No matter how great your work is, you can lose a client and damage your reputation if you don’t make a practice of good customer service. Your client wants to know that the money they’re spending on you is worth it. They’ll even pay more money for you than your competitors if they value the relationship. So the key is to endear yourself to your clients by giving them the highest quality service possible. Here are some basic points on maintaining good customer relationships that can set you apart from the pack:
1. Respect your clients.
Let’s face it, clients can drive you crazy, especially when you’re working in the creative world. Everyone thinks he/she knows what good design is and wants to put in his/her two cents. But nine times out of ten, it isn’t arrogance that makes clients think they know how to design, it’s the passion that they have for the project. Remember, they have far more invested in a successful outcome than you have. You may lose a client, but they could lose their job. And they want to be sure that after all the hard work, the outcome will be something they can proudly show to the top brass. As well, they generally know much better than you do what’s going to fly at approval time and what won’t. So it becomes their baby, and they may get a little more involved than what you consider optimal.
Replace impatience with respect for their position. They want to do a great job. They want it to be the very best. So do your best to understand what the project goals are and what they are personally trying to accomplish. Then carry it out in your work. Make it your personal goal to make them look like heroes in front of the boss. They will appreciate you beyond measure for it, and they’ll come back because they do feel your respect.
Once in a while, you will serve a client that you have a difficult time respecting. Evaluate the relationship honestly and determine whether it’s your bruised ego that’s the problem or whether they really are sub-standard people. If you are serving someone that you cannot possibly respect due to a lack of professionalism, dishonesty, or the like, then you need to walk away from that client as soon as you can.
2. Be consistent.
You need to be consistent with your clients, even if they are not. That means you must be consistently on time. Don’t set unreasonable deadlines that you can’t possibly meet. And when you set a deadline, meet it at all costs. If a problem arises that is going to make you late, then tell the client about it as soon as possible and be ready with a new promise date. But being late should be the exception, not the rule. I always tell my clients that I don’t mind waiting for them, but I never want them waiting for me.
Hand in hand with being on time is being on budget. If you are consistently overbudget, then you may need to hone your quoting skills. Or you may need to learn how to say no. Not every change request is a good one, and you must be able to diplomatically say so to avoid racking up unquoted hours. More on that in “Be the Expert” following.
Being reachable is another critical consistency. Having been on the client side of the tracks during my career, I can tell you that nothing is more unnerving than not being able to contact the person you paid good money to complete a job. Going back to the respect issue, unavailability can be interpreted as a lack of respect? ”that the client and the work they gave you is not important.
All of this can be summarized in three words: Be consistently professional. Freelancers who maintain a high level of professionalism–being on time, on budget, available, calm under fire and maintaining a positive attitude and high respect for the client? ”will develop the best reputation in the marketplace.
3. Be honest.
This is Kindergarten, Golden Rule stuff. It’s this simple: lies grow like a cancer, they require tremendous energy to cover up and they are disastrous to your reputation. So don’t do it, period.
4. Be the expert.
You are the one that trained in your field and worked hard to develop your skills. So have confidence in your skills and be an advisor to your client. They need and want help; so you should provide it. For example, if your client has an idea that is out of date and can’t even pass for retro, tell them so. But tell them with respect and kindness. Explain clearly and gently why their idea isn’t a good one and be ready to offer an alternative solution. Listen to their ideas, making every effort to understand what it is they’re really trying to accomplish. The worst injustice you can commit with your clients is to be an order-taker. You should be the one that is guiding the creativity, using your experience and talents to reach the client’s goals in the best possible way. And sometimes that means you have to diplomatically tell them that the course they want to take is not the best.
A couple of years ago, I was on a major long-term project that spanned the globe and involved 22 different cultures. Decision-making often was difficult because cross-cultural and political issues complicated matters. The temptation was high to just go with the solution that could reach a group consensus just to get a decision made and get on with the work at hand. But a bad idea is always a bad idea, and eventually someone would recognize that a bad decision was made. Since I was the hired expert, the finger naturally got pointed at me, and rightfully so. I learned quickly that speaking up about a bad idea, even when that course of action was unpopular with the client, was far more effective in reaching the best decision. Inevitably, everyone recognized it as the best decision, and I, in turn, was earning my keep as the expert consultant.
Sometimes in our eagerness to show off our abilities, we get over zealous with chatter about our ideas. You can walk away from a meeting feeling like you really got to shine, and they’ll walk away wondering if you understood at all what they want. Instead, you should make them feel that you listened and you heard them. You can do that by, well, listening. Let them do the talking about the project. Ask questions to keep them talking, like:
- What is the purpose for this project?
- What are its goals?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What have you envisioned as the final product?
- What key messages do you want to communicate?
- What elements must be included?
Once you’ve given them the time to explain expectations, then you can prove that you listened by giving them feedback. Recap what they told you, and tell them how you interpret it. This then becomes a great time to offer some preliminary ideas for discussion and tell them what you can do to accomplish objectives.
6. Go the extra mile.
There are two car washes near my house. One car wash does a very good job, offers a good value for services rendered, and the line always moves quickly. But the lady at the cash register is scary, there is a tip box positioned at the drop-off point before the car is even washed, and attendants are too busy talking to each other to care about me. The other car wash has no tip box, the guy taking the money is extremely polite and, here’s the clincher, the attendants who dry the car recognize me, thank me and ask me to come back again. Prices are comparable, work quality is comparable. I go back to the second car wash every time, even if there is a long, slow line, and I tip the attendants.
People are looking for a good experience, and it’s no different whether you’re selling car washes or world-class design capabilities. Worry less about the money you’re being paid and a lot more about doing an excellent job, one that you can be proud to put in your portfolio. Provide detailed project timelines and give regular status reports during each project phase so that the client always knows exactly what’s going on without calling you first. Follow up after delivery to make sure they have everything they need for the corporate review process. Offer to accompany him/her at a review meeting with superiors so that you can explain the creative intent. This will not only help the person to whom you are directly reporting, but it also will get you in front of the decision-makers. And, as often as you can, respond quickly to emergencies. Nothing will endear you more to your clients than getting them through the tight spots.
7. Reflect and Take Note.
When you begin new personal relationships, you spend time noticing the things they like, what they don’t like and what is important to them. Do the same thing with your clients. Take note, and if you don’t have a good memory, literally take notes, about your clients. I have found in working on creative teams that scheduling a debriefing meeting post-project is very helpful. We are able to discuss what we’ve learned about the client, what went wrong, what went right and document suggestions for improvements. When appropriate, I’ve even shared our debriefing documentation with the client to express our desire to continuously improve our work and understand them better. Whether the job was a smashing success or was one that you are thanking heaven that it’s finally over, you should take the time to reflect on the experience and learn as much from it as you can. You can do this if you work alone as well. A good way to keep all this information straight is to keep an up-to-date electronic card file on each client, documenting the points noted above, that you can refer back to with each new project. Before you meet with them or start new work, review your previous notes so that successes are repeated and mistakes are not.
All of these points really translate to nothing more than being a caring, genuine service provider. By consistently practicing them, you’ll keep your clients coming back for more.
Guest post by: Kathleen Hickey