Creatives and consultants try to stand out from their peers by claiming to have rare skills and specialized knowledge, but that is only one part of the professional service equation. Your skills and knowledge mean little if your client experience is poor.
How we package, explain, and deliver our skills and knowledge makes a difference between the average consultant and a highly reputable consultant. We want to be in the second group!
Before we get into what I consider giving clients an exceptional service, let me clarify what it is not:
- Saying “Yes” to every request or demand.
- Giving discounts.
- Producing speculative work (ie. working for free in hopes of getting the job).
- Responding to emails, messages, and phone calls outside of your work hours.
- Giving in whenever clients push back on your recommendations, even though you know that it will damage the success of the project.
- Letting clients run the project however they choose.
All of the above can be summed up as having poor boundaries. As someone who used to have terrible boundaries, I am now a very vocal proponent of setting them and holding firm, because that’s the only way you get to hold onto your sanity and self-respect. The moment you start compromising your boundaries, you risk burnout and resentment.
Boundaries and exceptional service can happily coexist.
Often when I teach workshops or give talks, colleagues ask me if I ever experience issues with clients who are late paying an invoice, ask for too many revisions, try to micromanage, etc. When I explain that I used to, and what I do now to prevent it from happening again, they look at me like I have three heads and say:
“Your clients actually agree to that? I could never pull that off.”
That’s the thing. My clients agree to that, and people who would not agree to my business policies will simply not become my clients. I use my business policies (ie. my professional boundaries) to filter our people who are not a good fit for my services.
I was able to pull it off because I believed that it would work. I had no choice—after experiencing the worst boundary-stomping client in my career, I knew that the only way to continue working as a designer was to radically change my approach. It was either that, or choose a different career, so I wouldn’t have to deal with clients anymore!
Setting boundaries seemed like the easier option. If it still seems too hard for you, then things probably haven’t gotten bad enough yet. You’ll know when it gets really bad—you’ll be ready to try anything.
If you want to start enforcing boundaries but don’t know what to say, here’s my list of tactful answers to awkward client questions.
Clients who are respectful and value your expertise are not as rare as unicorns.
Dream clients are real people, like you and me. They just want someone to solve their problem—someone capable, pleasant to work with, and within their budget. If you can find this person where they hang out, you’ll have no problem filling your calendar. If you can create an effective marketing strategy that will lead these prospective clients to you instead of you trying to find them, that’s even better.
If you prove to your clients that you can solve their problem effectively and make their life easier, they will accept your business policies.
I will go into the details of how you can prove that in a bit. If the clients trust you, they won’t push back when you tell them what you need from them in order to do your best work.
When a prospective client is trying to decide whose services to buy, it doesn’t really matter who is the cheapest provider. What matters is who is able to create the strongest sense of trust. There are many things that build trust in the sales process, including referrals and recommendations, testimonials, awards, portfolio pieces, case studies, and professional appearance. But how you connect with them on a human level will carry the most weight.
Once your clients demonstrate their trust in you by paying your advance fee, it’s time to blow their minds with your professionalism and expertise that shoots beyond their expectations.
1. Respond to emails within a reasonable timeframe
I don’t recommend responding outside of your work hours (and definitely not on the weekends), but it’s good to check on your inbox a few times during your workday and respond to any client inquiries before you do anything else. The sooner you can make that initial contact, the better. Whenever I have responded to an email within a few hours, people actually thanked me for responding so soon. (And I don’t really consider myself a fast email responder.)
If you’re not able to reply immediately because of other commitments, or because someone chose to message you on the weekend, don’t worry about it. It’s never a good idea to set an expectation that you will be available on your day off.
2. Set clear expectations
Misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions can affect a business collaboration to the point of dissolution, so we need to work hard to eliminate as many opportunities for them to happen.
In my field, clients may come with preconceived beliefs about what the logo design process will look like (especially if they worked with another designer before). Some may expect me to present them with 3 logo concepts to choose from, while I only present one logo concept. I don’t want them to be disappointed when they get “just” one logo proposal from me, so I go out of my way to mention in all my marketing and onboarding materials that I will show one concept at a time, and one concept only. If they think that’s unusual, we talk it out before signing the agreement, and then it’s out of the way.
Think about what assumptions your clients may have about your profession (hint: try to remember awkward conversations from your past), and spell it out in as many places as you can how your services truly work, and the scope they cover.
Those places may include:
- Services page of your website
- Introductory “Welcome guide” you send to all prospects
- Sales brochures
- Project proposals
- Project agreements
In addition to this, you should certainly explain it in the introductory meeting. Sometimes the clients ask about it, but often they don’t even think to ask, so we need to preemptively put it out there.
It is much, much better for prospects to choose another consultant to serve their needs, than to sign up to work with us under incorrect assumptions. We’re not doing them, nor ourselves a favor by hiding the details that might be important in their decision-making.
Once you’re over this initial hurdle, the ongoing relationship you build with your clients will become smoother and more harmonious.
3. Keep your promises
If you say you’ll send the proposal by Wednesday, send it by the end of workday on Wednesday, even if it means you need to stay in the office longer.
If you agreed to deliver X at cost Y, then deliver no less than X, at a cost no higher than Y, even if you end up spending more time than you budgeted for.
Does it suck when you realize that a project you thought would take you 20 hours ends up taking you 30, but you quoted a fixed fee? Yes it does, but that’s not your client’s fault. Eat the cost now, and quote more accurately next time.
Don’t make any promises you’re not 100% certain you can keep. If something unexpected happens that prevents you from honoring your commitments, explain to the client what happened, and what the next steps are. It’s fine if you fall ill or get into an accident, but don’t just disappear on the client.
Be especially mindful of your promises when another person has referred the client to you.
I used to refer prospects to another colleague, but on one project they completely dropped the ball: they failed to meet multiple deadlines and didn’t respond to emails or calls from the client. The client contacted me to ask whether this person was alive and in good health because they couldn’t get ahold of them. It was an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation, and I was so sorry that I recommended someone who wasn’t reliable. I know this person didn’t mean for their actions to reflect badly on me, but I implicitly vouched for this person, so it did in a way.
If you’re not absolutely sure you will be able to handle the project, just say no. Let the client find someone who will help them more effectively.
4. Customize your communication and documents to your clients
I swear by using templates for everything, because that’s the best way for a service business to save time. But templates must be customized for each client so that they feel seen and heard. You don’t want to make them feel like they’re just another item on your to-do list.
The key to exceptional service is to run things smoothly and efficiently, while making your clients feel special.
Is that a lot to ask for? Maybe, but it’s doable.
There are elements in my email and project proposal templates that are the same for each project of a certain type. But there is always room to include specific language that describes the client’s project in a way that I’ve heard them speak about, or their ambitions about their project, or my insights about their goals that I’ve received after talking to them.
That very specific language makes all the difference when the client is comparing my emails and proposals to someone else’s emails and proposals. I’ve been told by multiple people that my proposals are the best they’ve ever seen, and I’m really proud of that. I don’t always “win” the project, but I know that I always leave a great impression.
5. Advise your clients
When clients come to you specifically for consulting, advising them is a given. But you may also be able to give them information on subjects that are not your core service, if you happen to be very familiar with them.
I’m not calling myself a marketing consultant, but I have a wealth of experience in content marketing and social media, so I can point my clients to basic information or in-depth resources they may need.
I don’t have a stake in choosing a website hosting service for my clients, but I mention some options and their pros and cons, because often clients don’t even know what hosting is, let alone how to choose the right provider.
Sometimes clients ask me for advice on working with their clients, because they’ve noticed something in my own process that they would like to apply in their business. I’m an open book, and I love teaching others what I’ve learned over the years.
We should never pretend we’re experts on subjects that are not our core profession, but talking about your own experiences doesn’t undermine other people’s expertise.
When you can, refer your clients out to specialized consultants that may help them with that issue. But sometimes there are no specialized consultants, or they’re not available in your area, so there’s literally no expert they could ask. (I don’t know any experts in Croatia that consult small business owners about optimizing their workflow, for example. We may be too small of a market for such a niche service.)
6. Create video guides
If you’re using collaboration software that the client is unfamiliar with, or you create deliverables that the client has to fill in with their content or upload somewhere, creating guides to teach them how to use the software and complete the tasks is stellar client experience.
I usually use OBS Studio to record screencasts, and I upload the videos to my YouTube channel. If that seems too complex, Loom is an easy to use app that allows you to record and upload videos to their server (or save and upload them to any video hosting service).
Before I started creating videos, I used to make PDF guides with annotated screenshots and detailed instructions. I still do it for more complex stuff such as website editing, though I am thinking about creating a video library as well. (But when apps change their interface often, I’m reluctant to create a new video series whenever there is an update in the app.)
7. Reward your best clients with gratis services
If you have a regular client that’s been excellent to work with, or that has referred other clients to you, reward their loyalty. You can do it by offering a discount, or my preferred method—give a small free service or a product as a gift.
Usually within a larger project with multiple deliverables, I’ll pick one or a few items that do not incur too big of a cost to me, and mark them as “gratis”. If the project is a larger one that I can’t break apart, I might do a traditional percentage discount, though I tend to avoid that because it doesn’t feel the same.
There are some rules I have about discounts and gratis offers:
- I never give a discount on the first project. That has never ended well for me, because there’s too many unknowns. I only reward loyalty.
- I put everything in writing. Even the free services are listed on the invoice (with the 100% discount).
I feel better giving gratis services when clients don’t ask for them—and my best clients never do. If someone has cash flow issues, we can work out a payment plan, or we may discuss in kind compensation. Asking for discounts implies that the value of services can be arbitrarily lowered, and I don’t agree with that.
You may be looking at this list thinking “that’s a lot”.
And you’re absolutely right, it is a lot! That’s why you need to charge a fair fee for your services. When you charge enough, you can afford to go the extra mile.
If you’re not willing to invest any extra time in this, that may be a sign that you’re not getting what you need from your work—you may be overworked and underpaid. Ask yourself:
- What would it take for you to be delighted to create an even better experience for your clients?
- What boundaries would you need to set?
- How much would you need to charge to make it worth your time?
If you’ve found yourself at a plateau, transforming your client experience (and everything else that needs to change to make that possible) will surely help you reach that next level you’ve been craving for.
As Sean Low said in his latest podcast episode on client experience, that coincidentally came out the same week as this post:
For most designers (when I say design, again, that means everything), they’re just not going to get 5 times better at their craft. Right? You’re not going to be 5x better of a baker, or 5x better of a photographer, or 5x better as an interior designer or architect 5 years from now. You just won’t be.
You’ll be better without question, you’ll see things better and you’ll improve, but you’re not going to be 5x better.
The client experience on the other hand, and how clients perceive that journey with you as you go through the process of designing the cake, baking the cake, delivering the cake, and everything else that goes in between… Yeah, I think that can actually be 5x better.
Improving the client experience is low hanging fruit, because most creatives and consultants don’t bother with it, or don’t have the mental bandwidth to think about it. Doing even slightly better in this area elevates you above most of your peers.
We are not here to just get the job done. We are here to enrich people’s lives.
It’s never just about what you do—how you do it matters just as much.
In a world where business owners seem to be obsessed with getting buyers in and out of the door as fast as possible, be the person who takes the time to listen, educate, and delight them.
To your exceptional business,
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