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Why your attitude to clients might be damaging your presentations

There are any number of reasons why presentations to clients and prospects sometimes fail. Recommendations which didn’t meet the brief. Subjective reactions to the design solutions. Incompetent communication. The direction of the prevailing winds. We’ve all been there.

But there’s a much deeper and potentially far more damaging reason. Listening to people in my training groups talking about their presentation anxieties, I’m increasingly convinced the design sector’s attitude to clients is negatively impacting our ability to present successfully. We are harming ourselves.

I’m not thinking of the occasional moments when frustrated, we view clients as inferior beings whose main purpose is to move strategic goalposts, micro-manage designers, and delay paying bills. Once that attitude strikes, it’s a slippery slope and it will be microseconds before it starts to show in presentations. Steering clear of that mind-set is obvious, but I’m thinking of something which is, in fact, the polar opposite. It’s the Great Universal Concept of Exemplary Client Service.

How can that possibly be a bad thing? I’ll explain.
Firstly, it leads us to put clients on artificial pedestals, treating them as heroes or demi-gods who, if not exactly worshipped and obeyed, must be revered, appeased and offered gifts of … well, service. That immediately puts us in a subservient position, both in the clients’ eyes and in our own, and it will affect all of our interactions, major or minor, including the way we present.
Secondly, placing clients high above us means we inevitably lose confidence in our own position. This lack of confidence is felt most acutely by teams working in design firms which follow the somewhat outdated mid-20th century notion that ‘the customer is always right’. It’s genuinely hard to deliver recommendations directly into a client’s eyes if you’re stressing with anxiety over talking to them and fearing their judgement.
That’s not to say meeting and exceeding the expectations of clients isn’t important. It’s crucial to success. But there is a better way to view the client relationship and it’s very simple: expert-to-expert, professional-to-professional, equal-to-equal. Always. No exceptions.
If you get that thought embedded into your firm, you will improve every client relationship you have as well as your business’s performance. And the old advice ‘start as you mean to go on’ can’t be overstated: behaviour between people is heavily reliant on perception, theirs and ours, and that perception is established at the first encounter. Once set, it’s extremely hard to change.

To change tack from the outset and move from being on the back foot, here are a few thoughts that might help:

  • Clients need us just as much as we need them. The balance of power is precisely that – a balance – and it’s up to both parties to maintain its equilibrium.
  • Your firm is not a ‘small’ business. You are a highly specialised business in a sector where only 10% of firms employ 10+ people. The only time to play the ‘small’ card is when a client actively wants to work with one, or when you negotiate special payment terms. Otherwise, you’re normal or larger.
  • You do not work in a small industry. The UK Design Council has valued the Design Economy at £71bn GVA, which accounts for 7.2% of the UK total. That makes us equivalent in value to construction and logistics, and significantly bigger than law. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. We punch way above our weight.

Finally, if you don’t already know it, you might like something I heard many years ago. Eleanor Roosevelt, the longest-serving first lady of the United States and a force to be reckoned with in her own right, said: ‘No one can be made to feel inferior without their consent’. That struck me at the time, and it has stayed with me ever since.  
In my view, La Roosevelt got it absolutely right. I bet she made really successful presentations.

Shan Preddy delivers training on this topic in a workshop called Presentation Skills. Find out more by emailing

About: Shan Preddy

Shan is a Partner at PREDDY&CO, which delivers high-performance presentation training for the design sector: all disciplines, all levels of experience, in-person and online, worldwide.

Shan is a Founder Member of the DBA’s accredited Experts’ Register. Find out more here

Image credits: 

Rodion Kutsaev | Unsplash

Shan Preddy, PREDDY&CO


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