On Client Relations in ISD professional discourse

Posted on Apr 8, 2010

Here are some reflections on the latest IDE 632 module on client relations and small group dynamics.

Having spent nearly 20 years as a creative services professional for TV advertising, broadcasting, fine art, web content, and music videos, I have had a broad exposure to client types. To function effectively in this somewhat higgledy-piggledy quilt of client relations, I have had to adapt my methods of communication according to the audience, much like what has been presented in the module articles.

Some of my experiences have been documented in the Tutorial for Assistant Editors section of my website: Pre-Production and Editing the Rough Cut, which includes a section on how to constructively present creative work to a client. There are a number of rules of thumbs I have operated by:

Clients think in a variety of patterns when it comes to forming an idea of the final product. Especially in the visual arts, some clients simply cannot visualize a video product in their heads unless they see it in completed form (thus, the good ol’ Rip-o-Matic). This is frustrating for visually creative professionals because “playing it in their heads” is what they do best, and they often forget in consultation sessions that other people cannot do it.

In the ID profession, I suppose the same principle applies, and it would be incumbent on the ID professional to find methods of communication that help the client understand the picture you are planning to paint (there I go with the visual metaphors!). In Coscarelli and Stonewater’s article, “Understanding Psychological Styles in Instructional Development Consultation”, we find a graphic plot to place client profiles of systematic/spontaneous and external/internal styles of expression. This is intended to aid the ID professional in adapting to the characteristics of client response to consultation (See below, reproduced from the article).

The spontaneous/systematic axis refers to the client’s tendency to react to ideas on-the-spot and holistic terms, or whether they break down ideas into components and focus on parts of ideas to create improvements. The external/internal axis refers to how clients express themselves openly, such as thinking-while-speaking, or whether they behave more contemplatively first before speaking.

 

The Four Client Types

The Four Client Types

 

I have adapted this plot below to represent client’s comprehension, or epistemological types.

 

The Client Epistemological Types

The Client Epistemological Types

 

The second graphic of Client Epistemological Types represents the tendency for clients to process product conceptualization in certain directions: towards a linear text outline of events, such as a script, or towards a more non-linear “video in your head”. Each of these domains requires the service professional to present ideas in a way that can help the client to comprehend broad strokes of a product before it has been developed.

Then there are clients who desire to grab any means of representation (MS Word, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, YouTube, etc.) to feed the professional examples of what they believe the new product should feel like (tonality, voiceover, visual style, graphic animation, musical scoring, etc.).

And then others who defer to the voodoo that creative professionals somehow conjure up out of nowhere, and who wouldn’t even think of questioning creative decisions. Combinations of these characteristics, I believe, apply equally to the ID consultation dynamic.

Clients do not always think about what is best for the assignment. This refers to recognizing that there are several consequences as a result of completing a product a particular way, including:

  • How will this solve the problem at hand or the needs for which we are working? (this should always be priority #1, but it doesn’t always work out that way)
  • How will this project look in my portfolio?
  • How will this project help me to leave this company and work for someone else?
  • How will this project ingratiate me further with others in competition for favorable treatment and opportunities?
  • How will this project provide me with industry publicity?
  • How will this project help me win awards?
  • How will this project help prove to myself that I am good at this job?

Humans cannot resist seeing themselves as operators within a variety of schemes. More experienced clients recognize the limits to the value of taking project results too seriously or too personally while still being a diligent professional about getting the job done well. This sentiment is sometimes expressed in aphorisms such as “For god’s sake, it’s just a video!” and “The most important thing in working for clients is getting the job done.” From my experience, it has been pleasurable to work with all types of clients, so there isn’t any one plot quadrant that holds ideal client types.

However, I have often had to manage the course of business keeping in mind that the person(s) I am working with have ulterior motives for guiding the project in a particular direction, and they sometimes usurp a decision-making role that they are not authorized to make. As the service provider, I have sometimes had to “save the current version” of a video edit sequence, and make an alternate version for a rogue art director, knowing, of course, that they have just contradicted their client or supervisor. In other words, it’s not my job to be the art director’s nanny, but I am still beholden to the boss.

Clients sometimes have come up with some really bad ideas (in my initial opinion), but then when I actually tried them out, they turned out to be very good ones. Oh boy, have I gotten myself into trouble with this one! Well, not with clients (I’ve learned to keep these feelings in my head), but with my own big fat ego. Editors, like football quarterbacks or medical doctors, are supposed to have a bit of swagger, or “lab coat” authority. Most clients like feeling as though the person they hired is confident and knowledgable about the tasks at hand. There’s the old expression “No one was ever fired for hiring IBM”, meaning that “hiring the best” gives the client a certain comfort level, or insulation from criticism if the end result fails.

With regard to the above maxim, editors feel they are supposed to know it all, even if they know Socratically that they don’t, and I suppose this holds true for ID professionals as well. What separates the professionals from the amateurs in situations like this is the ability of the professional to be open-minded and experimental, even when instincts tell him or her that the proposed client idea is flat-out dumb and doomed to failure, embarrassment, and resources wasted. Wow! Have I been wrong enough times to learn to listen. At least with video editing projects, experiments can be done fairly quickly to gauge the viability of an idea, though I don’t know whether the same holds true in ISD.

Some thoughts on team building, based on the reading of Ron Zemke’s article “Team Building: Helping people learn to work together” (online link not available). Mr. Zemke describes situations where group activity works best: (a) when the problem or project requires a linear solution; and (b) when the situation or problem is somewhat nebulous and the arrived solution is not verifiable. This, I think, describes well the typical plot of working in a small group to produce a video product whose final form is well-known in general, but not necessarily in tonality or style.

I have worked as both a producer and an editor (although an editor is, in a way, also a producer), meaning that I have planned, budgeted, scheduled and allocated resources towards a deliberate goal of creating a video product, while also serving as the creative visionary or executor of the product itself. In this situation, I have had to decide, on occasion, whether I should configure the creative team in terms of creative strength, professional reliability, or affordability. For example:

  • There are some graphic animators or editors who are incredibly talented, but thoroughly immature, unprofessional, or difficult to negotiate with creatively based on client feedback. These artists must sometimes be kept away from the client at all costs. The logic here is that I believe I can extract a creatively superior product out of such an artist without jeopardizing the client relationship – but it is risky.
  • There are some personnel who are very talented but inexperienced with the art of creative compromise. They take their work too personally, as if a logo animation or edit is a work of art and must retain the artist’s integrity. This is a good characteristic for a creative person to have in some aspects, but is a sentiment that must be negotiated and managed towards getting the job done with a happy client.
  • Sometimes a job does not require tremendous creative firepower – only a competent professional who can take direction and get the job done without being dramatic, all at an affordable price. We would all love to hire George Lucas to do our little corporate video, but that is the rarity.

Working in groups requires an inherent ability to trust others to do thier job, even if it means putting up with annoying work habits that conflict with one’s intuitive sense of how to approach a task. I like to refer to Duke Ellington’s philosophy, as he had expressed during his orchestra’s heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. He said, essentially, that the band members knew that the Duke Ellington orchestra was perhaps the best gig in the entire world for a musician to be a part of, and that if the musicians went about their business in an unacceptable way, there would always be someone looking to replace them on the spot.

I think he believed that musicians are a certain cat-like personality type that could not be easily molded into a set of behavior, so he simply allowed them to be “professional” in any way they saw fit, so long as when the lights went on, the product maintained its high standards.

Contrast this to the Motown method, where a cavalcade of teenagers and young adults from the inner cities of Detroit area were controlled, manipulated and processed into a highly refined product based on the record company’s vision – all with the complicity of the musicians (presumably).

These are two contrasting styles of group management that produced superior products, so I suppose there are no hard-and-fast rules to these methods.

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