I‘ve been working a lot lately with creative practitioners who are really struggling with client management. They’re either attracting clients that micro-manage, or they’re dealing with clients who are incapable of describing what they want, or their clients are simply frustrating the hell out of them. All of which begs the question – what do clients really want?
Firstly, clients need us to read between the lines. As creatives and business owners, we have a wide range of experiences and a diverse array of relationships that we’re experienced in. Sometimes, clients don’t. They’re mostly used to dealing with employees, or they have systems and protocols in place to help them work out what they want, and what to do. They may not have much experience working with outsourced help and don’t always know the right questions to ask. You need to help them, and by knowing what they want in advance, you might be better placed to give it to them.
Here are the five things that clients want most of all.
“Fix My Problems”. Clients have a problem, and they don’t have the time, staff or resources to fix it themselves. That’s why they’ve outsourced to you – YOU are the solution. Unfortunately, they may not know how to articulate the problem, or even understand the parameters of what they need. Clients make unreasonable demands; and sometimes they can’t help it, because unless you guide them they may not know what ‘reasonable’ is. Your job is not to argue with them. It’s to help them find a solution, and manage their expectations.
“Make me look good” Clients want to look good to the people around them, and they’ve hired you because they think you can help them appear clever and competent. When you offer a recommendation, they are judging two things – will that work? And how will it make me look? Of course they want this project to be successful, but they might also want to play it safe. That’s OK, being a creative entrepreneur means you are probably more comfortable taking risks than an employee would be, so don’t suggest anything that would put them in professional danger.
“Make me feel special”. Every client wants to believe you like them best. By ‘romancing’ each one, and going out of your way to be attentive and focussed on their needs, you create the sense that they’re not just an income to you, but that you truly like them. Little things can go a long way – remembering the name of their daughter, or asking about that holiday they mentioned, or emailing them if you see an article online that would interest them. However, don’t take this too far! This is not actually a romance. Don’t bend over backwards to make friends with your clients. You both need to keep a manageable distance and keep things professional. If you’re overly attentive or overwhelming you’ll become memorable for all the wrong reasons.
“Make my life easy”. Clients hire us to make their lives easier, not harder. They don’t have the time or the talent to accomplish what they need internally, so they’re hiring you to do what they need when they need it. They may already be under intense pressure when they call you and could make unreasonable demands. Try and empathise with their situation, and imagine what kind of stress they’re under. Realise that they’re looking for someone to make their life easier and do just that, in whatever way you can.
“Perform a miracle”. Being creative sometimes feels like you need a business card with the additional title of ‘magician’. We’ve all been there – a client waits until the last minute to start a project and expects you to accomplish the impossible in record time. When you ask for more time, or the money you need to do the job quickly, you might also find that both of those things have magically vanished. Be careful – fixing problems with ‘magic’ is fun, challenging and sometimes not as hard as it looks. Clients can be very grateful, and doing magic builds client loyalty better than anything else. However, by regularly performing miracles you’re encouraging clients to call you at the last minute or to give you skimpy budgets. You’ll just reinforce their bad behaviour and create the expectation that you will always be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Don’t encourage them! Make sure you let them know that a miracle is going to be very difficult, and can only be asked for now and then.
Here are some extra tips to help navigate clients’ wants and needs.
- If they can’t articulate what they want, introduce a systematised way of guiding the brief process in your marketing materials or in person. Can you point them to a simple online questionnaire that helps them to identify the problems in a way you can understand? Do you have a Briefing Document that you can go through when meeting with them or chatting that guides the process?
- Consider working to a project rate, with clearly defined milestones, KPIs and check-in points. Being paid by the hour or day might be the industry norm for you, but it can make clients nervous if they feel like they need to control your hours as a way of controlling costs. A nervous client is also a micro-managing client. Charge them a fixed project rate, with an additional hourly rate for unforeseen changes, and they might behave a little better.
- If your clients want you to solve a problem that simply isn’t feasible, don’t get hung up on proving them wrong. Suggest something else – after all, that’s why they hired you. Chances are, they’re not committed to that idea and they just don’t know what else to do. When you show them a better way, you could end up a hero.
- Give them peace of mind by being very clear about what you will handle, and then handle it. Reassure them that they can relax, and demonstrate when you can that you’re on top of everything. And if you’re not? Either get it sorted as quickly as you can, or let the client know before disaster hits and you all still have options.
- Anticipate their needs. Don’t wait to be told what to do, be proactive about figuring stuff out – within reason, of course Don’t overstep your bounds, but take the lead when appropriate, figure out what their boundaries are and make as many decisions as you can for them without usurping their authority.
- Provide information in a way that they like, or that you’ve agreed to. If they want charts, give them charts. If they like lots of details, give them details. People generally deliver information in the way they like to receive information, so look for clues and follow their lead.
- Be accessible, within reason. Return phone calls, check your e-mail frequently, and leave numbers where you can be reached. However, you don’t need to be “on” 24/7. Make sure your clients also know that you can only be reached during your business hours, and weekends and evenings are to be reserved for actual emergencies only (you might need to guide them about what an emergency actually is).
- Report as often as they want, in a way that they like. Demonstrate that you have the project well in hand by keeping them informed of progress before they ask, or in a regular and predictable way (such as a Friday afternoon email report). Under no circumstances should a client ever have to ask, “What’s going on?” If they need to know, you’ve already told them.
- Marketing that highlights you as creative but practical, reliable and capable will help them to rest easy. Use your website and social media presence to highlight case studies of previous success stories, post images of yourself being terribly capable, and ask for recommendations on LinkedIn from happy customers to prove that you can deliver.
The most important thing that clients want is to trust you. They want to feel safe. Very often, they are more frightened of you than you are of them. Think about it – you’re a creative entrepreneur, an unknown quantity, and an investment. You could be a waste of money, a flaky unpredictable artist, or an embarrassment to their decision-making process. By being friendly and capable in all of your dealings, from your website to your follow-up, you’re letting them know that you empathise.
Manage your clients well and you’ll have the chance to keep them for the long haul, and for most of us repeat business is our lifeblood. It’s those reliable favourites, the returning customers, who keep our cashflow ticking over and help us navigate the ‘famine and the feast’ of self-employment. If we take care of the clients we have, we can save money on marketing and promote better word of mouth. Happy clients breed more happy clients and an even happier creative business owner.