Client relationship management: Useful stuff freelancers should know

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You simply cannot go through business life – or life itself – without one or two (in my case several) relationship challenges.

It confers upon us then to develop a few skills that can help us navigate the sometimes troublesome waters of customer relationship management.

While this might be a sound idea, I notice that on social media – or anywhere really – there just isn’t the same number of self-professed gurus on customer relationship management as there are on say, learning how to take light and airy photos for Instagram or create the kind of amazing sales funnel that will absolutely guarantee to ten times your business.

No, it seems getting the customers or clients is more important than what we do once we have them.

My thinking on this is because customer relationships, like any personal relationships, can be a bit tricky.

In the absence of greater wisdom shared by others, we usually learn ‘along the way’, gathering experience, awareness, and hopefully a few skills that stand us in better stead.

Maybe a client who doesn’t pay causes us to tighten our terms and conditions.

A project that doesn’t go well might alert us to changes needed for our overall approach.

When a client consistently changes the playing field, we might decide to absorb the loss and withdraw from a project.

Like just about everyone in business, I’ve had my share of interesting client relationship experiences. While they were challenging at the time, the lessons learned have made the experiences so worthwhile.

I’m sharing a couple of those customer relationship nuggets in this week’s blog in the hope you’ll benefit from the insights.

#1 Teach your clients how to treat you

I have a coach, Roslyn Saunders who has said to me how you are in one area of your life is how you are in other areas.

For a long time, I just didn’t get what she was talking about. Fortunately, with a few challenging business experiences under my belt, I do now.

What she meant was this: if you put up with crap from people in your personal life, there’s an excellent chance, you’re going to do the same thing in your professional or business life.

Here’s how that plays out.

In your personal relationships, if you’re accommodating and helpful to the point where you’re walked over, guess what will happen in your work as a freelancer?

Actually, I bet you don’t need to guess. You know. You know because you’ve allowed clients to walk over you.

I know too because that’s what happened to me.

Starting out, I was just #sograteful to have real paying clients that I would bend over backwards. The problem was, I would end up feeling burnt out and resentful, particularly if they were rude, unappreciative, or didn’t pay.

Whether it’s business or personal, these are not the characteristics of an enduring relationship.

I finally realised, with a little help that it wasn’t the client who was the problem, it was all me. It’s not their fault they treated me this way. It was mine.

Eventually I woke up. It became clear to me that it’s necessary to teach people, including clients, how to treat us.

This translates as: if you put up with ‘the unacceptable’ from clients, they will keep doing things that are unacceptable. It’s a really simple equation. Unacceptable = unacceptable. Even someone like me who was rubbish at maths can understand that logic.

Now you might be thinking, Well that’s obvious. And my answer is yes, it’s obvious, but how hard is it for you teach your clients how to treat you – and then hold the boundary of what’s acceptable to you when the resistance inevitably arises?

That’s right. Not so easy.

Think of it this way. If you’ve ever had to say No to someone you’d normally say yes to, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

At the time, it can just be easier to say yes, make a promise to yourself you won’t do it next time, or worst of all, pretend it never happened. Hello more resentment.

Saying no to a client and holding firm to that no takes courage. After all, it could mean losing the client or much needed revenue. It could even impact your reputation if that client chooses to ‘Google Review’ you in a poor light. Who knows, they might even lie about you.

That’s why working as a freelancer, it’s essential to develop the ‘muscle’ that means you’re strong enough to teach your clients – or anyone you work with – how to treat you.

#2 Be prepared for hard conversations

While we’re on the subject of muscling up, the freelancer’s customer relationship management toolbox should also include the skills for having hard conversations.

Nobody likes hard conversations, but to succeed as a freelancer, it’s necessary to develop this important skill.

Without it, you stand to lose something more valuable than business. You lose self-respect.

Although I have no scientific evidence to prove it, I think the reason most of us lack confidence about hard conversations in business is we simply have no idea about how to have them. We don’t know what to say or how to say it. We feel out of our depth. Without the skills, we’re paralysed into saying absolutely nothing. Silence is perceived mistakenly as acquiescence. Setting an unhealthy precedent for our client, we’ve taught them how to treat us. And it’s not good.

Another problem with not having a way (or several ways) for handling hard conversations to help manage customer relationships is it can leave us feeling frustrated, angry, and resentful. We might feel disempowered, annoyed and distrustful too. 

It may cause us to over-react and make poor decisions.

We may fail to act on our intuition and later regret it.

We might incur serious financial repercussions that could have been avoided.

My number one go-to strategy for hard conversations is to ‘workshop’ it with a trusted friend or coach. Careful thought and preparation in advance of hard conversations means I’m ready rather than over-reactive. I might still be nervous, but at least I’m prepared.

Maybe because I’m a writer, another tactic I rely on is I write things down. This allows me to stick to the most important messages I want to communicate. There’s also less chance I’ll be derailed into territory that’s not relevant to the issue at hand.

#3 Have guidelines for customer relationships

Many people haven’t worked with a freelancer to develop their content, designs, videos, or photography. By default, this makes the experience a new one.

It means it’s up to us to show them how. You can do this directly and tacitly.

Here are some examples:

Develop guidelines that explain how you work with clients. By setting clear parameters for how you operate – and sharing these – there’s less room for confusion or misunderstanding.

Be a diligent taker of notes. Leaving things to memory can lead to a “he said, she said” situation that rarely has a winner.

Be punctual for meetings. Notwithstanding emergencies that come up from time to time, being on time shows your client you respect their time as well as your own.

Having guidelines gives you posture. They allow you to feel confident about your value, how you work, and the benefits to your client from your services. Time spent developing these guidelines is invaluable.

A final word

Being prepared to consider what an ideal customer or client relationship looks like to you is a worthwhile exercise. Together with clear guidelines for how you work, it will help you identify whether a potential or existing client or customer is right for you. Applying this kind of effort in the management of your client relationships will pay dividends, both now and well into the future. Like L’Oreal says, You’re worth it.

Want to learn more about managing client relationships as a freelancer? Download the free guide for conscious content creators who are ready to do their freelancer business differently.

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