Without clients, we don’t have businesses and livelihoods. Dealing with internal and external customers effectively is crucial to personal and business success. Here are 25 tips to help you deal with your clients even better.
- Demand clarity
In the world of marketing, communications and advertising, clients are often unclear on exactly what they want, and this comes through in their briefs. Insist on a proper brief, and push back if you don’t get one. Ask questions and offer suggestions in the briefing stage if appropriate, so you know what you’re quoting for. It’s difficult to produce excellence – first time, and in time – from a poor brief (consider the GIGO computer science principle here: “garbage in, garbage out”).
- Get the context
Never stop asking the question why? What is the client trying to achieve, and for what reason? How does the piece of work they want you to do fit into their ultimate goal? What’s the bigger picture?
- Be confident but not arrogant
The client is coming to you because you are the expert – own that and be confident about your role (if necessary, fake it until you become it), without being a know-it-all.
- Listen and offer suggestions
What the client thinks they want might actually be different to what they need. If a client comes to you and wants a Facebook campaign to connect better with their customers, for instance, but you can see this is not an appropriate channel to market for them, tell them your reservations and point out how other channels might be more appropriate.
- Get to know your client
Of course, this takes time. But the better you know your client and the more you trust one another, the better the prospects of success in working together. Try to connect with your client on a personal level, not just pure business (unless they seem disinclined to do so). I sometimes invite my clients on a walk or hike – in this way, one gets to know one another in an easy-going setting away from distractions. Lunch or drinks also work well. In extreme cases, I’ve even heard about client service people signing up to train for marathons and triathlons together.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
This is part of what it takes to deliver excellent service. Frequent and relevant communications are the best tool to manage your client’s expectations. If you’re running late on something, let your client know before it’s an emergency. Check in with your client in a number of ways – these can include a quick WhatsApp to tell them about an interesting article you’ve seen that pertains to them; an acknowledgement that you’ve heard them on the radio; a weekly email to share the highlights on their account; a timely monthly report, so they’re abreast of what’s going on; or a quarterly presentation they can easily share with their board.
- Underpromise and overdeliver
Companies such as Takealot do this superbly in South Africa. They’ll tell you they’ll be delivering on a Tuesday, but actually deliver on the Monday. Give your clients clear timelines for projects of any size, then stick to them or, even better, deliver ahead of time. Never, ever be tempted to rip off a client, even if you’re in a position to do so. If you’re making more than a fair and reasonable profit, you are being greedy and are dangerously risking breaking the trust you’ve built up with your client.
- Provide quick turnaround times
A familiar client refrain is that they have to wait too long for their agency to deliver their work. A client doesn’t care that you have other clients to service, or that you may have internal issues such as a lack of capacity or other big projects to push out. Every client wants to feel like they are the only one in the world. Provide quick turnarounds without compromising on quality – particularly at times when the client knows it’s extra difficult for you, for example on a weekend or public holiday – and you’ll have your clients for life.
- Build a partnership
You will always know more about your area of expertise than your client, but they will always know more about their business than you. It’s when you put your heads and hearts together and collaborate that marketing magic really happens.
- Construct accountability
Any good partnership requires accountability. When drawing up contracts when onboarding clients, for instance, set out clear areas of responsibility for both the client and the service provider. In meetings with your client, develop action items for both, and follow these up with meeting notes that clearly show action points and who is responsible for what. Stipulate timelines and communicate dependencies, so if a client is slow with an approval, for instance, they know it will affect the project’s timelines.
- Invite feedback
Set up meetings with your clients to solicit feedback. Ask the questions, “what could we do better?”, “are you happy with our service and work?”, and “is there anything you would like to raise with me?”. Try to have no agenda for this sort of meeting, other than to listen. And it’s difficult, but don’t be defensive. Just listen, and then act quickly after the meeting.
- Don’t take anything personally
This can be really hard, especially when you and your team pour your heart and soul into a piece of work and your client doesn’t see it for the exquisite masterpiece you believe it is. Move on, do better. A client isn’t there to stroke your ego.
- Avoid demonising clients
You are always going to have some clients you like more than others. While I’ve always found most people charming, statistically you’re going to come across the rude or even downright unhinged. It’s easy for you and your team to turn against a person like this; after all, “othering” is a way of building a sense of team, albeit a negative one. Don’t tolerate the demonising of clients, no matter how difficult they are. If you do, it won’t be long before your negative attitude comes across.
- Apologise quickly and move on if you have erred
A good tip is that it is often not the mistake that matters as much as what you do afterwards. Don’t sweep your mistakes under any carpets; confess to them and put things right. (And don’t make any mistakes in your apology.)
- Be transparent
Always be transparent with a client about what you’re not going to do and clear about what you are going to do. If you know, for example, there are hidden costs the client might not be aware of, point them out upfront. This will help to build trust between you and your client.
- Pay attention to the paperwork
It’s worth putting in some administration time to ensure the groundwork for success is well laid, and to help you should anything go wrong with a project or relationship. For example, it’s a good idea to get a client to sign a contract, or at least a quote, before beginning work, and to get sign-off at important stages of a project if it’s a large one. Then, if there’s a dispute or the client changes their mind, you have evidence to back up your actions or decisions.
- Have integrity and use your company values to guide you
Integrity will never go out of style. Be honest always. And use your company’s values to guide you in times of difficulty. For example, if one of your values is “our people are our greatest asset” and you are aware of a client bullying or belittling your staff, you would need to step in to stand up for your team.
- Keep the bigger picture
Business is about playing the long game – never lose sight of a client’s potential contribution to your business over the lifetime of your relationship. If you lose money on a small job, for example, that’s ok, as long as you can eventually recover it or have good reasons for this client to be a “loss leader”. In other words, you might lose in the short term, but gain new business or positioning that outweighs your loss due to your association with that client.
- Beware of scope creep
Scope creep is the bane of many a business. Agree on the scope and brief upfront and stick to this. If the client pushes for more, quote and charge them for the extra work (without ever being greedy). Being a pushover is not good for profitability.
- Use different channels of communication
People have different ways of learning or absorbing information. For example, some people are better visual thinkers, some are more verbal, some are naturally logically and mathematically minded, some absorb information better in a social setting with others, while others are the opposite and communicate best one on one. So it’s best to mix up the ways you communicate, until you know your client well enough to cater for their preference. A client who is a verbal learner will enjoy a written report, for instance, while a more visual learner would prefer graphics.
- Ask the right questions
It’s not ever about having all the right answers. It’s always about asking the right questions. Ironically, to ask the right questions, you need to do your homework. If you’ve invested some time in a new client or brief, you’re likely to ask better questions and make a better impression.
- Learn your client’s industry
The better you know your client’s industry, the more insights you’ll have and the better client service you’ll be able to give. When our company won work with a large insurance company, we sent several of our staff on an intensive insurance underwriting course; when we won an account with a large fast-food chain, we sent a whole team to learn how to be grillers for a week.
- Pick up the phone
Consider following up an email with a call. It’s easier to clarify or reinforce points in a call than in a mail. Emails can be impersonal; actually hearing someone’s voice makes for a better connection (and seeing someone in person, particularly in the disconnected times we are in, is even better).
- Say thank you
Everyone likes a thank you. This can be in the form of anything from a note, card or WhatsApp, right up to a discount on future work for a loyal client.
- Deliver excellent work
There’s nothing that builds a client relationship better than you delivering excellent work every time, on time. Be there for your clients, go to war for them if necessary, stay up all night if you have to, just get whatever they need done, and done well. If you’re able to do that, your client relationships will be solid.
Tara Turkington (@TaraTurk1 on Twitter) is the CEO of Flow Communications (www.flowsa.com), one of South Africa’s leading independent agencies. Founded in 2005 in a small spare bedroom, Flow now has a permanent team of approximately 70 professional staff, with more than 700 years of collective experience in communications. The company has won more than 60 industry awards.
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