I found myself discussing the issue of clients several times this week. It seems that all of us, however experienced we are have suffered from bad experiences with clients. Some of the stories I hear are toe-curlingly painful.
The fact is that your clients don’t go to ‘be nice to your suppliers’ school. You have to hope that they’ve worked for themselves at some point and understand the unique pressures that working independently brings, but it seems that most haven’t. Obviously, you should always make sure that you’ve signed a good contract before you start work (and our friends at Lawbite can help you with that), but even then, things don’t always go according to plan.
Where do you start? Unpaid bills because they ‘don’t like the design’ when you already have their approval, not paying market rates, being unreasonable about deadlines – you name it, there’s a client out there who’s done it. If you don’t believe me, have a look at this fantastic site, Clients from Hell, because if nothing else it will make you howl with laughter.
However. Without clients, we aren’t freelancers. We don’t make a living and we’d be back to full time employment. So we’ve got to make it work. And that is possible; in fact, it’s surprisingly easy if you just follow a few rules.
1. Get to know your clients
There’s an old adage from the advertising world that you should know your clients’ business better than they know it. Well of course you can’t know every in and out of their business, but you can anticipate their pain points and offer solutions by taking time to understand how they tick.
You see, clients are just human beings and so are you. Without the human connection and the bond of trust, you don’t really have a relationship. Good relationships mean that when things don’t go the way the client wants, it’s easier to have a conversation about it and head problems off before they become an issue.
2. Don’t take them for granted
All of the above taken into consideration, your clients are not your employer. That’s an important thing to remember if this is your first client relationship and you are not used to having to find new clients all the time.
It’s an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, you want to appear indispensible, but on the other, you will want to keep a good rotation of clients so that your portfolio remains diverse and
Don’t forget that your clients are not there just to pay your bills. Give them a little ‘love’ every now and then. Which brings me onto the 3 rules of great client relationships.
3: Solve problems fast
It’s a fact of life that problems occur. Even when you are on top of things. Sometimes it’s a simple difference of opinion, but all too often, it’s because you haven’t seen it coming. Whichever it is, the onus is on you to sort it out as soon as possible. You will be judged by your ability to deal with it, almost more so than on the original brief.
You can make this easier on yourself by observing some of the rules I’ve set out above!
4: Reward good behaviour!
On go on, you expect to be rewarded for loyalty, don’t you? I’m not suggesting that you start your own loyalty scheme (although I’ve heard that some independents have variations on that theme!)
The point is that loyalty should be rewarded. Particularly if they are your longest-serving client, returning again and again to you. Whether it’s an annual meal out at your expense, or a simple thank you card, think about how you can say thanks for being my favourite client.
5. Be ‘on it’ with your client’s work
This is going to sound a little old fashioned, but it’s important that your clients see that you are on top of everything. You may be paddling away like mad underneath, but they don’t need to know that. They need to know that you aren’t going to let them down. That what you have agreed with them will happen.
Clients don’t like long silences. Even if you have nothing to tell them, tell them something. Call to say that there’s no update, but here is a progress update anyway. Send them regular reports and let them know where they are with their budget.
Clients like to know that you want to make sure things are okay. This doesn’t mean call them weekly, but maybe call them monthly to see if everything is going as expected. This is especially important after a visit. Call back after a couple of days to make sure what you did is actually working properly. When your clients see that you “get it” — that their jobs can’t continue properly if their technology doesn’t work — they will see you in a more positive light.
6: Over deliver
The unwritten rule is that if you just do what you have been contracted to do, you won’t get hired again. Go the extra mile, above and beyond, and the chances are that your client will be tempted back.
7. Think ahead
The key here is to stop thinking about just delivering on the job in hand, and to think about building your client portfolio. A client who comes back and who recommends you to others is worth a lot more than just chasing the deadlines. Think about your clients as long-term prospects and you’ll find that they want to be on the journey with you. After all, your success reflects on them.
8. This doesn’t have to be goodbye
Just because the job is done, the money is paid and everyone is happy with the result, it doesn’t mean you need to think of it in transactional terms. The fact is that you’ve invested in that client relationship, no matter how much they’ve spent with you.
So, keep the relationship fresh by keeping in touch. Make sure that you do the absolute necessary, like ensuring your client has your newsletter, but also take time to call them periodically to see how things are going.
9. Don’t reward bad behaviour
Let’s face it. Sometimes you just get a bad apple. Nothing that you do seems to work, and you are simple up against the EGO!
The best thing to do in these circumstances is to withdraw gracefully and with as little fallout as possible. Try to avoid going to court to recover money by negotiating. You need to keep an eye on the big picture, and think about how much of your time, energy and creative output will be affected by arguing with a client who isn’t going to change their stance.
10. Charge fairly
Maybe this should have been further up the list, because it’s quite important. I can’t tell you what’s fair for your industry, your specialism and your client. But you will know that in your gut.
It’s the subject of many an article, including some on this blog. But once you’ve worked out all the variables, you will know what is fair. And so will your client. That’s all.