Y’know that guy – one of your peers who always seems to get the very best clients? He who:
- Never has a problem with late payments.
- Doesn’t have to haggle pricing on rush projects.
- Makes handling a client misunderstanding sound like a stroll in the park.
That guy may very well have good luck in finding clients, but chances are he’s great at forming and managing client relationships too.
He knows how to become more than just a Photoshop guru or code monkey because he knows that it’s often the intangibles over talent that creates a great long-term relationship.
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And with these tips, so will you.
Use “we” instead of “you” and “I”
Fostering a good relationship with your client means making it a team effort even when you’re not there to slap high fives and have a round of beers.
So when talking with your client, use “we” instead of “you” and “I” to create a team atmosphere.
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- What we can do/need to do here is…
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- I like where we’re headed.
Establishing yourself as part of their team does several awesome things for client relationships:
- It’s harder to push blame around. Successes and failures all belong to the group.
- Everyone is more likely to be seen as equals, discouraging your client from treating you like a minion.
- It’s harder for your client emotionally to decide to leave you for someone else.
Bonus! Using “we” with potential clients subtly and subconsciously already brings them on board as your client. It’s much harder for them to say “no” when you’ve already positioned yourself as a member of their team.
Acknowledge client communications even when you can’t handle it right now
Despite popular belief, we aren’t always immediately available to handle our clients’ request. However, that doesn’t mean we should totally ignore them until we can handle it.
At your next convenience that day (sooner if it’s an urgent or urgent-sounding request), simply shoot off a quick text or email acknowledging that you’ve received the message and that you will handle it just as soon as possible.
- Hi Jeremy! Thanks for the email. I have a conference call in 5 minutes, but I’ll call you later today. Does 4pm your time work?
- Anne – got your text. Out with a client right now but will call at 3pm. Talk soon!
Now your client knows you’ve gotten the message and are willing to help even though you’re not available right at this moment.
Pro tip! No matter what you’re busy with right now, you’re always with another client. I’ve “been with a client” while mowing the lawn, running errands, waiting to see the dentist, or heading out to a concert. “With a client” sounds way more professional than any personal event while also making you sound in-demand.
Learn something personal about each client
(I’m not talking about blackmail.)
Whether it’s what their birthday plans are, where their youngest child is going to college, or that they play impromptu jazz saxophone on Saturday nights, connect with your client on a personal level.
Then ask about whatever it is from time to time.
- How is Sofia liking Florida State?
- How was Canada? What’s the one thing I HAVE to see in Toronto?
This makes it harder for your client personally and emotionally:
- to replace you
- to treat you like an underling
- to be angry and heated in a misunderstanding
- not to give you first dibs over other freelancers they work with on the next project
Announce vacations/days off well ahead of time
Yes, entrepreneurs CAN go on vacation (see how here)!
Shocking, I know.
But if your clients are anything like mine, they ALL suddenly need something 2 days before vacation starts. So when you do take more than a day off here or there, let your active clients* know about one month in advance.
This gives them the opportunity to get little tasks completed before you leave while not disappointing them when you aren’t available mid-vacation to pump something out before the deadline.
*I consider active clients any I’ve had communication with over the past 2-3 months, or those with regular or semi-regular recurring projects.
Pro tip! In the US at least, taking “too much” vacation equals a negative to all the working stiffs who only get one week per year. So if you’re gone a lot, you don’t have to cop to yet another vacation (even though you’re packing for the Bahamas). You can claim continuing education, a conference, or you don’t have to say why you’ll be out of the office at all.
Avoid using “you” in confrontation/mix-ups
When you and your client have an inevitable problem, miscommunication, or mistake, never make the client feel like you’re targeting them. Using “you” automatically puts your client on the defensive and creates an “us versus them” mentality.
- Instead of “you misunderstood me,” try “I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
- Instead of “you didn’t send me your information,” try “I don’t have the necessary copy.”
- Instead of “you told me to use purple,” try “I have in my notes that we agreed on the color purple.”
In fact, avoid placing blame altogether. Correct the situation if possible and discuss how to prevent it from happening again, because it really doesn’t matter who’s most at fault (and if it does, it might be time to fire your client).
We’re a team, remember?
Treat the staff as well as you do the boss
Just because you don’t answer to your client’s secretary or their mediocre (at best) in-house designer doesn’t mean you have a license to treat them like minions. (This goes for wait staff when you’re meeting a client for lunch, too.)
Supporting staff report how you treat them to their bosses, particularly if it’s negative. You don’t want to look like a total jerk when you think your business is not on the line.
And if your client gets replaced, you want someone else in the company putting in a good word for you to the new gal.
So no matter who you interact with over the course of a project, be pleasant, courteous, and respectful. You’re likely strengthening your relationship when many others won’t make the extra effort.
Pro tip! Learn staff names and keep them in your client notes. Not only will they respond well to you (i.e. move your project along faster or prioritize your invoice), but also your client will notice – and be impressed – when you can speak about their team without referring to “that guy in production.”
Listen more than you speak
In most cases, clients love to ramble on…err…present valuable information. But hey, that means they’re excited about their project, and that’s what you want them to be (because then they’re going to be super-thrilled when you knock it out of the park).
So ask questions that get them talking, and then listen. Really listen (and take notes). You’re going to sound amazingly attentive when you refer to details they mentioned a month ago like you savored every word of the conversation.
And when they ask for your opinion or expertise, present your information clearly and concisely. Then stop talking.
(We often think we sound more important and knowledgeable when we drone on, but quite the opposite is true.)
Smile when you answer the phone
Someone once told me, “Smile when you answer the phone. The caller will hear it in your voice.”
They were right.
(Go ahead, try it right now. Smile and try not to sound upbeat and ready to tackle the world. Just the act of smiling will put you in a more positive, helpful mood.)
Remember the last time you called a company intending to spend money with them and the person on the other end made it sound like you interrupted their busy day? If you’re anything like me, you found someone else at another company who sounded more interested in helping you.
The same is true for your clients – even the ones who love you. Nobody wants to feel like they’re an annoyance, an interruption, or a hassle.
So make them feel like your most important client and brighten their day at the same time…it all starts with a smile.
What can you add?
Do you have any so-simple, often overlooked tips that are key elements of creating great client relationships hiding in the shadows? Drop a note in the comments and share your best advice!
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