This is a long one, but it's worth the extra time!
Effective client communication is one of the most important aspects of running a business.
For clarification, when I say communication, I'm talking about every interaction you have with a client from the first time they see your website or book an appointment until you offboard them or finish your final project. This includes everything from your formal discovery call to your quick email to ask if they had a good holiday.
Why do you need to be able to communicate with your clients? Because it's essential to building trust, maintaining relationships, and ensuring that you and your client are in agreement about terms, project needs, and deliverables. Effective communication leads to improved client satisfaction, reduced misunderstandings, and increased revenue. And who doesn't want that?!
This guide takes a look at five important elements you need for effective client communication:
- Understanding your clients
- Setting communication expectations
- Constructing effective messages
- Handling tough conversations
- Managing your relationships with clients
Let's get started!
Understanding Your Client
Do you need to know everything about your client? No. But you need to know enough to anticipate their needs and have a solution ready. During your first communication (usually a discovery call of some type) get to know their needs, preferences, and communication styles. There are several techniques you should actively incorporate into your communication style as a Boss.
Active listening is the process of fully focusing on what your client is saying and then responding in a way that shows your understanding. When you actively listen, you're hearing the words your client is saying and paying attention to nonverbal cues and the tone of their voice.
They might say, “We need to get this finished as quickly as possible.” Because you're paying attention, you notice they are leaning forward, maintaining eye contact, and there's a note of urgency in their voice. That clues you in that the timing is an important factor to them and it gives you a chance mentally to review your schedule to see if you can fit in a rush project. If you have the time and capacity, you can reassure them right away, “I have availability to finish the project as discussed by xx/xx. There is a 50% rush fee for any project with a turnaround of fewer than xx days. What is your need-by date on this?”
Without active listening, you might have assumed a later deadline in your proposal and lost out on the project.
Asking questions is a necessary part of doing business and when you ask the right questions, they become a powerful tool for understanding your client's needs and preferences. Knowing what to ask helps you get to the root of the problem and tailor your communication accordingly.
Take the time to create a checklist of questions to use during important calls. I have a checklist for discovery calls, project kick-off calls, content strategy calls, and for offboarding clients. Those checklists help keep me on target, limit follow-up questions, and keep me on schedule.
Conducting research gives you insights into your client's industry, competition, and pain points. Anticipating your client's needs and making sure you're ready to meet those needs shows professionalism, competency, and a willingness to truly support your client.
When possible, I have my clients fill out a simple form before our first communication. I ask for the type of project, the deadline, their website, contact info, and the proposed budget, and I ask them to include any other information I might need for the discovery call. This form helps me qualify the client. If we aren't a good fit (they want to pay 1/4 of my going rate or the project isn't something I do) I'm able to contact them and let them know before the call.
For clients who pass the initial screening, I do a bit of due diligence before our first call. I check out their current resources and website, look up the person I'll be speaking with on LinkedIn, and do a quick search on the company. It seldom takes over 15 minutes, but the potential clients are always impressed that I know a bit about the organization and what they are doing. That understanding is sometimes the difference between a yes and no on the proposal.
Applying Client Insights
Once you've gained a better understanding of your client, you can apply those insights to your communication. This includes using language and examples that resonate with them and addressing their pain points in your messaging.
Setting Communication Expectations
Have you ever had a client who sent a message Friday evening and then another before business hours on Monday morning wondering why they haven't heard from you? Me too.
Setting expectations is another critical element of effective communication with clients. You'll need to articulate not only your response times but also the communication channels you prefer and the frequency of communication.
Client Communication Channels
Let's look at channels first. It's a good idea to offer several communication channels to your clients, including email, phone calls, video calls, and messaging platforms. Each channel has its strengths and weaknesses, but your client will always have a preference (and you need to be willing to work with them on this one).
Email: Email is an effective communication channel for sending formal messages, such as proposals or invoices. It's also a useful tool for sharing information and updates. I recommend using email as a summation/accountability tool as well. After a client call, I always send an email summarizing the main points of the call and any action steps or deadlines for myself or the client.
Phone Calls: There are three types of people when it comes to phone calls: those who love them and use them over any other option, those who choose phone calls only when an urgent matter pops up, and those who avoid them at all costs. No matter which group you're part of, phone calls are great for discussing complex issues or addressing urgent matters when working with clients. They allow for immediate feedback and are more personal than email.
Video Calls: Video calls offer a face-to-face option for communicating with clients who are not in the same location. This gives you the opportunity to build rapport and trust and it lets you read those all-important nonverbal cues.
Messaging Platforms: Messaging platforms, such as Slack or WhatsApp, are useful for quick, informal communication. They're ideal for checking in on a project or asking a quick question. They can also quickly become a time suck and they allow clients to push boundaries, so use them with caution.
Client Communication Frequency
Once you've agreed on your preferred communication channels, it's essential that you set expectations for how often you'll communicate. This may be daily, weekly, or bi-weekly, depending on the project's needs. I never choose daily or even offer it. I'm a contractor/consultant because I don't want to have meetings every day!
You'll also want to set response time expectations. We recommend including your response times in your client onboarding packet and then discussing those during your kickoff call. Ask how long client responses will take as well. This ensures everyone knows ahead of time when they can expect a response to their message or email.
The Importance of Effective Messages
You need to be able to understand your client's communication style, write professional emails, craft effective proposals, and occasionally communicate bad news. None of this sounds fun, I know, but it's all part of running your own business. Be the Boss!
Understanding Your Client's Communication Style
Understanding your client's communication style is crucial for crafting effective messages. Some clients prefer concise, to-the-point messages, while others prefer detailed explanations. Here are some tips for tailoring your messages to your client's communication style:
Write Professional Emails
I've lost track of the number of unprofessional emails I've received from clients and from other contractors or freelancers. Remember, this email is part of your business communication. You don't have to write a formal, structured message for every email, but you want to make sure you're checking a few boxes and staying professional.
Subject Line: The subject line is the first thing your client will see. Make sure it's clear and concise and that it conveys the purpose of the email and is attention-grabbing. If you are responding to an email string and the conversation has shifted or you're addressing a specific issue, change the subject line.
Greeting: Don't just jump into your ask. Include a greeting.
Body: The body of the email should be clear, concise, and to the point. It should address the purpose of the email and provide any necessary details. Use short paragraphs and bullet points when possible. I like to include action steps, deadlines, and task lists in bullet lists to draw attention and allow for easy scanning.
Closing: Your closing should be professional and include a call to action. For example, if you're sending a proposal, you might include a request for the client to review and provide feedback.
Writing Effective Proposals
Proposals probably need a series of posts by themselves, but I felt I should include them here as well. Writing an effective proposal requires a thorough understanding of your client's needs and tailoring your proposal to meet those needs. It should be clear and concise and provide a detailed solution to the client's problem.
Here are some tips for writing effective proposals:
- Start with an executive summary. Highlight the main points of the proposal as discussed with the client.
- Provide a clear description of the client's problem or request.
- Explain your proposed solution. Don't cut corners here. This is the first opportunity you have to define the project scope.
- Provide a timeline and budget for the project. Be detailed here as well. Include your payment terms.
- Include case studies or testimonials. This shows your expertise and the quality of your work.
Communicating Bad News
Here's one that trips a lot of people up (me included). Communicating bad news is never easy, but sometimes it's necessary. When you have to deliver bad news (a missed deadline, your decision to end a contract, etc.) stay professional and empathetic. Here are some tips for communicating bad news:
- Be honest
- Provide a simple explanation of the situation
- Offer a solution or alternative
- Express empathy and understanding
Handling Difficult Conversations in Client Communication
This topic is the reason we produce our Boss Responses podcast. Handling tough conversations is something you must be able to do. Confidently approaching important issues like negotiating rates, requesting payment, and managing scope creep sets the tone of the conversation and that reminds your client that you are the Boss of your business. Here are some tips for handling tough conversations:
Negotiating rates is the moment in the conversation when you show your value and what you bring to the table. Be prepared to explain your rates and provide examples of your work. But only if they ask you to! If you give your rate to a client and they immediately fire back with a rate that's half of what you said, smile and say, “That's a sizeable gap. I'm not sure we can resolve that even with a reduction of the project scope. I'm not sure I'm a good fit for this project.” If they get nasty, you just dodged a bullet. Be polite, but end the call. If they express a desire to move forward at your rate, clarify the details and make sure your contract is tight.
Your client is late with the payment. You've sent a reminder email, and still nothing. This is when you have to give a Boss Response. I get it. Pushing the issue of late payment can be uncomfortable, but it must be done. Stay professional and be straightforward. Reiterate your payment terms and remind them they agreed to those terms when they signed your contract. Be watching for more posts on this topic!
Managing Scope Creep
Scope creep or project bloat is another common issue. When a project's scope expands beyond the original agreed-upon deliverables, you immediately start making less money. The solution is to remind your client that they're going to need to pay more (if you have time for the extra work) and have them sign an addendum to your agreement/contract. Make sure you communicate the impact it will have on the project timeline and budget, as well as the additional costs of any work outside the original agreement.
Managing Client Relationships
Your relationship with your client is another important part of effective client communication. I have an ongoing process that involves building rapport, addressing client feedback, celebrating successes, and even a process for finishing a client relationship.
Building rapport is a must. You need to build trust, understand your client's needs and preferences, and respond to their communications. Make sure you respond within the time limits you list in your contract. And never, ever (seriously never) ghost a client. Just don't. If you're unable to complete the project be honest. Let the client know so they can find a replacement.
Addressing Client Feedback
Client feedback can feel like a double-edged sword. It stings, no matter which way it cuts. We hope for positive feedback, but if they are unhappy, try to fix the issue if the change request is reasonable. Responding to their concerns lets them know you are vested in a successful outcome for both parties.
Ending a Client Relationship
Ending a client relationship is sometimes necessary. And it's almost always uncomfortable, even if you'll be glad to see the last of them. But it's essential that you end the relationship professionally and respectfully. Be clear about the reasons for ending the relationship, express gratitude for the opportunity to work together, and provide any necessary information for the client to transition to another provider.
Wrapping it Up
Effective client communication is a multi-faceted process. Some days, it feels like walking a tightrope. On other days, you feel like the most appreciated person in the world. If you focus on client management and effective communication, better days will become the norm!