Having been comfortably — and uncomfortably, a few times — on both sides of a professional-client relationship for most of my adult life, I’d like to share a few observations about approaches I’ve found to be useful in creating an optimal connection. It mostly boils down to common sense and courtesy, but these often seem to go out the window with some designers (and other professionals).
Being a brilliant creative doesn’t automatically mean that people will flock to your door looking to hire you for your work. If you blow it with a given client, not only will you likely not see them again, but you may not see anyone they know either. There’s huge power in word-of-mouth referrals, so you’ll want that working positively for you. Here are my offerings of advice, taken from (at times painful) first-hand experience.
1) Listen far more than you speak
Sure, you know what you’re doing, but unless your psychic, you need to have a full, clear understanding of what your client wants or needs. Listen and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask more questions. Rather than looking foolish, it usually shows that you’re paying attention. When you have a clear idea of what your client is looking for, then feel free to — succinctly — inform them of how you’ll help them.
2) Under-promise, over-deliver
Most people enjoy a pleasant surprise, but everyone hates being disappointed. One way to increase your chances of ensuring the former is to manage a client’s expectations, making sure that, as far as you’re concerned, everything you say you can do is very possible. Deadlines are usually the point of failure for many designers, so make sure that your deadlines adequately cover the amount of time you’ll need to finish the job, at a sane pace, and still have time to deal with the inevitable unexpected (let’s just say “life happens). If you finish a project ahead of schedule, you’re a hero. If not, well, you’re anything but!
3) A promise is a promise
Avoid the pitfalls of many campaigning politicians by seeing all your promises through. Make sure you fulfil every item in your contract, and check things off on your list as you complete them. Don’t take a chance that your client might not notice something left incomplete or seemingly forgotten. If you can’t live up to a term of your agreement, own up and say so, explaining why with your no-doubt bulletproof reason(s). If you’ve messed up, as a professional, you need to accept the consequences, whether it’s putting in the additional time you have to work to make up for something missing or even, at times, a monetary loss (as in under-estimating on a job quote). Those are the unwritten rules and I’ve found you gain more respect from your clientèle by taking the hit and making them happy. More respect usually leads to more business.
Please never, and I mean, never, keep a client in the dark about their project. Make it a point to provide periodic updates on the status of their project. If a project takes more than a week or two, some clients will always assume the worst — that you’ve forgotten them, you’ve slacked off on the work you’ve been contracted to do, you’re wrapped up in your own little magical world, or, most likely, you’ve absconded with their deposit, etc. It’s so easy to send a friendly little email now and then (or make a quick phone call), just to say that everything’s on track, or, if not, that you’re experiencing some challenges along the way. No one will fault you, and most clients will appreciate your degree of conscientiousness.
5) Help, any way you can
I try to do this with clients who approach my company for a service we don’t provide or for a project whose scope doesn’t fit with our business offerings. I don’t merely say, “Sorry, can’t help you there,” but instead, I make the effort to point them in the right direction, suggest someone you know (or don’t know), give some advice about where to look for what they need, or even educate them on some industry terms they can use that might help them in their quest. In short, don’t leave them empty handed. The same goes for individuals who send me their résumés. Even if I can’t hire them, I’ll offer them something useful, whether it’s a possible referral to another company, just to say I’ll keep my eyes open for any possibilities for them in the future.
By following my suggestions, you not only come across as a consummate professional, but also a decent person, too. You’ll make someone feel important, appreciated, and special, and who doesn’t like that? In the business sense, that’s all hugely beneficial to you and can only work in your favour. You’ll leave your clients with a lasting, favourable impression and that invariably means more business and better business relationships.