Man and Women
Credit: thanks to Rick&Branda Beerhorst. On CC BY 2.0

Why do some designers get all the best work while others are only thrown the scraps from the client’s plate? Here are 8 tips to help improve your client relationships over the long term.

1.     Get Personal

It’s great to know your clients on personal terms. However you may not have that sort of relationship with them. Maybe you don’t have the right chemistry or you’d just prefer to keep it professional. Either way it’s good to have some knowledge about them up your sleeve for a rainy day.

Before each meeting you can get into the habit to chat for a few minutes about non-work related subjects. Where they went on holidays, what their kid’s names and ages are. Maybe they play a musical instrument? Some small points you can ask them to show that you are interested or just to break the ice.

To avoid being intrusive, a great way to pose these questions is first to tell them a bit about your own life. The most natural thing for them to do is answer with their own stories.

2.     Stop Talking, Start Listening

I can’t emphasize the importance of this point more. The skill of listening is an art form and is championed by many people. In Stephen R Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he speaks about empathetic listening. A skill to which he devotes an entire chapter.

One of the keys to this is to listen and then to repeat back to the speaker in your own words the essentials of their phrase. At the end, the listener must confirm their description is correct. Firstly it proves that you have been listening. Secondly it helps in the understanding of the points for both parties. If there are some details which you got wrong, the speaker will correct you.

Another simple technique is to ask “is there anything else on this issue we can go over?” The point is to get them to expand on their problem. Without trying to be too Freudian, you can repeat this question several times until they’re finished. If this is a genuine issue for them, they will be able to talk about it in more detail.

If you can define your client’s problems more succinctly than they can, or at least better than your competitors, you will find it easy to connect with and keep clients.

3.    Say “we” Instead of “you” or “I”

This is pretty self-explanatory. The goal is to appear as one of their team from the start-out. I love this one because it is so simple but there are so many people who just don’t do it.

4.     Book Your Time off

Being on-hand for my clients and taking vacations don’t seem to work for me. Every time I announced my vacation I would get the volume turned up on my workload the week before I was due to leave. So much so that I would still be doing it on the plane and sometimes even during my vacation. It ruins the family moment which is important to me.

You could tell some white lies, saying you are on a business trip or at a conference. Personally, I prefer to be transparent, as you never know when you’ll get tripped-up by this.

As long as I don’t take more than the average holidays I find that clients are understanding. It pays to let them know in advance so that you are able to finish their work as best you can before leaving.

5.     Acknowledge Client Emails and Messages Quickly Even When You’re in the Middle of Something

Some clients call sparingly, others call you every 10 minutes. The trouble is, it is rarely at an opportune moment for me.

Even if you are in the middle of something else, it’s great to acknowledge that you have been messaged. Let them know that you received the call and that you will treat it as a priority as soon as you have finished with your current client.

Bonus tip: It’s always good to say that you are with another client. This makes you feel more in demand. Clients will often think that they are the priority so it will give them the impression that you are working on something important.

6.     Build Relationships with the Staff as Well as with the Boss

Treat the staff of the client as you would the client themselves. This is a no brainer for most people but there are times when we are not on great form. Maybe we’re feeling the under pressure from a project or just feeling unloved.

One thing we know to do, is to not be snappy with the client who is paying your mortgage. However, after being put on hold for the fifth time that day perhaps you could be a little curt with their receptionist.

There are obvious reasons why one should exercise more constraint in these situations. They will soon be speaking with your client for example. There is one great reason to do the exact opposite and actively build relationships with the other employees. If your existing contact is no longer in their current position, the secretary is often the gatekeeper to the new decision maker and forging a strong relationship with them will always pay dividends down the track. No one’s ever going to complain about having too many friends.

7.     When Making a Time Schedule, Pad-out the Milestones and Finish Early

Something that I try to live by is to give a timeframe for a task and then finish early. Then do it again and again. People don’t seem to care if you finish on-time. After all, if you finish your job on-time then you are simply doing your job. If you finish early then you are exceeding their expectations and are therefore delivering value.

There is a slight anomaly here when thought through. If you do finish early, one could say that you have planned the job badly. Finishing on-time is much better from a project management point-of-view. To plan a job schedule out and then stick to it exactly is difficult. There are many elements that can go wrong or people that can let you down. It is up there as one of the hardest tasks to do along with raising one eyebrow or licking your own elbow.

However it’s never looked on like that by your client.

8.     Give Existing Clients Freebies on Small Jobs You Can Afford

One tip I like to do for existing clients is to waive fees for small jobs. Especially if they have in the past given you larger projects. This is the sort of reciprocal gesture which I treasure.

It is worth giving away as many freebies as you can afford. They will come back to you in the future in some form or another. Plus it feels great when you’re doing them.