Learning how to successfully work with clients is an ongoing process, but when done right it can have so many benefits for your business: increased trust with your team and clients, a growing positive reputation, less stress, and a smoother process for every project you work on.
To dig deeper into how to build strong client relationships, we sat down with Carl Smith, General Manager of Bureau of Digital, for a Shopify Partner Session webinar. Carl has thirty years of client service experience, and he shared his lessons learned with us. You can rewatch the whole webinar in the video below.
Through his years of experience working with clients, Carl has established some tried and true techniques for managing client relationships. In this article, we’ll outline some of his practical and actionable approaches to client management.
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Step 1: Know thyself
When embarking on a new project with a client, one of the most important first steps you can take is to do some self-reflection. Knowing your team’s strengths, weaknesses, preconceptions, and attitudes can help you establish an open, trusting relationship with a client right away. Here are some questions to consider.
Do we have preconceptions about this client?
Over the course of your career, you will work with good and bad clients. The thing to remember, however, is that most clients start off as good clients—they’re excited about the project and optimistic about how things will turn out. It’s only when you start hitting the inevitable bumps in the road that clients start to turn bad.
When those bumps in the road show up, it’s important that you’re aware of your own preconceptions, so you can manage your client through those difficult times without letting them become bad clients. If you start projecting your negative associations onto them, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"If you start projecting your negative associations onto clients, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
So ask yourself if you and/or your team have preconceptions about a client, and be careful to avoid forcing those ideas onto a client who likely doesn’t deserve them.
What are my team’s strengths and weaknesses?
If you really want to have a successful client interaction, it’s important to know where your organization stands. Are there certain things you excel at? Things you could work on? Having answers to these questions will not only help your pitching process, but will also help you build a foundation of trust with your clients.
Write a guide of common pitfalls for clients
Based on your previous experiences with clients, you likely have an idea of situations, triggers, and problems that commonly arise in your work. You’re also likely aware of best practices and solutions to these problems.
By creating a written guide of these common situations and sharing it with clients, you identify potential problems before they happen. This has dual benefits: it makes both your team and your clients aware of what kinds of problems may arise during the project, and provides a roadmap for solving those problems.
Step 2: Know your client
In the same way that it’s important to understand your team’s preconceptions and common pitfalls, it’s also valuable to communicate with your client about theirs. This has similar benefits to understanding your own limitations: it allows you to identify problems that could arise later in the project.
Below are some questions to ask your client before work begins.
What are your potential roadblocks?
Every organization has bureaucracy that can hold up a project. Considerations such as legal approvals and reviews can affect a project’s timeline and cause holdups for your team. Identifying these before the project gets started can help you build a realistic timeline and budget for the project. You can include these considerations in the guide of common pitfalls that you create for your client.
What was your experience with your last digital agency?
Everyone has preconceptions, including your client. Ask them about their experience with their last agency, and you’ll get to see some of the concerns your client may have about you.
Sometimes, you may find that the problems a client had with a previous agency are general, run-of-the-mill kind of problems. This is a great opportunity to communicate with them upfront about the process of working with you, to avoid bumping into the same issues they had with their previous agency.
What are you afraid we’ll screw up on this project?
This is a really useful question for establishing trust and identifying potential problems. It allows your client to vent their worries with you, and helps you establish some set parameters for dealing with anything that comes up during the project.
This is also a great time to turn to the guide you made of potential pitfalls—chances are, some of your client’s concerns are already outlined there, allowing you to ease their worries.
These conversations help communicate that this project is a collaboration—you and your client are embarking on it together, and you both win when the project is a success.
"You and your client are embarking on the project together, and you both win when the project is a success."
You might also like: Forget User Experience. Start Thinking About Client Experience.
Step 3: Establish trust
Both knowing yourself and your team, and getting to know your client, are the basis of establishing trust. Having trust between your team and your client means that you can both assume you’re working in each other’s best interest. Remember, you both win when the project is a success.
According to Carl, there are some key actions you can take early on in the project to establish trust with your client.
Chances are, your client operates in a very different industry than you. That means that your lingo and terminology may be vastly different from theirs, and vice versa. For some clients, this could be a source of anxiety—if they don’t understand the language you use to describe your work, they may not understand the work that you’re doing.
To build trust, try to get comfortable using their terminology, and help them understand yours—Carl recommends creating a glossary of common terms, such as UX and wireframe, to help them understand the different stages of the project.
Being familiar can also mean using the same technologies they use. Are they used to building timelines in Excel? Then consider using Excel to show them your timelines, too—it’s a small gesture that can help ease your client’s worries.
It’s always easy to promise that you’ll be honest, but when it comes to difficult conversations such as timelines and budgets, it’s always so much easier to fudge the truth.
However, hard as it can be, being honest—especially with the tough subjects—is what will really build a trusting relationship with your client. If you’re upfront about the hard stuff, they’re a lot more likely to believe your promises down the road.
Being honest doesn’t mean being blunt—it is possible to be nice while sharing hard truths. Having empathy and being compassionate for your client’s position can help ease tension, especially during difficult conversations.
Address issues early
If you’ve been in your industry for a while, you’re likely pretty good at identifying potential problems while they’re still brewing. And though it’s easy to wait and see how those potential issues will play out, addressing them early will save you a headache and build trust with your client.
"Addressing issues early will save you a headache and build trust with your client."
With the guide you created of potential pitfalls, you’re in a great position to talk with your client and come up with mutually beneficial solutions together.
Potentially the most powerful way of establishing trust is to do what you say. When pitching a client, establishing budget and timelines, and throughout work on a project, it’s important to do what you say from the very start.
This means that every promise you make must be met—and this extends to your team, too. Understand what kind of commitments they’re making to the client, and keep track of these somewhere where the whole team can access them. This helps your team stay on track, and ensures that none of the client’s priorities are missed.
It’s really hard to say no. It’s also really hard to be told no. When you’re in the situation of having to say no to a client, it always helps to explain why.
Humans relate to stories—there’s no better way to communicate the rationale behind your answer than through a cautionary tale. Give your client an example of a time you did what they’re asking and it turned out poorly. Or, tell them a story of when you took a risk and it turned out great. Stories are relatable, and help your client contextualize why you do things the way you do.
Step 4: Set boundaries
Now you know yourself, you know your client, and you’ve started building a foundation of trust between the two of you. What is important now is to set boundaries for yourself and your team.
This has dual benefits—it helps protect your team and shows them and the work they do a good deal of respect. It also sets the expectation with the client that the two of you are on an even playing field—while they are the expert in their domain, you are the expert in yours.
Carl has a series of recommendations to help set these boundaries down on paper—but even informally, having rules like the following can help manage the expectation of how you and your team will be treated throughout the project.
The Pause Clause
Through his years of experience, Carl learned that the one thing that would most hurt his business’ bottom line was when a project went on hold. Timelines would stretch and clients would go quiet, and it was Carl and his team who paid the price.
To combat this, Carl introduced the Pause Clause into their contracts—a line that stipulated that if a client deliverable was late by 10 business days, the project would automatically go on hold. When the deliverable was produced, Carl had the right to re-estimate the project. If the project was on hold for longer than five days, the team would only return to the project when it suited their overall schedule.
The Pause Clause helped set the expectation that client deliverables were to be submitted on time. It also highlighted the long-term consequences of being late. By communicating these potential issues before a project even started, Carl’s team was able to set rules of engagements with their clients.
Voices in the Shadows
Sometimes, when you’re halfway through a project, somebody new will show up on the client side with authority and decision-making power. This can be disorienting for a team, and add a new level of complication to a project that is well underway.
To prevent this from happening, Carl added another clause to the contract called Voices in the Shadows. This gave Carl’s team the right to renegotiate a contract if someone new joined the project late. This ensured that all necessary stakeholders were involved with the project from the start, and helped make sure that the team and the client were on the same page.
Use your experience
You have a reason for working the way you do. That experience in getting a job done right is one of the reasons a client will hire you—you have a series of best practices to help a project go smoothly.
"That experience in getting a job done right is one of the reasons a client will hire you."
In the kickoff meeting and throughout the project, fall back on your experience. Provide a rationale to your clients for why you do things the way you do. Share tips for staying on track that you’ve picked up over the years, and identify solutions to potential problems.
Give your client a reason for why something is done a certain way (perhaps by telling a story, as shown above). This helps your client understand, and also gives them an opportunity to tell you if something isn’t relevant. It opens the project up to new ideas or new directions that can better solve the problem you’re addressing.
Scope creep, as dreaded as it is, is inevitable. Working on a project will illuminate new problems and possibilities that you need to address. And when the inevitable happens, it’s important that you have safeguards to protect your team.
Working on a drawn-out project can be exhausting, and you may have to deal with some burnout on your team. One thing that can help keep your team motivated is to ensure that you always stay aligned with your goals.
When you start work on a project, identify the top goals. What problems are you trying to solve? When scope creep sets in, make sure any changes that are made stay in line with those original goals.
This means being careful about what client requests you accept. Carl recommends saying the following when new features are requested: “Let’s look at what that does to our timeline and budget.”
This reminds clients that what they’re asking for may not fit into their bottom line.
You might also like: 3 Organizational Strategies to Prevent Scope Creep.
Silence is the enemy
In a project, silence is never a good thing. And while you may have the Pause Clause in place to address the problem of clients going silent, it’s also your responsibility to ensure you don’t go silent, either.
If things seem to be getting quiet between you and a client, it’s always a good idea to reconnect. Let them know that everything is going well. This assures clients that the project is on track, and also stops them from taking control of a project that’s gone too silent.
However, you may sometimes hit a big problem or complication in a project. That’s when it’s time to have a difficult conversation with your client.
Step 5: Have difficult conversations
Despite your very best intentions, sometimes things will go wrong. Being able to address those situations quickly means getting everyone back on track that much sooner. And while difficult conversations are never fun, there are some ways to make them a little less painful.
- Initiate the conversation: this gives you the opportunity to set the tone
- Rehearse: practice what you’re going to say, either alone or with someone you trust
- Be vulnerable: admit to your mistakes, and remind the client that you want to work together to fix it
- Watch your emotions: remember that it’s not personal, and that you both want what’s best for the project
- Focus on the problem, not the person: you can only fix the problem
- Find common interests: usually, you’re both focused on time and money, so what steps can you take together to get to a better place
- Anticipate perspectives: consider how you, the client, and your teams will feel, and try to have empathy for all sides
- Be firm but fair: sometimes you or the client are wrong, so be fair to both sides
- Ask why: if the client is asking for something that seems ridiculous, ask why to figure out what it is they’re trying to accomplish, and if you have a better solution for it
- Don’t be a buzzer beater: if you’re asked something you don’t know the answer to, it’s okay to take time to find out and come back with the right answer
- Reply now, answer later: when you get an email that you don’t know how to address, reply to let them know you’ve received it and are working on a reply
- Test, test, test: when you don’t agree with the client on something, test it to find out what works best
- Never email when you should call: if you’re struggling to write an email, stop and pick up the phone instead
- Own your mistakes: if you did something wrong, tell the client and let them know what steps you’re taking to fix it
- Timing is everything: consider what other actions your team is doing that could affect the situation (for example, don’t send an invoice immediately after missing a deadline)
Difficult conversations are tough: it’s right there in the name. But by following these tips, you can usually re-establish your relationship with the client and get your team working towards a successful conclusion once again.
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What’s the story?
When working with clients on projects, there will always be situations you can’t prepare for. Carl suggests asking yourself what the story will be in the future? How will you tell this story to others? Will you like the decision you made? You should always try to make the decisions that have the best stories.
Client management is a skill, and there’s always more to learn. But by following these five steps and remembering to think about the future story, you’ll be well on your way to being a client whisperer, too.
What are your tips to working well with clients? Let us know in the comments below!