8 Tips for Establishing a Strong Relationship with Clients

Recently I did a Periscope on Four Ways To Start Off On The Right Foot With Clients… but during the ‘scope I realized that there are way more than four ways to build a healthy and efficient working relationship. So, instead of just four ways, here are EIGHT!


RESEARCH YOUR CLIENT

When someone reaches out to me to set up a consultation, I immediately begin researching his or her company (if it already exists). I also send a “Getting To Know You” questionnaire to get a brief, but descriptive, understanding of who they are.

This is because the idea of going into a consultation without any knowledge of someone is terrifying. I mean, think about it! They have already studied your website, viewed your past work, read your blog posts, and who knows what else. They know you very well and you? You got nothin’.

So, while walking into our initial meeting prepared seems like a benefit to the client (it totally is), it’s also a huge benefit to you. What if they had some absolutely outlandish company? Wouldn’t you want to know if someone was about to ask you to build a website for their dancing chicken circus? Then you could maintain decorum and respond that you find chickens oddly charming and would be excited at the idea of creating such a majestic site, versus bursting out laughing and potentially insulting a client.

It’s also a benefit because, though you shouldn’t just a book by its cover, you probably will be able to develop a bit of an idea if this client is actually one you want to work with. I can usually tell if we don’t value the same things, or if there is a big flaring red flag from their answers to my questionnaire.

If you end up working with the client, they will appreciate your take-charge attitude and the fact that you came into the meeting already understanding key facets of their business. This will also keep the meeting running smoothly and on a tight schedule because reviewing the questionnaire (and expounding on a few parts) is a great way to structure at least the first part of your consultation.


HAVE AN ONBOARDING PROCESS

This is something that I learned back when I worked for photographers – having a routine onboarding process makes everything so much easier. For example: when they booked a bride, they immediately put a welcome packet in the mail that included a small gift, a sample wedding day timeline, information about canvas prints, and a few other small pieces of information (nothing salesy though). Then, a few days later, they would call just to check-in, thank them for the meeting again, and ask if the bride and their fiancé wanted to grab coffee with my bosses (they are married and work together).

Since they book most clients in person, their onboarding process differs from anything on I can do, since I work mostly with clients online. However, I have adopted the idea of having a planned process or workflow for every client. Mine starts at the end of the initial consultation. I end that call detailing that they are going to receive three emails from me over the next week including a proposal, a contract, a timeline, a few blog posts, and some homework.  I then create the proposed scope of work and include a client-specific note about something we discussed in the consultation. When they approve it, I send over a finalized scope of work and contract. When they sign and return that, I send an ideal timeline and a few blog posts to look at. A few days later I email them some homework (further questionnaires). I maintain this order and use template emails every time to be consistent and make my job easier.

Having a process in place for getting all the paperwork and things you need makes your job so much easier. You don’t have to sit and write out each email and try to figure out exactly what to say and how to say it. It’s just plug and play basically.

This also makes things easier for the client because they know what to expect and when to expect it. They know that I need them to be available and check their emails quickly so that we can get the ball rolling.


CREATE A PROPOSED SCOPE OF WORK

This is what I send over first to the client. Since I have two packages, they generally remain the same. I do customize parts of it - like if I already know what one or all of the collateral pieces are going to be, I’ll write it out specifically. I also include the revision count for any design pieces.

I really, really, really recommend doing that. Even if you know in your heart that you will do more revisions for someone, having a count on there is a good reminder to them to not be too expectant of unlimited changes and a good way to protect yourself if you get that client that just wants and wants and wants. It’s definitely a better safe than sorry kind of thing. I usually am lenient on revisions, but if I get a client that is on revision number twelve of something I allotted (and they agreed to) only two revisions, then I can gently say something like “Hey! We are really racking up the changes here – maybe we should get on the phone or Skype and talk this out for 15 minutes so we can get on the same page? All these emails are really delaying us!”

Another tip – I include four collateral pieces in my Scope of Work (and charge accordingly) to cover myself from uncomfortable situations where the client asks you to do something else and you are like “sure… but it costs money…” I mean, I’m sure you remember what it was like launching your business – you suddenly realize you need a _______ (newsletter, PDF, etc.) that you never even had thought of before! By having these four collateral pieces already paid for, the client can feel more at-ease asking you for something and you can feel more at-ease saying “of course!”


CREATE A TIMELINE

This is the next thing I send over to a client. This is great for both you and the client because everyone will be on the same page of what is expected of each party. What I mean by that is – you can send over the logos on a Tuesday and because this timeline states it, the client knows they need to get back to you by Friday to move forward and stay on track. Letting the client know what to expect and when will make their lives easier. They will be able to allot time to work on whatever it is you need from them, and you wont have to be calling and emailing and begging to hear back.

Nothing frustrates me more than when you send something to a client and they fall off the face of the earth for a few weeks. I totally get that we are all very busy, but you’ve now delayed my business to the point that I’ve just moved on to the next client. Having an established timeline helps that avoid those kinds of issues, because they should know what to expect before the project even starts.


EDUCATE YOUR CLIENT

This is one that I am just starting to implement lately and will be expanding in the near future. At my 9-5 we have a few clients on retainer that need a bunch of ads in various sizes for print publications. The work is generally easy, until the client wants to cram so much information in a 3.5x4” ad that your head explodes. You calmly try to explain to the client that, though you are an excellent designer, this is impossible. The only way to fit everything and do their requests is to just have a list of bullet points. Then the client responds with “well why don’t you just do this, then do this, and then put that there.” And your head re-explodes and you wait a day to respond to the email because you don’t think you can stop yourself from typing, “because that is horrible. That is a horrible idea and you aren’t a designer.”

I told myself 100 times over when I started freelancing that I wouldn’t let clients direct me to the point that I am just a work-horse clicking buttons in Photoshop. I told myself I would tell the client that they needed to respect our relationship, them as the client asking for my expertise, and me as the expert. However, and I think most designers are guilty of this from time to time, that conversation ends up being WAY scarier and not happening.

So, what I have decided to implement was sending them a few links to various blog posts that make it clear what is acceptable and what is not. It’s educating the client to how a designer and client relationship should work. So far, I’ve only posted one blog that qualifies as worth sending for client education but I have two other in production. I currently send Understanding Branding. This helps set the tone for our relationship – and clues the client in that I’m not just going to whip together a logo in a day and call the project finished. I haven’t quite figured out how to write a post that says “You Hired a Designer For A Reason” but I’m working on it.

My point is, think about some areas that you get frustrated with your client – because chances are they are also frustrated. Then, find a way to alleviate that stress point. If it’s that clients are blatantly disregarding timelines then figure out a way to educate future clients on the necessity of sticking to one. Maybe it’s a blog post or adding a paragraph to one of your onboarding emails, or implementing something in your contract that states the project is terminated after x amount of weeks of lack of response from the client. Whatever it is, approaching the subject before it’s an issue will only help your relationship with your client.


SET COMMUNICATION EXPECTATIONS

This is a good one that Devan of DevanDanielle.com told me. Being really transparent with your client will make the relationship better. I work a 9-5 right now and get so flustered when I can't immediately respond or do something a client asks of me, because I am at work. So, now I make sure to set communication expectations with a client before hand so that they know when I will be talking with them.

I tell them early on, “I do still work at a 9-5 for a local design company. Feel free to email me whenever, but I will be responding mostly in the evenings and weekends. “ This alleviates any awkward situations where they email you at 9:30am and you can't respond until 6:00pm and spend the whole day worried that they feel ignored.

Even if you are a full-timer, chances are you use time blocking, so it might still be wise alert your client to that. You can state something like, “I answer emails early in the morning and around lunch time – so don’t be alarmed if you don’t hear back from me right away!” I think that it’s better to be overly informative than have your client confused, angry, or doubting you.


ESTABLISH ONE POINT OF CONTACT

For my business now, I generally am working with other entrepreneurs who are new enough to be a one-woman show. BUT, there are the times in my business, and definitely in my 9-5 job, that it is essential to set a point of contact.

It can get pretty frustrating to receive multiple emails with revisions, or ideas, or direction from a company. Especially if they are drastically different in their content! Rather than get mixed up in their inner-company issues, set the tone off from the beginning by stating, “Hey! I know you and your _________(husband, wife, sister, employee, business partner, whatever) are really excited about this project. So am I! I just wanted to double check with you, though – you are my point of contact, right? If I have questions, I should reach out to you and conversely you will be the one communicating with me?” You don't want to come across as accusatory or wary, just genuine and concerned about the success of the project.


DON’T PROMISE WHAT YOU CAN’T DELIVER

This is so, so, so, so (just keep saying “so” for about ten minutes) important. I TOTALLY understand the concept of “fake it ‘til you make it.” Like, yes, completely. However, if you downright know you can’t do something, do not put your relationship with your client at risk.

For example, I know I am not good enough at video editing to offer it to a client. Have I though? Yes. Of course my second client, ever, was like “Hey! I have some video footage can you edit it together for my website?” And I, being so eager, and having edited a video ONCE for a school project said, “of course!”  I’m assuming you know how this story ends? Failing. Miserably! 

Now, if it’s something like packaging design, that I’ve done extensive work in but don’t necessarily offer, I will offer to work up a separate proposal for it. If it’s something really intensive (building an app, video editing, extensive animation) I offer to help them find someone capable and then I start asking around in Facebook groups or other connections.  The trick is, you don’t just say “no,” you offer an alternative or to help them find someone else. 

Determining where to draw the line between “fake it ‘til you make it” and “No, I can’t do that for you but I know someone who can,” is really up to you. I tend to draw it where I have zero experience, or experience in not being good at something. This might sound selfish, but I don’t really have a desire to be an expert video editor; so putting time and energy into learning it for one client doesn’t serve me. Unselfishly, I don’t want to put my client through the annoyance of me trying something and not succeeding and then referring them elsewhere. 


CONCLUSION

Whew! This was a long one. I hope entering into a relationship with clients seems a little less daunting now. My biggest piece of advice is to have a plan – nothing looks more unprofessional (read: scary) to a client than someone that is unsure of themselves!


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Posted on October 19, 2015 and filed under Guides, Business.