Colourful plastic monkeys by Lake Buena Vista, U.S.

If you’re a service provider, you’ve no doubt had your fair share of bad clients.

I’ve been there too.

It sucks: they cause a lot of stress and headaches—oftentimes far more than they’re worth.

When I freelanced part-time, I used to have this problem pretty frequently. Clients didn’t listen to my advice and there would be a ton of revisions. Trying to get clients to agree to things that I knew would improve the quality of the final product was like playing tug-of-war.

What I eventually came to realise though (after going full-time and getting a lot more experience), is that the problem usually didn’t lie with them, but with me.

On a fundamental level, I didn’t understand what it meant to be a service provider and what skills matter the most in order for you to be successful.

Here are the things I changed that have radically improved the relationships I have with clients:

Define the relationship

“The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it.” — William H. Whyte

You and your prospective client need to get on the same page about what sort of relationship you’re going to have, ideally before you even start working together.

This is a big one.

It’s very difficult to change the nature of a relationship once it’s already been established.

That’s why guys always complain about the “friend-zone”. It’s also why in the corporate world people often grow resentful of coworkers who used to be their equals and then get promoted to positions of power.

I recently watched a video by Ran Segall (a designer based out of Tel Aviv, Israel) where he explains that there are basically three different types of client–vendor relationships:

  1. Client makes all decisions
  2. Client and vendor are partners
  3. Vendor makes all decisions

Usually, what creates a lot of friction is when the client thinks they’re in relationship #1—where they make all decisions—but the vendor tries to have #2 or #3.

The quality of work produced in relationship #1 is usually not going to be nearly as good as the quality of work output in relationship #2 or even #3. For obvious reasons, too: you’re an expert in your field, and it doesn’t make sense for someone who’s hired you because of your expertise to tell you how to do your job.

With that being said, none of the aforementioned relationships are inherently toxic: what matters is that everyone is on the same page about what type of relationship you’re gonna have.

Sometimes, this might force you to make difficult decisions.

Not every client is a good fit for you, even if they have money. Unless you are starving, it’s usually better for your health and happiness to turn down prospective clients that are dead-set about giving orders and making all decisions.

This brings me to the next point:

Stop pitching yourself

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

— Ernest Hemingway

Selling a service is very different from selling a product. When you make a sale, you commit to working with the customer for a certain duration of time. For me it’s usually 2-4 months, for you it might be shorter or longer than that.

Either way, it’s not like you can just take their money and never have to talk to them again. (Well, I guess you technically could…)

This means that the sales process is different, too. It’s not just a one-way street: the client needs to qualify themselves to you just as much as you need to qualify yourself to them.

Put simply: You need to make a decision about whether or not you want to work with them. So stop pitching, and start asking questions.

Unfortunately, I haven’t uncovered any one magic-bullet question you can ask to definitively determine if someone will be a good client. If you know of one, please email me.

Instead, you’ll need to ask prospects a bunch of questions, and try to piece together an idea of who they are and if you’ll enjoy working with them. Start with the basics: budget, timeframe, what kind of company they’re running and how they make money (if you’re in B2B), why they want to work with you, etc.

Here are a couple of things to listen for, off the top of my mind:

  • Are they very demanding?
  • Do they care about their customers (again, if you’re in B2B)?
  • Do they understand what you do?
  • Are their expectations unreasonable?

Obviously, just because you’re not pitching your services relentlessly, it doesn’t mean you should turn your sales calls into interrogations. There needs to be a give-and-take, which leads me to my next point:

Bird's-eye view of tennis game on blue clay

Be open and honest

“Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery.”

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I never lied in my business. But I would often say what I thought the client wanted to hear, or what I thought would lead to my desired result. I think a lot of people do this, not just in business, but in their personal lives too.

The problem is, doing this causes a lot of stress and unhappiness. It’s stressful, because you have to come up with things to say rather than just speak your mind. It causes unhappiness, because you try to appease someone else without regard for how you feel.

As an example, I used to think I had to “win” against prospective clients during sales calls. So I would play my cards really close to my chest. This strategy was seldom successful, and I was always a nervous wreck before calls.

Now, I’m honest and transparent with prospective clients. I tell them exactly what I’m looking to get out of an interaction (i.e. to see if they’re someone I can and want to work with). I tell them what my concerns are, what potential challenges I see, what my work philosophy and process are, and so forth.

Before, I would just politely nod my head when clients asked for some particular revision, feature, or page—even if I thought it was dumb.

Now, I tell them right away if I think they’re making a poor suggestion. Clients appreciate the honesty, I’m able to produce much better work (because I’m able to actually make good recommendations), and most importantly:

I never have to be frustrated or resentful because I didn’t speak my mind.

Learn why

“I think I benefited from being equal parts ambitious and curious. And of the two, curiosity has served me best.”

— Michael J. Fox

There’s this one magical word that’s radically improved the relationships I have with my clients: “Why”.

Know why a prospective client wants to work with you. Is it because of some specific project you’ve done? Were they referred to you by someone? Did they really like what they read about your process? Did they learn that you both share a common interest?

Whatever it is, knowing which kind of client comes from what channels will help you attract more of the good kind and weed out more of the bad kind in the future.

Know why they think they need your services. You can’t fix everyone’s problems. Some people who come to you may actually really need something that you can’t give them. If this is the case, you need to know.

If you are a personal trainer but the prospective client actually needs a physiotherapist, tell them upfront and they’ll appreciate you for it. Also, you won’t have to deal with a dissatisfied customer when they discover your services aren’t helping them with their problems.

Know why a client is asking for a specific feature. If you design websites, find out what type of problem the client is trying to solve when they ask you to “add this page” or “make the logo bigger”. Oftentimes they’re not actually sure, and even when they are there might be more effective solutions.

Know why your solutions are good. A lot of service providers struggle with explaining why they’re doing something. They may know that it’s the best solution, but putting it into words is not easy.

To inspire confidence in clients that you really are an expert, you need to practice on vocalising what you’re doing and—more importantly—why.

Collect feedback and reflect

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sometimes when clients are really satisfied with your services, they’ll just straight up tell you why they like working with you (this has happened to me a few times). But most of the time you have to ask.

Make it a point to ask all your clients for feedback after you finish a project with them. No, it’s not weird, and in fact it’s invaluable to you as a service provider.

In a similar vein, if a client relationship goes bad, you need to figure out why. Reflect on what happened, if you could have done something differently to prevent it from happening (or if not, were there any red flags or warning signs beforehand?).


Fin

That’s it! Those were the five things I did that had a huge impact on the quality of my client relationships.

Hopefully you found this blog post really valuable—if you have any comments or feedback, send me an email.