In 2014 I was working for a Digital Marketing Agency that built bespoke website for clients. Near the completion of one of those projects, my client offered me a job as their Director of Technology.

This was a great step up for me and an opportunity to leave the frantic client juggling of agency life and step over to the client side. (Let’s be honest, it’s trading one kind of frantic juggling for another.)

After having done the typical discovery and strategy processes with the client and having built and launched this site, I now had to live with this thing that I had created.

This has given me a unique perspective from both sides of the process and some insights that I wish my Account Manger self could have understood.

Listen

I’m not sure how I could start anywhere else. Listening well is harder than it sounds. The key to doing it well starts with the understanding that listening is not passive. Good listening doesn’t assume that what I understand, and what you said are exactly the same thing, so it takes time, examples, watching, and asking a lot of clarifying questions.

Don’t just talk… Educate

When it’s your turn to talk, it’s imperative that you take on the role of teacher. Often times we want to pontificate with the lingo of the web with our clients. They might have a surface level understanding of what form validation, responsive web design, and page load speed are but they aren’t the expert. One thing that I’ve learned from working with my friend and business partner, Don Elliott, is the importance of educating our clients.  Potential conflict between the client and the agency can be quickly resolved if we take a posture of teaching instead of “experting*.”

Clearly you won’t pass all of your wisdom on to the client. They have their own job that they need to focus on. You’ll have the find the sweet spot where you’ve shared enough to educate without overwhelming them. This comes with experience, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll see it in their eyes when you’ve gone too far.

Study

You can’t teach what you don’t know. The www is a dynamic environment. Having a clear grasp the technology, trends and tools is essential. Keeping up with the latest award winning websites is fun and inspiring, but knowing the right place to use those concepts is where your skills will really show.

You also need to be a study of the client. You should do you best to know the industry. In an agency it’s really hard because you’re working with so many clients at a time, and once you wrap that project, you’re on to the next thing. However, if you’ve listened well, and are willing to take the time to do research on the client and their competitors, you’ll be much more successful when it comes to creating something that that bring real value to the client.

Talk to the worker bees, not just the dreamers

Your main point of contact is likely not the same person that will be maintaining the site. At least in my case, I came to work for a magazine that had an editorial and art department. They had workflows from previous websites and had certain expectations for the way this new site would operate. Although it was certainly time to update their approach, there was much that could have been learned from hearing from the people that actually were going to maintain the site day-to-day.

Read between the lines without pushing your own agenda

As I said earlier, the technology of the web changes rapidly. Working in an agency, you get to be at the forefront of that change. Not every site needs to be built in react, you don’t always have to use a masonry gallery, or a flexbox layout or whatever your favorite flavor of the month is. A mom & pop trophy shop, and a SaaS startup will have different audiences with different tech in front of them. Acknowledge that and plan accordingly.

If they ask for a photo driven site, but don’t have the budget for a photographer, have the wisdom to steer them a different direction. On the other hand, if they ask for glassy buttons, and you know the trend is toward flat design, don’t ignore the request or treat the client like their an idiot. This is where you have to decide if it’s time to educate and pitch your expertise, or step aside and honor the clients request. (BTW, if you can’t make a good enough case against glassy buttons in 2017, you may want to consider a career change).

Build follow-up into the process

As a designer, developer or account manager, how many times have you gone back to visit that site that your were so proud of and saw how the client had totally screwed it up! It happens for any number of reasons, not the least of which is a lack of follow-up planning in the budget. A long-term relationship is not established. The client is handed over the keys to a website and they drive it off the lot while the agency moves on to the next client.

Have a good process and change it as needed

The process should serve the project, not the other way around. I got some advice early on when I wanted to start a business, “You have to have a business plan, but you won’t follow it.” The same is true with your project process. You have to have one, but if you’re paying attention to the needs of your client, you probably won’t follow it. You’ll adapt and do things out of order to serve them and their needs. That said, you’ll refer back to the process and fill in the gaps so you can make sure that everything gets done.

If you’ve ever hired an agency to build a website, what would be your advice to your Account Manager?

*Experting happens when either a) you don’t really know what you’re talking about, but you use jargon to sound smart. “Responsive mobile first web strategies are the disruptive force of the next generation ushering in Web 3.0.” Or b) That point in your monolog where you finally pay attention to the client and wonder how long they’ve been playing that game of candy crush.