Karla Chrzanowski and Maria Rapetskaya met on a professional “blind date” in 2011, at Meredith Publishing in New York. Karla represented the client, as Brand Development Director at Better Homes & Gardens. Maria was the vendor, pitching Undefined Creative as a motion graphics provider.
They clicked, and with each collaboration, they discovered commonalities: their commitment to communication and transparency, their passion for balancing life and careers, and, of course, their unpronounceable last names.
Eventually, this professional relationship evolved into a personal friendship, and the client-vendor barrier gave way to a truly open exchange of ideas. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when one day, over coffee, Karla and Maria reminisced about their “first date.”
Looking back on four years together, they retraced all those dating and marriage parallels in their interaction. We often joke about “work spouses,” yet a long-term client-vendor relationship is just as much a game of playing the field, finding “the one” and taking a chance on a future together!
With that in mind, Karla and Maria sat down to write this honest guide, framing it around their experience.
1. THE PERFECT PROFILE—OR PLAYING THE DATING GAME
Maria: I’ve run a creative firm for 10-plus years, yet the vendor selection process remains a mystery! Ninety percent of our clients find us via referrals, and approaching new prospects outside of our existing network is often unproductive. What’s the secret? Where do you look for vendors and how do you choose one over another?
Karla: Most of the firms we work with are indeed found through referrals. In this instance, our workload was so heavy, we actually hired a freelancer to suggest design firms for us! He did the usual—reached out to friends and researched a variety of sources online: personal, industry and school websites. In the end, he introduced us to the team at Undefined Creative, whom he’d met through networking.
TAKEAWAY: BE EVERYWHERE
For a vendor, having an online presence is a necessity, but networking is still the key! Most jobs come down to a personal referral, and you never know where you’ll make a meaningful connection.
For a client, what’s most important is finding a creative team that can bring your ideas to life—and shares your values—honesty, transparency and a genuine concern for your brand.
You can’t learn that from a website! Think online dating—does a great profile really guarantee a fit? No! You may have to kiss some frogs! Some vendors can sell themselves well, but completely fail on follow-through. Personality goes a long way and project outcomes are directly related to how client-vendor personalities mesh. Give vendors a chance to meet and convince you.
2. FIRST DATE: THE START OF A BEGINNING—OR THE BEGINNING OF THE END?
Karla: On a “first date” we could ask vendors to show past work because we have a specific vision in mind. We want to confirm that this vendor can realize a particular vision. Other times, we want to be “wowed” and see out-of-the-box ideas that could translate well for our brand—on our minuscule budgets, of course!
Maria: Talking about “similar work” can be a huge frustration! It’s like bringing up an ex on the first date. For one, “similar” can mean very different things. Is it experience with typography or conveying emotion? Is it work of a specific scope or a particular budget range? Quality design firms are here to do original, exceptional work for your brand. Perhaps there are some related samples, but truth is, no two clients are alike—and we’re grateful for that!
TAKEAWAY: LEAP OF FAITH
Vendors must audition for the part, but don’t stage a fake show. The reality is NO vendor may check all the requirements on a client’s list. Maybe you don’t share a love of “neo-bop” jazz, but jazz itself is a common ground. Do you like each other enough to meet again? And, if a client insists on examples that you can’t provide, ask questions. It will alleviate their concerns AND let you hone in on what they’re really seeking.
Most critically, make sure everyone attending will be closely involved in the first project, on both sides! Clients, make sure the best-versed people are there to introduce the brand. No bait and switch, especially for the vendor.
3. GETTING TO KNOW THE “REAL” YOU…or taking off the blinders
Maria: Embarking on the first project is akin to settling into weekends together. You start to notice the quirks and oddities in your chosen partner. How do you prevent either side from becoming disillusioned and breaking up? Every vendor wants the new client to like to like them, but where to draw the line? As in any relationship, honest, open communication is our answer. Go over your process and inquire about internal process in detail. Pay particular attention to reviews and changes. Most misunderstandings, overages and stress for both parties arise here. So, ask 100 questions to make sure you understand every detail. What are the expectations? How will you need to adjust workflow to accommodate this client? We all want to be flexible, but identifying precisely where to be flexible is key!
Karla: As a client, it’s essential to be as transparent as possible about your internal review/approval processes—how many layers are involved, who has to review the project and at what stage. This is the bumpiest part of client-vendor relationships. Aside from wondering if the chosen vendor will understand and correctly interpret your brand DNA, sometimes managers can’t know if something hits the mark until they see it. (Sorry, but it’s a frequent problem in any creative process!) Often, companies go too far before showing work, so we appreciate seeing things along the way, especially with new vendors.
Establish trust and good relationship habits—who plans Friday night out and how many times a day it’s OK to text. The better the communication, the more pleasant the interaction. Vendors, listen up! Work in stages, check in frequently. You wouldn’t sign up a new romantic partner to go skydiving in Guatemala without asking first, so don’t assume you’ll get everything right on the first try with a new client! Ask. Suggest. Discuss. Respect your clients’ opinion and wishes.
In every relationship, partners want to be heard, so pay attention to feedback, especially any changes identified—it’s frustrating for a client when an issue raised in version 1 of a project is still being overlooked in version 3!
4. THE DAILY GRIND… or keeping the magic alive
Maria: A couple of successful projects in, the relationship grows steady. Upcoming jobs are discussed well ahead of time, sometimes even pre-billed. Conversations grow more personal and a certain professional comfort zone is reached. These are all wonderful things! However, with that familiarity comes special requests, favors, freebies. We’ll always try to please, but on occasion, clients overstep what’s reasonable. A studio can go over on one project and eat the costs. Few can do it every time. And certainly no design firm wants this to become the new norm and expectation.
Karla: In the beginning, your partner always listens to you and sometimes even anticipates your needs. After you’ve been together a while, it’s easy to start taking each other for granted. Sometimes your partner is working hard to please someone—it’s just not you. It’s the shiny NEW client they’re trying to impress. You’re no longer their priority. Requested changes are overlooked, deadlines are missed and the quality of work can start to suffer. However, as a client, you can fall into the trap of thinking, “We’re giving you so much business, are you really going to charge us to make this one little revision (again)?” Yes, they are. And they should.
TAKEAWAY: MUTUAL RESPECT
Don’t get lazy. You’re working to become a partner—not just a vendor, and consistency in the quality of work is critical. Don’t let the relationship slide and assume this client will be there tomorrow, and the day after.
But, if you’re the client—don’t get greedy! Recognize when your vendors DO go above and beyond. Most don’t mind throwing in some extra love, but don’t abuse the generosity. Remember that a kind word goes a very, very long way. Clients can and DO get dumped!
Aim for a delicate balance. There’s a line between a vendor overachiever and a client nightmare. Talented, reliable, easy-to-work-with people are hard to find on either side of this equation. Let your ethical compass guide you to mutual respect.
5. PLENTY OF VENDORS IN THE SEA…or staying loyal vs. going astray
Maria: Our studio is versatile and can accommodate virtually any direction or scope of work. We’re no strangers to killer time crunches, and have a great track record of delivering ahead of schedules. Our budgets are fair. So while we don’t get jealous if our client chooses to see other people, we can’t help but wonder why. Sound familiar?
Karla: Whether you’re really playing the field or just using several vendors who do related work, these decisions are typically about efficiency or consistency. At times, we’ll continue to work with a firm into stages of a project that normally would go to another vendor. However, that’s not always the best solution, nor frankly the most efficient. We’ve made mistakes with this kind of thinking—we’ve had to call UC to refine work done by other studios. But because we were transparent about it, we were able to maintain our great relationship.
Hey, if you see a hot stranger in a bar… In all seriousness, no matter how good a client-vendor relationship is, it’s not a one-size-fits-all arrangement.
You’re not going to get EVERY job. But consistent performance, great customer service and over-delivering will ensure that you’ll always be considered. Don’t treat ANY of your clients as second rate and don’t play games. If you’re too busy to take on a project, explain and offer an alternative schedule. If you’re outgrowing a client, be honest and say so instead of jeopardizing your reputation. Don’t let your work get sloppy. That’s just unethical. And if that doesn’t convince you, remember: The person you’re short-changing at Company A today can be a major decision-maker at coveted Company B tomorrow.
6. IS THERE AN ULTIMATE COMMITMENT…or how long could a client-vendor relationship last?
Karla: While this thinking can come back and bite you in the rear, when it comes to business, I’ve always been fond of sharing the love. It’s hard finding that perfect fit and when we do discover a partner that is talented, easy to work with and values our business, we want to let our colleagues, internally and outside of the company, know. We just don’t want them to forget us along the way!
Maria: We love, respect and cherish our clients, but we don’t own them. We’ve lost great long-term clients in the past to in-house expansions, changes of management and even going out of business. No matter how good it is, nothing is eternal. A proven track record and trust makes our job easier, simpler, stress-free. It gives us an ability to just be our creative selves. So we settle in for as long as this lasts and enjoy.
TAKEAWAY: EXCLUSIVITY IS RARE
Marriage may not be dead, but exclusivity between clients and vendors is going extinct.
The good news is that long-term partnerships are more important than ever! Think of each client-vendor relationship living far beyond its current parameters and configuration. This jointly written article is living proof!
You’re building professional links—not just between companies, but between people. It’s the professional “karma” that will stay with you through your entire career.
Maria Rapetskaya is founder of of Undefined Creative a boutique design studio in New York City, and Karla Chrzanowski, brand strategist and digital storyteller at KC Consulting & Productions in New York City.