relationship that inevitably results in substandard, ineffective work, usually because the client isn't willing to take an active role in giving the designer what they need to do their jobs effectively. Of course, this isn't what the client sees - they just see that they paid you all this money and your work didn't get results, and that confirms their already negative view of the design industry in general. Clients can be funny that way.

In one of the conversations I had this week, I was told that, like most people who work for themselves, I sometimes let my personality lead my business instead of letting my business thinking lead it. My answer to that, although I couldn't quite articulate it at the time, is why wouldn't I?

The fact is that any business, despite what people want to believe about corporations being soulless and evil, is based, first and foremost, on humans. Not machines, not products, not processes and policies, but humans. If you're selling toasters, you're concerned with the humans who are buying those toasters and making them happy. If you're a banker, you're concerned about the humans that are going to your bank, and making them happy. Business is 100% a human endeavor. To overlook the part that personalities play in that endeavor is, in my opinion, sorely misguided.

This holds especially true in service businesses. In the case of a big corporation, you have a chance for more anonymity, and often, the only people you'll be dealing with is your coworkers. While I wouldn't advocate being an antisocial jerk there either, the shy, timid, and less social creatures of us will often find themselves a bit more at ease in in-house situations than in the often scary world of working-for-yourself. But even in that case, it's important to find room for your unique personality wherever (and however) you choose to work.

In the case of those that have made the self-employment leap, your personality becomes an even more important part of your business, because frankly, you ARE your business. The more authentically you present yourself, and the more effective you can be at navigating different people's personality differences while still remaining true to who you are, the more effective you'll be as a business owner, and as a fellow human.

For example, my personality (as many will attest) is very strong and very outgoing, with a tendency towards stubbornness. If I believe in something strongly enough, I'll argue it till the death, and this can cause problems with people who aren't open to other opinions (or who just don't like people who aren't afraid to speak their mind or ask tough questions). I also, however, tend to be very friendly, and I love to help people. My clients range from non-profits and entrepeneurs who have never dealt with a professional designer before to the design directors and content managers of mid-size to large companies, who are very used to working with designers.

As a result, depending on the client, I can find myself dealing with very different situations and very different personalities on a given day. In addition, during the feeling-out process in the beginning of a potential client relationship, I find myself assessing the client based not only on whether the work will be a good fit for my style and my interests, but whether the person I'm dealing with is a good fit for my personality. This, to me, is the ultimate in business thinking leading my business - if I'm not working for people I like and can get along with, I won't do my best work, and I won't be able to sustain the client relationship.

Another key thing I've learned about client relationships is patience. As I mentioned earlier, a number of my clients were not accustomed to working with professional designers before they came to me, and as a result, I often find myself in a situation where what I take for granted is something that the client wasn't aware of, and has resulted in a number of interesting learning experiences in the realm of client-designer communication.

But this is another key thing I've learned: effective communication and conflict resolution. Over the years, I've gone from situations where I found myself so frustrated by a client or boss that I've found myself bursting into tears or getting nasty with the person; over the years, I've learned not only to see the other person's point of view whenever possible, I've learned to almost immediately recognize people that are going to press my trigger points, and AVOID DEALING WITH THEM!

This, in my opinion, is the absolute most important thing for service professionals to remember - go with your gut. If someone is giving you a vibe that makes you think you're about to flip out on them, walk away. Walk away quickly, do not pass go, and do NOT collect $200 (which is often about what you'll end up collecting from said individual in exchange for your hard work anyway).

Another important thing I've learned (alas, the Very Hard Way) is covering all the bases right away. A good contract or proposal should lay out everything that should reasonably expected of you as the designer, and everything that you, as designer, expect from the client. The client should know whether they're providing content, and what form that "content" needs to take. They should know whether proofreading or spellchecking of content is a service that's being worked into the quote. They should know how many revisions they're entitled to, and what happens if they go over that. They should also know what happens if they all of a sudden decide to move on. If something gets missed in the communication attempt, don't kill yourself over it - but do make sure to clear up any misconceptions as they arise.

Let's face it - we're all human. Mistakes and conflicts will arise from time to time, in business, as well as in life. We can't control how other people are going to behave, or whether we're going to get along with everyone we meet. What we can do is stay true to ourselves, treat people with fairness and equanimity, and not invest our time or energy in people that just aren't a good fit for us. If we can do that, we can then build a network of people who enrich our lives, and our businesses, and whose lives and businesses we enrich in turn and everyone's happy.

By the way, yes - I am an optimist.

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