I went out for dinner with a good friend the other night. He works at a large agency, and he was frustrated with a recent project that fell apart in its final week.
The agency had worked with the client on many projects in the past, and they thought all of the projects went well. Then, at the kickoff meeting, the client threw the agency’s prior work under the bus – in front of a room of 50 other team members.
Above all else, what matters here is the client’s etiquette. When you get up in front of 50 people at the beginning of the project and say that the agency you just hired has a poor track record with your company, it’s unprofessional and impolite of you to vent your frustrations in this way.
I took this as a sign that the client already harbored the belief that the project was going to fail. If you go into a project assuming it will fail, it’s much more likely to fail. More importantly, if you go into a project acting impolitely, the project is much more likely to suffer as a result. I want to be very clear on this: you will achieve a palpably worse outcome by being impolite to others. Impoliteness will harm the final design; impoliteness will harm your professional relationships.
Politeness is the most underrated aspect of my work. I am unflaggingly polite to my clients. And I’ve never regretted being polite, but I’ve always regretted any lapses in judgment where I act impolitely. So I default to polite. I’m not alone.
You do not learn politeness in college, but you probably should. The bar for politeness in our industry is so low that even basic acts of politeness, like writing thank-you letters or leading with praise, are immediately recognized by the other party.
Being polite isn’t easy, but it does make everything easier on you. On the other hand, expecting politeness from others throws impolite actions into harsh relief. When you default to polite, it is very, very easy to recognize when someone is acting impolite to you, and it’s often easy to figure out how they could have done things differently.
As I listened to my friend, I realized that when I hire clients, the number one thing I select for is kindness. It almost doesn’t even matter what kind of design problems you have. No, I just want you to approach your interactions with kindness and warmth, and to default to polite. So, as I’ve become more selective of who I work with, the number one thing that has changed is how much kinder my clients are to me.
It’s sad that basic human decency is at a premium. I wish we were all treated well. I wish that were the bare minimum. It isn’t.
I’ve often said that I turn down about twenty clients for every one I choose to hire. If people acted more politely to me, maybe that ratio would go up a bit. And then we’d all be happier.