Making and keeping your clients happy is a skill that will either make or break your business, for rather obvious reasons.
If you master this skill, soon you will not need to chase clients – they will be coming to you as you start getting recommended from your current (or previous) clients and if the word about you really spreads, you may even find clients coming to you solely based on your reputation, without someone directly recommending you.
If you, on the other hand, do a mediocre job or even do a great job, but aren’t able to present its value, you will not only need to keep spending a lot of unbillable hours finding new clients, but will also lose clients that would otherwise turn into long-term ones.
In other words, the three crucial things to gain here (besides of course feeling good about what you’re doing) is repeat customers, referral work and testimonials, including the really valuable ones from well-known and reputable clients.
Making and keeping your clients happy is therefore obviously a basic prerequisite for building a solid, lasting foundation of your freelancing business.
As I already suggested earlier though, this skill goes way beyond “just” doing a great job.
However unfair it may sound, the reality is that there are freelancers who do mediocre job at best, but somehow they are great at convincing their clients that their services are the greatest thing since sliced bread and on the other hand, there are ones that do excellent job, yet they struggle with communication or other vital skill, leaving clients often more than unimpressed.
This is a rather complex issue, but usually, it all comes down to communication.
I would say that it’s 30% of the actual quality and quantity of the work you do and 70% communication.
And in this article, I will cover how to skilfully communicate with clients in order to make them extremely happy with you.
1. Don’t Let Your Perceived Value Fall Behind Your Real One
The first and in my opinion the most important concept is the concept of the real value versus the perceived value.
It is important to understand that in many cases, you may be doing what you know is the best for the client (the real value), but the client may or may not be in a situation where he understands and believes that (the perceived value).
The delta between the real and perceived value varies greatly from industry to industry as well as among different projects.
Typically, the less the client understands the complexity of the solution, the higher potential there is for the difference to occur.
Therefore, a lot of perfect examples of this are often found in computer programming.
For example, I as a programmer often start working on a piece of software that somebody else had written and I see a lot of security or performance issues.
It may take me a month or two to go through the code and resolve all of these, but after I do that, the software will look and behave identically, even though I resolved critical issues that would otherwise sooner or later kill his project.
Therefore, if I fail to communicate this correctly, then even though the real value of my work is very high, the perceived value of my work will be close zero, leaving the client very upset.
Another example is a job that looks simple, but isn’t. For example, when I used to translate, I landed a recurring translating job of a magazine about the Lord of the Rings.
What first seemed like an easy job turned into a hard one, as for each term specific to LOTR, I needed to find and verify how it was originally translated to Czech by the translator of the book, which turned out to be very time consuming.
I needed to explain that to the client and raise the originally negotiated price significantly in order to be able to do a great job here, but by doing that right, I have raised their confidence that they are getting a translation masterpiece.
I am sure that thinking about it now, you would be able to come up with examples from your own industry yourself, whatever it is you’re doing.
The harsh truth is that the perceived value is all that counts here. The real value does of course influence the perceived value, however, without proper communication, it by itself doesn’t really count.
If you therefore feel that this may occur with any task that you are going to work on, it is crucial that you both consult this with the client before you start working on it (or as soon as you find there’s an issue) as well as sum up what everything it took to take this to the finish line after you finish it in order to get the perceived value to the level of the real value.
2. Don’t Just Meet Expectations… Exceed Them!
The other concept that we need to go through is expectations vs. results.
Often, in order to win the business or in order to be able to charge a higher rate, people set the expectations very high.
Needless to say, this is a perfectly valid strategy, however, if you are not careful enough here, you may promise something that you later find out you are unable to deliver, inevitably leaving the client disappointed and unhappy with your services.
While this is pretty much common sense, the reason I am talking about this is that nowadays, I go even a step further.
Not only I don’t set expectations to a level that I am not sure I can deliver, I also always set them a level or two below of what I know I will deliver, especially when it comes to project timelines.
In other words, I always overdeliver, which is a guaranteed recipe for a happy client.
I may lose a potential client or two who is in a rush to get his project done, however, I not only gain that back by getting referrals from all of my extremely happy clients, but I also avoid rushed work, which is never enjoyable.
Furthermore, the vibe that you are sure that you are going to get this done in time will not be missed by the potential client and will be remembered, so even if you don’t land the client right away, they will often come back later, disappointed from false promises of somebody who made this mistake, throwing money at you so you help them.
This has happened to me several times and it will happen to you too if you stick to this strategy.
3. Remain in Constant Communication
You need to understand that most likely, your client already has his share of bad experiences with freelancers not putting enough effort into their project or just plain disappearing.
It is therefore understandable that by default, your client will be kind of nervous about whether there’s enough being done, especially before you have a chance to prove that you are reliable.
That’s why you should proactively and regularly communicate the progress to your customers.
The way that works for me is to send weekly progress reports and plans for next week.
Even before I start working with a new client, he knows that he can expect a summary of what has been done from me every Friday afternoon, as well as what part of the project I expect to be working on next week.
This works wonders, as the client no longer needs to spend his time and energy wondering whether there’s progress and checking on me – he always knows what’s going on.
4. Make the Communication Effortless for the Client
The method described above works wonders for simplier and well-specified projects, where I can just work pretty much independently on the client’s.
If, contrarily, I know that I will probably have a lot of questions about the project coming up every week, then instead of sending the report, I schedule a repeated weekly call (whenever it’s convenient for the client, not necessarily on Friday), where I not only present what has been done, but also discuss the issues that came up last week.
Unless really necessary, I refrain from asking questions and contacting the client outside of this call, which is dedicated to this purpose.
This is a very important thing to do especially for complex projects, as the mistake I see a lot of people do is just contacting the client whenever there’s something unclear.
The reason why I believe that is wrong is because the client has hired you to solve his problems, not to create one – and believe me, for a busy client, the need to respond to questions all week long indeed is a problem.
5. Demonstrate That You Are the Professional
It is obviously important that your clients are not only convinced of your reliability and work ethic, but also that they are confident about you being a true professional, preferably one of the best in the field.
While this is not something you can’t fake if you are not one, it is very possible to fail to convey it even if you are.
It is therefore important to proactively take charge during the engagement.
You are the professional who knows how things should or shouldn’t be done, so for instance, if you notice a problem that the client is not aware of, bring it up along with a suggested solution!
If you, on the other hand, are confronted by some external expert (or competition) or even a member of a team (if you are not the only freelancer working on the project) who tries to convince your client that you approach is wrong, calmly listen to their reasons and try to approach the situation as objectively as possible and go from there.
Don’t ever let too much emotions get involved – if you learn to handle situations like this like a leader, that’s what will make you really stand out!
6. Leverage the Power of the First Impression
The first impression will not be enough in the long run of course, however, do not ever underestimate its power.
When you first start working for a new client, his confidence in you is not yet established and will be determined to a considerable extent during the first days or weeks into the engagement, which is when you should make even greater effort to pleasantly surprise your client than usual.
If on the other hand you fail to make a good impression during the first days or weeks into the engagement and you are lucky enough that the client decides to continue working with you regardless, you are in for a long uphill battle to prove yourself later, and the scar in the client’s confidence in you will never completely disappear anyway.
7. Add a Personal Touch… But Don’t Overdo It!
The last point to cover is how personal you should or shouldn’t be.
It doesn’t hurt to have a small talk with your client from time to time and it does help to build connection a little bit, but it is a double-edged sword.
The reason is that if you need to enforce some points from your agreement (i.e. reject the request to continue working despite not being paid in time) or for instance raise your price, it’s much harder to pull it off if you become “friends” with your clients.
It is therefore good to be personal a little bit as long as you still keep things fairly professional.
It may sound harsh, but for the reason above, I personally think that if you are unable to find the sweet spot (yet), it is better to err by being too professional than too friendly.
So, You Have a Happy Client Now…
As you may have noticed and as I first said in the introduction of this article, all the seven points covered above have one thing in common – communication.
Doing a great job is not the only prerequisite. Communication is the other one. And as unfair as it may seem, the latter is often (if not always) the way more important one.
Now that you have mastered both though and you have a bunch of happy clients under your belt, take advantage of it.
Ask for more of their projects to work on.
Ask to be recommended to other people they know.
Ask for reviews and testimonials.
See, many people who struggle to get referral work often ask me: “How do I ask to be recommended to other people?”. My answer – first ask yourself if you’re asking a happy client to do that.
An extremely happy client will often do that without you even asking (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t). A fairly happy client may do that if you ask. And a disappointed client hardly ever will, obviously.
What are your experiences with happy (and unhappy) clients? Share them in the comment section below!