10 Ways to Improve Client Communication
“I just don’t know where it went wrong.”
Chances are it wasn’t your process, product, or service - it was your communication. Nothing can be scarier than booking your first client as a freelancer. But can I let you in on a secret? It’s always kind of scary to start working with someone new.
It’s like going on a second date after a really good first one, and the expectations and pressure are really high. When a relationship is just getting started - with so many hopes and dreams on the line - communication will gracefully see you through to the end.
I haven’t always been the best communicator. Sometimes I just get busy, or I feel like an instructional step is unnecessary, or I plain just reinvent-the-wheel. And nine times out of ten, it derails the relationship. Or at least, I have to put out a few more fires than normal.
To keep from fanning the flames in your own business, I want to outline ten best practices for improving your client communication this year.
Map It Out
First thing’s first - get out a sheet of paper and go through your entire process pretending you are the client. Map out each point of interaction, from the initial inquiry, welcome email, and final delivery.
Don’t forget to take a look at your sales pages. Write down any assumptions a potential client would have about what they are purchasing based on your website copy or FAQ page.
Take some highlighters, and mark any potential obstacles or questions they may have along the way. Write notes in the margin about general industry assumptions, or ways that certain language or steps could be misinterpreted - is your process full of clever (and confusing) titles? Are there any expectations that may be built into your sales copy that you’re failing to deliver on?
Now, go back through your process again and refine those steps. Make sure each point of the process is clearly communicated and that each step flows into the next. Write down how long each step will take to create a consistent project timeline.
Give yourself some buffer. Whether you’re shipping a product, waiting on feedback, or trying to assemble assets, assume things will take a bit longer than planned. If you’re wrong, you’ve bought yourself some extra time or can delight your client or customer by delivering early. But if it does take longer, you won’t be frantically trying to beat the clock and do damage control with new clients.
The First Impression
Nothing is more important than the first interaction a potential client has with your business. Start by checking in on their digital impression - is your website information up-to-date? Do your sales pages accurately communicate the services you offer? Is your shop inventory accurate? Is it easy to know how to make a purchase or fill out an inquiry form?
Once you receive an inquiry or purchase, respond within 48 hours. Amazon has changed the industry assumption, and these days most customers expect action to be taken within 2 days - whether it’s a response to an initial inquiry, a shipped product, or access to a digital course. If you anticipate needing a longer turn-around time, consider an autoresponder or make that expectation extremely clear on your website, checkout cart, or inquiry form.
If it’s not the right fit, be respectful and kind. They may be a referral in the future! Consider pointing them in the right direction or offering some advice. The last thing you want to do is leave a potential client lost and confused, or feeling like you’ve ghosted them.
Early on, it’s important to let your client know when they can reach you. If you’re working from home, you most likely have clients all over the country. Make sure they know your office hours and time zone, as well as your preferred method of communication.
For e-commerce sites, make sure your customer support information is easy to find. Consider an immediate auto-responder or chat feature so that a support question doesn’t get lost in the weeds, and your customer feels heard even before you can get to their specific request.
Align on Deadlines
Deadlines are extremely important for client projects. Both parties tend to want to know when the project is going to end, and anticipate when certain parts will be delivered. It’s a great idea to send a detailed timeline to new clients at the start of a project. You may add an incentive if you continually have trouble getting a client to meet a specific due date.
Communicate any penalties or process changes that happen if deadlines are missed. Whether it’s a pause clause for going MIA, fees for late feedback, timeline changes for missed due dates, or any other policies you need to run your business smoothly, it’s best to get these conversations out in the open from the beginning so you client doesn’t encounter any surprises along the way.
Set a fixed number of revisions and communicate what a revision consists of (guidelines help!) It’s important to give your client a deadline for when their feedback is due. I also like to give tips for giving feedback, or ways to ask friends for their opinion. The more barriers you can eliminate, the more likely you’re going to be happy with the results!
Anticipate Extra Work
Inevitably, you’re going to have clients who want to add an extra deliverable, hour of your consulting time, or revision to the process. Instead of scrambling to make a new quote, have a plan for extra revisions and add-ons throughout the project. You might want to let your client know about these possible additions from time to time, but avoid making them feel like you’re constantly selling - it could really hurt the trust in the relationship. Just listen to your gut, and if you notice that they’re really struggling and need to add to the project, don’t hesitate to offer additional support.
Communicate Your Progress
Remind clients where you are in the project, and what they can expect next. A great way to do this is through a project management tool, like Asana (mentioned below!) If a client can easily see their project progressing, and knows exactly what’s coming next, they’re less likely to send you multiple emails asking for updates.
Each time you deliver a presentation is a great opportunity to reiterate any policies or terms from the contract that may apply to that state of the project. For instance, delivering design concepts is a great opportunity to remind clients about your feedback terms - how long they have, how many rounds of revisions are included, and what happens if they don’t like any of the design work.
Don’t forget the follow up after a project is complete! Whether you’re requesting a testimonial or pitching ongoing services, don’t just send final files and move on. Foster the new connection and leave the door open for future projects.
It’s happened to all of us - the snarky email right in the middle of a project that derails all inspiration and momentum. Before doing anything - take at least an hour (or a day!) to cool off and gain perspective before responding. Chances are, you may have misread the email or taken their “spirited” reply out of context. If it’s still looking like a conflict, then follow these steps:
First, thank them for contacting you. Your client could always turn to social media or Yelp to badmouth your business, but they chose to come to you, which gives you the opportunity to make it right. Apologize that things have taken a bad turn, ask to have a in-person meeting, or phone call if you’re long distance. It’s so much easier to understand the scale of the situation when you can hear their tone of voice or pick up on their body language.
Once you’re in the meeting, do your best detective work to get to the root of the problem and LISTEN to what they have to say. There’s a big chance that something else is happening, or there was some kind of miscommunication. Don’t immediately take the blame or get defensive.
Try to find an appropriate solution and make sure everyone is happy with it. Create a new proposal and timeline if needed. If it seems necessary, offer a discount on the final invoice or add extra services to the scope if you’re in the wrong.
If a compromise does not seem likely, honor their request to terminate the relationship. Make sure you understand exactly what went wrong so you can improve your process and service in the future.
Template emails are a great way to save time in your inbox. Whether responding to frequently asked questions, answering an inquiry, or on-boarding a new client, templates not only save you time, but can create consistency and professionalism in your brand experience.
Don’t go crazy templating every email you’ve ever sent - templates are really best for initial inquiries, frequently asked questions, on-boarding and off-boarding clients, or technical support. They’re not great for responding to feedback, presenting design or services, or recapping a meeting. Remember that your brand experience does need a personal touch from you.
However, creating a template guideline for emails is a great way to explain why each step of the process matters and build expectations - this helps clients understand the importance of each step and increases trust (while helping you remember each step!)
Plan for Time Away
Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean staying glued to your computer or phone every second of every day. If you’re having trouble stepping away on weekends on in the evening, set an away message until you check it again the following morning.
Don’t forget to also set a vacation away message! Your active clients may know you’re stepping away for a few days of R+R, but your new inquiries won’t - and remember how important that 2 day response is?
Have an emergency contact and back-up plan for active clients. There may be a situation when your clients really do need assistance, and it’s good to have an emergency contact just in case. Just make sure your clients don’t abuse it!
A program like Asana is a great way to centralize your communication communication + files during a project, while letting your client see exactly where you are in the process. This is a tool we’ve used in the past, and I plan to bring it back this year to improve our own internal communication. It also helps keep me out of my inbox when I need to focus on my to-do list.
However, I’d encourage you to keep administrative tasks like invoicing, client gifts, and reminders out of the project flow so the client doesn’t see it. Not every step needs to be outlined and anticipated, and gifts are alway much more fun when they’re a surprise!
Within each project task on Asana, add detailed notes so your client knows what’s coming next and how they are supposed to collaborate with you.
Having a tool like Asana makes it easy to streamline and duplicate your process, evaluate your steps, and make changes when needed.
What has your experience been like with client communication?
Tell your story in the comments below!