More Transparent Client Relationships

I've had a hand in shaping four of the software products out there, including the two with the largest installed base. And for ten years I've been clamoring for more transparency, enabled primarily by allowing a client to log into your project management software (that's not BaseCamp, by the way) and seeing the status of things. For one thing, why make the AE do that? Every client is different, and this would let them interact with the data on their own terms, with selectable update options to boot.

Why hasn't this caught on? Two reasons:

  • Firms say something will take three weeks of work but they don't even start it until four days before the deadline, and this way the client would know that.
  • Firms are afraid of interferance in the creative process, where I think it should be more collaborative and with no "big reveals" as we call them.

Anyway, I was chatting about this with a client of mine, Greg Daake, who has a firm in Omaha. He has been thinking the same thing, and so I asked him to write some thoughts on this. Here's Greg:

I feel client's crave authenticity to our operations. Here's my wish list for the ultimate client portal by content type.

  • List view of all and who's in charge of them from both ends (client and agency).
  • Should reveal what stage the project is in, what stages are complete, and what's upcoming.
  • Agency to-do list (with completed ones visible, but shown as done and who in the agency is responsible for it) and a client to-do list (with completed ones visible, but shown as done and which contact at the client is responsible for it).
  • Show a pie-chart of the budget with two wedges: what's left to use and what's used up. If a user rolls their mouse over a wedge more details emerge such as a % or $ amount. A third wedge would appear in a contrasting color that showed how the pie became larger through change orders.
  • Associated assets: proofs (the interactive type that can be marked up on screen with teams, like ProofHQ or ConceptShare), files (sortable by type: copy, image, motion, audio), brainstorming (this could be audio from our internal meetings where we throw out ideas, sketches, research, etc…).
  • Read the approved "statement of work."
  • Download/read the approved "proposal/bid/estimate" to match.
  • A running dialogue (like a blog) about the project. Agency team members make client friendly notes about the project and the client makes notes about the project. Each note is tagged with who said it with a photo of themselves. Team members and client members get notified by email for each new comment. Clients would customize the delivery of those comments.
  • There should be a button and subsequent simple form for a client to make a change order. Encourage clients to use this and be accountable for it. If they still send an email, then the agency uses it so that it's visible in the client portal.
  • There should be a "writeboard" for interaction on copy ideas.
  • For closed projects, download all native files used (with the exception of fonts and rejected concept work). For fonts, post the names of the fonts used and a link where the client can go purchase their own license.
  • Download for the final invoice(s).
  • Show the entire agency team, with pictures.
  • Show each team member's DISC profile with a little clarity on what it should mean to the client.
  • Ask the client to participate in the same way, if they are willing.
  • Show each team member's full contact information
  • Show each team member's interests and/or other personal, brief bio.
  • Anytime the client sees a note from a team member, they can access the full details of that team member.
  • Show each team member's vacation schedule.
  • Firms's Twitter feed.
  • Slideshow of latest projects to keep clients up to date on your capabilities.
  • Blog feed.
  • Live webcam feed.
  • What's on our screens right now (random screenshots of what's on all/some of the team members screens at any given time).
  • A simple survey to measure client satisfaction.
  • A client's branded elements, consisting of approved copy blocks, tagged images, mandatory disclaimers, templates, etc.
  • Notifications/reminders: Change orders that need approval. Proposals to approve (or not) and the ability to do it right there on screen. Deadlines approaching, to-do's that are overdue.
  • File uploads, maybe using the API from a product like Sharefile. Or some seamless method for clients to send large files or groups of files that can't escape their 10mb Outlook environments.
  • Retrieve large files in the same way.
  • Built-in screensharing using a proven tool (like GoToMeeting).
  • Industry headlines posted on the site for the client to read. We, as the agency, would setup RSS feeds to specific verticals that we work with and port those headlines into their world.
  • Accessible via mobile platforms.
  • Oh, and one giant search bar over the whole damn thing (with advanced search capabilities for filtering).

What would you add or subtract? I'd like to see your thoughts.

Thanks Greg. We're on the same page here!

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Frank McClung

While I like transparency, it has it's limits with clients. Keeping them updated on the project's progress and it's impact on schedule and cost is a must, too much client interaction and input in a project is counter productive and can kill creativity. I've found that a lot of clients actually prefer less interaction because they are basically too busy with other projects or too lazy to provide a lot of interaction/input. And the ones that do want to have their hand in cookie jar can be a nightmare to work with. A product like this sounds great, I've just rarely seen clients with enough energy to use them effectively. They just prefer getting everything in an email.



thanks david and greg. what be the software that can handle this and when can i get a hold of it?


Kyle Loranger

That's a great start. One other element I'd like to add is another layer onto the budget that shows what has been billed (and in what chunks), and what items are going to be billed next. A page that shows a list of project tasks, with checkboxes ("invoiced", "to be invoiced on next bill") would be a wonderful, simple tool to communicate to everyone where the project is at financially. And a great way to develop quotes too.


Rick Bailey

You know I love this kind of transparency. It's part of being coherent. But the other part of coherence is knowing your clients well enough to give the right information--and to know how much info they truly want. I think Frank makes a good point. Too much of a good thing can, in fact, be too much. And just because we can, doesn't necessarily mean we should. My clients expect me to make intelligent choices on their behalf. They come to me for my expertise--and a little magic. I fully support full disclosure and access to information. I'm not so certain we need to give up the fig leaf.


Jeff B

Great post. Running a mid size firm I've recently come to see how something like this can be really helpful for both client and design firm. It creates accountability (and hopefully trust) on both sides. That said, it's tough to do, as behind the scenes there generally are a lot of things going on that you may want to pose to the client a bit differently. I also agree with Frank that when put to the test, a lot of clients would abuse this and make the process a lot more difficult (others would flat out ignore it). Like a lot of things, I think in concept this is fantastic, but in reality it's flaws start to show. Regardless, pushing in this overall direction has proven a great move for us.

One question for David (and probably for a separate post) - Why the slam on BaseCamp? It actually does, or can 'sort of' do a whole bunch of things on this list? I really would like to know your thoughts as its an internal issue we've been trying to solve for years!


Mark Cork

There are some really great ideas here but I'd be quick to say that one size doesn't fit all clients. I like the fact that Workamajig offers multiple permission levels to the client view. This is very helpful in tailoring accessibility to a clients specific needs. I'd also caution agencies to not become too self-serve and thus risk losing the human touch aspect of client service.


David C. Baker

Thanks for all the great discussion, folks. Heck, Greg get's more feedback than I do! :)

One thing I haven't seen any of you admit is the most significant reason you are against this: when there is more transparency, you'll have to quit lying!!!!!

On the BaseCamp thing, I don't like the program at all, and many (most?) hate it. It's not intuitive and they'd rather just communicate by email instead. Copper Project is what BaseCamp should have been.

Please note that my opinion on BaseCamp does not reflect my opinion on 37Signals or Jason. Jason is a great guy and 37Signals is a great company.


Frank McClung

I don't know what others do, but I don't lie to my clients. If I'm behind starting, I tell them. If it's going to cost them more than I originally estimated, I tell them. Etc. But there is a limit. I don't tell them everything I'm doing or not doing on their project. They are paying me to deliver the sausage, not watch me make it. If they want to watch me make it, it will cost them more.



I'm with Frank. We don't lie either. If we can't start on a project until some time after it's requested, we're very up front about that and why. We tried using the client log in for Workamajig, and none of our clients used it. They much prefer interacting directly rather than virtually. So we stopped doing it. I realize everybody's clients are different and we'd actually love it if our clients would be willing to log in and look around; ESPECIALLY the schedule because then they might participate in keeping their work on schedule.


Brian Matt

I only like a few elements of this much transparency. Most of this perpetuates the belief that some clients think of your firm as just pairs of hands. It has been my experience that showing clients individual tasks (as in a to-do list) causes them to do two things:

1. Encourage them to mess with your process by asking, "Why do you need to do this or that? If we skipped this, could we cut the budget?" You invite micro management.

2. You are portrayed as a collection of task-doers rather than a unified force to solve their problems.

I like the pie chart idea, but what happens when you are under budget? Do client ask for a return of funds? What does over budget look like?

I also like the statement of goals, clarity on project leads and team backgrounds, as well as the ability to look at a common schedule. I am sure there are other good things in there, but that's what came to mind.

Just one man's 2¢.


Stephanie Silver

We have been using a system like this for years and it's been extremely helpful. Of course, it doesn't provide everything Greg mentioned but a lot of it is covered. We tailor our use of the online system to each clients' needs and balance it with direct communication but we have had no complaints and most of our clients love it. Our entire brand is based on transparency and truly doing what is best for the client so this system helps solidify that. Heck, we've even used it as a selling tool.


Greg Daake

I think full transparency would invite clients to cherry pick tasks. But I lean towards demystifying what goes on inside our walls. I'd rather put an obstacle on the table myself than have a prospect/client bring it up. I think part of the lying that David is referring to is to ourselves about our processes. The top two questions I get are "what's this cost?" and "what's the process and timeframe?". I think a tool like this would bring some measure of clarify to those questions (not to mention stabilize and rationalize the process to our internal team). It's my job to bring effectiveness and insight to the projects - which will remain difficult to quantify and itemize.


Stephanie Silver

That's a good point, Greg. Once the client has seen the task list they are likely to understand your pricing justification a little better. As far as cherry picking goes, we make it clear that the tasks are necessary to guarantee a quality product and that we don't deviate from our process. We really haven't had any push back because our clients trust us....because we're so transparent to begin with.


Toni Antonetti

Great discussion! I have found, after trying dozens of project management packages, that the complicated ones are more trouble than they're worth for small agencies. Too many bells and whistles for our projects. I have to nag to get my contractors to use it, and the clients don't want to bother, either. They also have issues with access to some of these products because of their IT departments.

I use SmartSheet, which can be configured to send a report to your client on a periodic basis and that seems to work for us. In general, I find that clients just want a summary or overview and don't want to learn new software.

And what's the the transparency mantra? Do we need to tell our clients EVERYTHING? I had a mentor who once said, "Surround everything you do with an air of mystery." I just want my clients to know that I got the work done on time and to their satisfaction.



Great article and great comments. I think everyone in advertising is afraid of complete transparency. Not because of a fear of hiding anything but more a fear of not covering all of their bases. We were all set to implement an online tool that would allow client access, input, and joint responsibility but realized it would create more issues than we felt we could deal with at the time. So now we use budget estimates that provide cost, process, deliverables, expectations and a schedule. In addition, we provide weekly status reports with updates, responsibilities, progress, issues, current progress and next steps. We also provide monthly reports with project hours, schedule, progress and billing information. We have been told they we communicate and provide better and more information than any other agency they have worked with before. So, we will continue with this until we are asked for something different.


Steve Rosenbaum

Wow, terrific list of transparency portal features. I am all for it.


Richard Podsada

I'm all for clear communication and transparency. But doesn't this level of transparency contradict some of the principles of value selling? After all, the essence of value selling is to not focus on tasks and deliverables, but outcomes and value. Thus, value selling essentially makes the 'how' part of the equation opaque by design. Would this level of access unravel and invalidate the entire process, pushing your firm and the client to focus on tasks, deliverables and hours?


David C. Baker

Richard, I understand your points and they were certainly true more in the past than today. Clients are somewhat distrustful of "experts" unless then are authentic and human. Yesterday I shared a significant amount of personal information to a group of 18 agency heads who were meeting for a Roundtable in Nashville. I don't believe that doing so diminished my view as an "expert," but in fact enhanced my relationship with them because I was transparent and honest...about my personal successes and failures. Clients want to see behind the curtain, these days, and especially the process.


Richard Podsada

I agree with your views on 'expert' status and the client's desire for transparency. Too many have left it up to the 'experts' to face blown deadlines and poor results. Maybe the problem is there's fewer experts than claimed. :) But this does leave a bit of an educational gap. Most of the materials written about value selling, eg Alan Weiss, are somewhat made outdated in this 2.0 world of openness and collaboration. Particularly in the tactical area of how you integrate the opaque nature of value selling with the transparent expectations of clients, and still maintain integrity in the sales and delivery process. I'd be very interested to see some materials on this subject.


David C. Baker

Richard, Alan was a great help in his day. I don't think he is now. The new leader in guiding the proper professional services outlook is Charles Green of the Trusted Advisor group.


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