4 things I've done differently to improve client communications in my business
4 things I’ve done differently in business that have improved client communications
Many freelancers/small business owners/entrepreneurs go into business thinking that doing the actual work will be the most challenging part of their job. But in many cases, it’s actually client communications and management that can be the scariest or hardest part of their day. Who’d have thought that?!
Client communication can have its ups and downs, there’s no denying it. Anytime you’re dealing with people and their businesses, there’s an emotional component that can’t be ignored. But now that I’ve been in business for several years, I finally feel like I’m getting a handle on things.
Since I started my business, I’ve made countless changes to my process and learned a LOT about the best way to work with clients. Sometimes that means retraining my brain on the type of language to use, other times it means implementing new organization strategies. I can anticipate what various pushback points might be and I’m able to get ahead of the situation and keep everyone happy.
I’m not saying that I’m perfect or that I’m an expert in client communications, but I’ve definitely learned a lot and want to share those lessons with you today!
Whether you’re interested in starting up freelancing on the side of your 9-5 or you already run a successful business, I hope that you can take what I’ve learned and apply it to your own client communications. There’s no right or wrong way to run a business but at the end of the day, if you can remember that you and your clients are both humans who want a job well done, I have no doubt that you’ll figure out the right way to communicate with each other.
Let’s jump right in!
Related : 6 ways to totally wow your clients
1. Stop apologizing
When I was first starting out in my business, I attended a panel featuring local female founders. One of the speakers gave a passionate talk about why we need to stop saying sorry in professional settings and it’s a lesson that really stuck with me.
As women, we’ve been taught since childhood to be polite and that if we are nice, we’ll be more likeable. Business can be a real rollercoaster of emotions and I desperately wanted harmonious relationships with my clients. But I was a total newbie who was learning as I went and sometimes I would mess up or things wouldn’t go to plan - totally normal!
Well, old habits die hard and I had to recondition myself not to apologize for things that don’t warrant an apology in the first place.
This required a major change in the way I converse with clients.
Let’s imagine, for example, that we were fine-tuning the look and feel of their custom Squarespace website. In the past the client might say that they weren’t crazy about a webpage’s layout and wanted the text on the left side of the image instead of the right (or whatever), and I would reply with something like “Ahhh, sorry about that, no problem I can change it.” You’d better believe that I don’t speak that way anymore!
When I took a step back and really looked at WHEN I was most often apologizing in business, I realized that it’s when I was working with pushy and demanding clients who stressed me the eff out. These clients felt entitled to as many revisions or changes as they liked (because I never enforced any boundaries), and the wanted them done asap. It’s hardly surprising that these conversations and/or email exchanges sent me into stress mode and I would default into saying “I’m sorry” all over again.
Apologizing for your work in progress is no bueno because you never want to give off the impression that you’re incompetent, insecure, or that you’re not confident in your work and skills.
I no longer apologize for my work (unless I’m legitimately in the wrong, duh) and it’s made a world of difference in my client communications! And I’m not the only one, either.
If I could offer any advice to my fellow freelancers, business owners and entrepreneurs, it would be this: speak straightforwardly, own your work, rephrase your answers and change the language you use when receiving feedback or going over revisions.
A lot of this has to do with confidence so there’s no shame in practicing or even role playing conversations ahead of time - I still do this! Stop apologizing for your work and you will notice an immediate change in the way you carry yourself in business and how your clients communicate with you in return.
2. Send over a client questionnaire prior to project kick off or consulting meetings
When I first started out in my business, I would often use kick-off meetings as a time to gather information about the client, their business, what they wanted out of the project or our time together, etc. The meetings ended up being REALLY long since we had so much to cover and this was draining for both parties. I ended up with lengthy notes and inevitably I’d realize that I’d forgotten to ask the client an important question.
After creeping the heck out of other web designer’s blogs who were a little ahead of me in my business, I noticed that many of them included a client questionnaire in their on-boarding process and I decided to do the same. The first version of my client questionnaire was pretty basic but it was better than nothing!
Sending out a client questionnaire is way better than going into a client meeting blind or with limited information, which will slow you down and frankly is unprofessional.
I definitely recommend that you come up with systems that will streamline your business and including a client questionnaire in your process is an invaluable step to add.
I have a master template of my client questionnaire stored in Google Drive. For each client/project, I simply copy, rename and customize this new document. I then send them the shared Google Doc link via email along with instructions to fill out the client questionnaire prior to our meeting and to let me know once they’re added in all of their answers. They are allowed to make changes to the client questionnaire right up until the day before the meeting, at which time I will review it and prepare my notes.
Not only is this a perfect place to store and record valuable information regarding my clients and their businesses/websites, it’s also an active document that I can reference as we move through our project.
These client questionnaires don't require a lot of time to fill out but they really set our project off on the right foot. Having these valuable and pointed questions makes my clients reflect about their goals, what they want out of my services, and makes sure we are on the same page as we jump right in.
Here’s a few examples of questions I include in my client questionnaire :
Who are your main competitors? Please link to their websites (if applicable). What makes you different from your competitors?
Are there any existing brands (direct or indirect competition) that appeal to you? If so, who and why? Are you drawn to particular elements of their website specifically? Please list at least 5 (five) websites that you like and explain why.
Tell us a bit about your target/ideal audience (age, gender, occupation, etc.)
If you had to pick 3 words (adjectives) to define your business, what would they be?
3. Reward loyalty and referrals
When you first start out as a freelancer, odds are you’ll be pitching your services to potential dream clients all day, every day. Ain’t no shame - I did it too!
Thank goodness that stage of your business won’t last forever- before you know it, you will reach a point where clients start coming to you directly and you might even have to say no to some of those projects.
Sometimes they’ve found you online (from Pinterest, blog posts, youtube videos, social media, whatever) and like your vibe and decide to reach out. If you are creating valuable content that speaks directly to your ideal audience, there’s no doubt that they’ll find you and want to work with you!
Most of the time, however, I’ve found that these inquiries are actually from people referred to me from past clients who have already celebrated their launch. This is my dream situation because these inquiring brands are already somewhat familiar with me and my work, and they’re interested in getting started without a lot of courting. These potential clients are coming to work with me because they trust the referral, so already have a solid foundation to kick things off.
I make sure to reward clients who refer projects my way and let them know how much I value them and their recommendation - it’s the least I can do!
There are countless ways you can reward loyalty and referrals, but the most common way is to offer some sort of discount. If the client is on retainer for monthly website work/maintenance, for example, you might offer them 10% off (or whatever amount you choose) on their next invoice. Or, if the client is a past client and you aren’t currently working with them on anything, you could offer them a discount or bonus on future work. Another popular gesture is to send the referring person a Starbucks gift card with a little note saying “Coffee’s on me!”
4. Set and maintain clear boundaries
Right from the start, I make sure to establish clear boundaries with my clients. Whether we’re working on a custom Squarespace website or doing consulting/strategy sessions, the goal is to manage client expectations, avoid scope creep and get paid on time.
Here are a few tips that I’ve found super useful:
Have a professional contract written in plain language that outlines the terms and deliverables
Be extremely clear about payment schedule (e.g., 50% non-refundable deposit, remaining 50% on final day of the project) and late fees
Invoices are neat and delivered with clear instructions on how you accept the $$$
Communicate office hours - if you don’t want to work evenings/weekends, make that clear from the start!
Outline how many rounds of revisions you offer
Prevent scope creep by being extremely clear about deliverables
I do my best to lead by example and as a result, my client communications have improved considerably. Try not to shy away from difficult conversations and always talk frankly with your clients. It will save you a major headache down the road and your clients will thank you for being so forthcoming and transparent.
Client communications don’t have to be a nightmare or something to dread. Instead, they can be part of a larger, positive relationship that will last well beyond the project’s final date.
Even if you’re just getting started in your business, you can still speak confidently and project an air of competency and experience to your clients. They don’t need to know that you’re a clueless newbie who is making it up as you go - fake it til you make it!
Be clear, walk your client through every stage of the project so that they know exactly what’s going on, and do your best to reply promptly to their emails. You’d be surprised how this alone will set you apart from the pack!
Now it’s your turn to tell me, what have you done to improve client communications in your own business? Have you ever had an awkward or uncomfortable conversation with a client? How did you handle it? Any lessons learned? I’d love to know so leave me a note in the comments below!
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