Back in the early days of our creative marketing business, Clients from Hell was a gift from the universe. It kept me sane, reading all of those stories from fellow comrades in arms. Now, however, I have a much different take on that site and others like it.
What I once saw as a safe haven of a website where I could cope with the “realities” of our industry I now see as a place packed with professionals who just don’t know how to position themselves as an expert.
Instead, they blame it all on the client, rather than analyzing their own processes and coming up with ways to prevent these terrible things from ever happening again.
In this article, my goal is to help you not be like them – but to be better. That’s the only way you’ll truly rise above the “noise” of the competition and be received by clients the way you deserve to be: with respect & appreciation.
My goal is to help you position yourself as an expert designer, creative, and freelancer.
Fair enough? Then let’s get started…
Your first step to positioning yourself as an expert
The first step is that, from now on, you will never blame a client for things going wrong. Now, of course, you can vent and kick and scream all you need to get out the initial frustration when they do…
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But afterwards, you’ll now take a good, hard look at the situation and ask yourself this question:
“What could I have done from the start that would have prevented this from ever happening?”
On Clients from Hell you see the same problems posted over and over and over again. But why? That’s insanity – doing the same thing and expecting different results. Why are there 20,000 stories about clients demanding complex jobs in 24 hours? Why are there 10,000 stories about clients calling designers at 3 in the morning?
Some clients are crazy and there is nothing you can do about that. But for every problem-client I’ve had, when I’m being honest with myself, I can only think of 1 or 2 situations in which I’m actually absolved of responsibility. Everything else was because I didn’t have a measure in place to prevent X or solve Y.
Taking responsibility for your business and owning up to the reality that you could’ve done things better makes you exude seriousness. Only true pros do this. Amateurs never get past the venting and fuming. They stay stuck in blame forever.
Don’t let that happen to you. Be a true pro. Even if it hurts and is uncomfortable, take responsibility. I believe Smokey the Bear said it best:
“Only you can prevent forest fires.”
This couldn’t be truer than in business.
For example, we’ve learned over time that flicking cigarette butts into thicket makes forests burn down. It doesn’t help anybody to blame the forest for being so flammable or the cigarette for being a flame.
Remember: Any client not guided by systems will become a forest fire.
Not only does this make you exude this magical sense of professionalism, it also makes you do things that concretely display expertise.
When your contract contains certain clauses, when your email and phone interactions take a different path than others’, you’re showing potential new clients that you know the ropes and you know how to guide the project to a successful finish, and that you won’t stand for them blowing up and being a crazy pain in the butt.
Next: Have a plan of action for… everything.
Nothing emotes true professionalism like having a solid plan in place.
Clients like to ask questions like, “So, what happens next?”
And if crickets start chirping because you’re sitting silently without a clue – it sends signals about who you are. But if you immediately have an awesome answer, because you’re prepared, you’ll impress them with how credible and professional you truly are.
Even if it’s a loose structure, have some sort of structure in place for your client interactions.
For example, I like this structure for prospecting calls:
– Ask a lot of questions about the client and project and any problems they’re facing / desires they have for their business
– If I feel it’s a good fit, I tell them how I can help them with those problems / desires through the project
– I give an estimated price
If that works for them, I tell them I’ll put together a formal proposal and end the call.
Basically, I: Listen > Respond > Educate > Hang up.
I actually use this format for pretty much all client interactions. If a client has a problem or concern, I listen to it… then respond to what they said… then educate them about a solution… then say sayonara.
This also goes for project phases, which we have a plan for too. For example, we tell our clients at the start of a project that:
– Weeks 1 & 2 will be for research
– After research, we’ll form a direction that we’ll go over with them
– Weeks 3 & 4 will be then be for creating a design based on that direction
– Weeks 5 & 6 are for feedback and making changes & tweaks to get it perfect
Having a plan like this does a few things:
– It makes them feel like they’re in good hands. You’re not just “winging it”. You have a “plan”.
– It controls their expectations. We tell them exactly when they can expect a meeting about direction, when they can expect to see a finished design, and when they can expect to have a chance for input and feedback.
(No more getting project on Day 1 and on Day 2 receiving 1,000 emails asking if it’s ready yet. No more “So what happens next?” phone calls. Just smooth sailing.)
– It gives you peace of mind. If you know it’s week 1 and you’re in research, you won’t be frantic about already creating your deliverable. If you know it’s week 3 and you’re supposed to be tucked away in your “secret lab” designing, you don’t have to worry about getting hounded for updates.
But we even have plans within our plans…
For example, for research, we conduct a lot of interviews of the client, their staff, and the client’s clients. We have plans for those interviews. We have plans for how we’ll use the interviews. And so on.
And it shows. It makes us look competent as heck, and it’ll have the same effect on you and your business when everything you do is done with purpose – and not by chance or accident.
That might seem like a lot of pressure, to come up with all of these “plans” – but you don’t have to figure out every plan for every scenario all at once. We did it over many years of things going wrong in every part of our business, taking responsibility for them, and figuring out how to prevent them from ever happening again.
But I bet if you took one good 2-3 hour Starbucks session, you could come up with a process for a lot of things based on the experiences you’ve already had. I bet you could pick 5 problems you face with clients and prevent them from happening with future clients.
These processes don’t have to be written in stone, either. They don’t have to be perfect.
The best part is, you can base your plans around your natural creative process.
For example, take a minute and think about the process you go through to create a logo. Maybe it looks something like this:
– Interview client to learn about their company and what they’re trying to achieve
– Conduct research online looking into similar companies and their branding
– Flip through your favorite design books for inspiration
– Sketch concepts for a few days
– Hit a concept you really love
– Make it digital and create a draft
– Send to client
If you spell this out for yourself, you can spell it out for your client. During prospecting calls, you can discuss your “official process” for logo creation. You can have a section on your website dedicated to going over your process. You can let clients know where you are along the way to keep them calm and happy.
But it’s also a powerful exercise for yourself as an artist. It gives the chaos of the creative process some order. It confines craziness and artistic passion into some sort of organized flow. Suddenly you’re not just some guy or gal with artistic talent – you’re a true professional who has an “approach” to your genius.
Now, I have a lot more advice on this subject, but I think this is a good place to sign off. But I have to express something first…
There are no “magic words” you can put on your website or “magic phrases” you can say on the phone that make people take you seriously.
It’s something that comes with a lot of time, hard work, and making mistakes.
You’ll get knocked around, kicked, get the wind knocked out of you, and more. And it won’t ever stop. For some reason, this seems to be how growth happens in this world, and it’s an endless cycle. It’s how plants learned to grow taller than other plants to reach the sun, and how cheetahs learned to be so darn fast.
You get knocked around, then you figure out how to fix it. Then, it’s smooth sailing for a while. Then, suddenly, you start getting knocked around again. And you figure out how to fix it. Eventually you realize that, the next time you face a “problem”, all it means is that life is trying to help you “level up.”
Like I said at the beginning, you can either blame life and your clients for treating you this way… Or you can step up to the plate and figure out how to make things better.
The latter is the path of the True Pro, and the path to being taken seriously.
That’s all for today.
If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Till next time,
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