One of the biggest challenges for freelancers and consultants, especially those offering creative services, is client management. A quick scan of online forums for designers, photographers, videographers, web designers or tradespeople, to name a few, will quickly reveal one of the most discussed and sometimes joked about topics is client management. Bad client management easily leads to burnout and often kills young and inexperienced businesses. So how do you manage clients as a young business, especially in the services sector?
Different Sides to Client Management
Let’s first of all mention that good customer experience is the goal of client management and that service providers or business owners in general have foremost responsibility in this area. A service provider must be cordial, patient, transparent and fair in their offer, pricing and demands. They must also communicate clearly, involve their client, and be honest and consistent with the quality of work they deliver. They must further be proactive in learning about and understanding their client, keep in touch, receive honest and objective feedback and ensure they are doing all that is necessary to bring the customer satisfaction. There are many tools and strategies that help achieve these.
Regardless of how good a service is however, great customer service also relies on good customer behaviour and responsibilities towards a business. Unfortunately, with all manner of people out there, one is sure to meet troublesome clients that will make life miserable for any business owner; and how to handle such clients is the focus of this article. So for the purpose of this article we assume the service provider, despite rendering great services, is still struggling to manage clients, particularly the difficult ones.
Bad customer behaviour include clients;
- Being slow to make payment or not paying at all
- Being dishonest and inconsistent in their engagements
- Not responding to communication nor communicating clearly or on time
- Being temperamental, obnoxious or disrespectful to a business
- Not listening to advise or comments from the business
- Assuming the role of the professional, and thus prolonging or compromising work
- Trying to take all the business’ time depriving them of productivity and other earnings
- Demanding too much or overexploiting a business
- Being unreasonable or uncooperative
How do you deal with clients with such behaviours?
1. Quality Client Prospecting
First off, we need to recognise that not all clients are good news. In one’s desperation to find clients, especially as a small business, one may be tempted to take on anything they get; yet with all the challenges faced landing a client one may soon find that sometimes the precious client either becomes a pain to serve or eventually costs the business more than they were paid.
The first step to handling such clients is to avoid them to begin with. Now this is something we should be slow to do; we should all be slow to judge and be welcoming to all. However, quality client prospecting is also important as a cost saving measure.
It is sometimes possible to tell at the onset, from experience, if a client is good for you or not; you need to choose your clients as much as they choose you. Cues such as communication style, temperament, reasonability, level of interest, capacity and willingness to pay, etc. can sometimes be spotted early on in your engagements; although again this needs to be done carefully to avoid unnecessary prejudice and loss of good prospects. If it is very clear a prospective client is bad news however you should do well to avoid them or kindly hold back your services due to “unavailability at the time.”
In addition to the above there are two important documents every services business should have, and proper ones for that matter.
2. Detailed Pricing, and Package or Service Details
It’s important to be clear and specific with your pricing. You may have a simple list of services you offer and/or service packages, which are a list of things you do or offer as one service. Depending on the kind of services you offer you may have different packages for the same service, with each of the packages representing the different amounts of work and items you put in and the price for that. Sometimes you may have an additional document or section of your pricing document that breaks down exactly what goes into the service(s) you offer.
Either way your pricing document(s) should detail very clearly and specifically:
- Your pricing and what goes into it
- What the client can expect from you
- The process you will be following to deliver the work
Any room left for ambiguity can become room for excess demands from a client.
3. Terms of Service
In addition to pricing document(s) you should have a ‘Terms of Service’ document. This doesn’t need to be a long boring legal document. You simply need a document that explains to the client;
- Your payment requirements
- Payment schedules and refund policy
- How best to communicate with you (through which channels)
- How the client can check and ensure they get the quality of work they want from you
- What you need from the client (work resources)
- What you expect from the client (behaviour or otherwise)
- Any other details required for smooth service delivery from you
Keep your terms of service as concise and easy to consume as possible; you wouldn’t want to bore your clients with paperwork for a simple service, yet they should be detailed enough with all the essentials. You should also use an encouraging tone rather than a strict one wherever possible.
Regardless of the above measures, one may still find it difficult slapping their clients with the ‘legalities’ of working with them, in order not to discourage and subsequently lose the client. In such cases, communicate your terms of service gradually to your client, through normal conversations with them, ensuring to touch on all the essential details prior to starting work; you wouldn’t want to hear at some point the statement “you didn’t mention that…” when conflict arises with respect to work expectations, otherwise it becomes a valid argument against you and requires you to bare whatever cost is in question.
4. Build Integrity into your Processes
Both documents described above are for your benefit as much as the client’s. They help you see and shape clearly and properly your service offering and pricing over time.
These documents would likely not be perfect the first time, and that’s perfectly okay and welcome. You will have the opportunity to draft better documents, through continuous engagements and lessons learned from previous projects, to aid future work.
The important thing is to stick to your own provisions and rules captured in those documents as much as practicable. Clients will often pressure you to make exceptions for them, especially with respect to payments. The problem is, EVERY SINGLE CLIENT thinks they are THE ONE that deserves it. When you compromise once, you compromise all the time. It is therefore important to adopt strict compliance to your pricing and terms of service.
5. Separate Yourself
Even if you’re working alone as a freelancer, create a team atmosphere for your business. Clients are more inclined to respect your terms of service and financial obligations when there are other people in the picture. When you are working alone they often try to exploit their relationship with you and become more reluctant to make due payments or respect your time and business pressures among others.
The ideal thing is to have a team in place with assigned roles and processes. If you cannot afford that, one option is to adopt a strict attitude, to be able to say NO to clients’ excesses sometimes. If that might cost you good relationships too, try the following to separate yourself from your business and create a team atmosphere for little to no cost;
- Use the pronoun “we” for your business always
- Keep a business line separate from your personal line
- Assign roles to family, friends or partners even if as inactive and unpaid members
- Ensure to included others in the picture when communicating your processes
- Give others access to your business line to respond for you occasionally
- Refer to wherever you work from as your office, and/or use a co-working space. With co-working spaces if you cannot afford a monthly subscription, you can still use that as your office location, and book a desk for client meetings as and when necessary.
Hiring a virtual assistant (VA) might also prove to be a cost effective solution to many of the above as they can handle an extra phone line and other tasks for you for minimal fees.
6. Keep Records of Conversations and Transactions
Keeping records of your conversations and transactions with clients significantly helps with client management.
Ensure you keep a record of all conversations you have with a client; sticking to instant messaging or email as the preferred means of communication for business helps in this regard. This allows you to remember what has been discussed, in order to deliver exactly what is required. It also helps you resolve conflicts when one person disagrees with what was previously agreed on or communicated.
Ensure all transactions are accompanied with invoices and receipts, even when you offer a service for free. You should always send an invoice or receipt to your client, detailing exactly what is to be offered, its duration and other details applicable including any discounts applied (even if 100% in the case of free work, which should be avoided anyway).