Make It Work? A Primer on the Client Services Approach in Higher Ed

For you non-Project Runway fans, ‘make it work’ is usually the parting phrase of Tim Gunn (mentor to the fashion designer contestants) just before they commit to a specific garment design, leading to sinking-or-swimming at the runway judging. Presenter Tonya Oaks Smith is obviously adept at swimming with sharks in her role working with lawyers-cum-professors as Director of Communications at UALR William H. Bowen School of Law, so she’s well-suited to give advice on how to succeed on the client services approach in higher education.

Oaks Smith begins by painting the picture of a project gone wrong. “Not a huge project on the continuum of hugeness,” she said, estimating it would take around a week to complete. But four weeks went by, and still no closure on the project.

What happened?

“Mea culpa!” Oaks Smith said. “I violated a basic tenet: I didn’t communicate to my stakeholders what I needed from them.” But like many seeming tragedies, something new was born from the experience–a new way to work, and a new approach to working with clients that incorporates the chargeback model (where ‘clients’ pay for services out of pocket, along with any costs incurred) in a client services shop. And believe it or not, the elements are similar to the plot of a Project Runway storyline:

  • Examine the problem and constraints. In this context, making a dress out of duct tape is on par with developing content with people who can’t read well.
  • Assess the assets. Look at what’s available. On Project Runway, they have their workspace and materials. You do, too. Ask yourself how to make the best use out of what you havve.
  • Put a plan into play. Start designing, writing, DOING. Listen to your stakeholders.
  • Work it! Show why the idea works, and sell it.

In the midst of the work, it’s hard to stay sane–Oaks Smith admits to feeling frustrated and passively-aggressively lashing out–and provides a process for putting the above into practice:

  • Define the process–even (especially!) if you’re not a process-type of person. Oaks Smith is self-admittedly *not* a process person, but will say this: “Processes work. People who rock their work do processes. People who do their jobs sanely have processes.” Got it?
  • Educate your stakeholders. Let them know the time and effort that goes into your work so they don’t take it for granted, and keep coming back expecting more and more. “If given a chance, stakeholders treat you like a buffet,” Oaks Smith said. “Don’t be a buffet. Be an a la cart menu.”
  • Enforce the process. Even when it means doing something we don’t like, or going against our natural tendencies. “It’s hard to tell people we work with that they screwed up,” said Oaks Smith. But it’s the key to not only staying sane, but avoiding more damaing behaviors that can harm relationships.

Finally, refer to your clients as “colleagues” so they recognize you as an equal. Your time is valuable just like theirs. Talk to them about what’s going on. Be a human. Communicate.

“It’s the only stick you’ve got,” Oaks Smith concluded.

Photo Credit: Laila X via Compfight cc