Archive for April 23rd, 2009

Colleague Q & A: Working with Clients

A colleague and I were chatting online recently. It was a great conversation and I realized afterward the information would be so helpful to others as well.

With that in mind, here’s a transcript of our mini Q & A session:

Danielle: So you had a great call with a client this week?

KT: This morning. I’ve really found my rhythm with all of my clients. It feels great.

Danielle: What was it about the call that made it especially energizing?

KT: I discovered that I need to know my clients in order to do a good job with them. We got to know each other a little better on a personal and professional level. I feel more confident in myself as a service provider and as a business owner. I think that is coming across to the clients.

Danielle: So what was not happening before that you weren’t getting to know your clients?

KT: I think I was busy getting to know me, the business owner. I am great with people. I just had no idea how much of my successful interaction with them was dependent on visual cues. Initially, virtual relationships were a bit disconcerting for me. Truth be told, they still are in some ways. However, I do think I’ve found my sea legs and I’m becoming more comfortable.

Danielle: Excellent! And how often were you meeting with clients? How often are you meeting now?

KT: Before, it was very irregular. With one client, we have a scheduled monthly update meeting, but we call each other in between if necessary. Another client is bi-weekly. The third client is as needed.

Danielle: May I suggest something that I think will help?

KT: Absolutely.

Danielle: Cool… I suggest weekly telephone meeting with clients, especially, and most importantly, with new clients, at least for the first 3 to 6 months (if not the first year). Make it part of the process and part of your standards. Because it absolutely will work like nothing else in: a) establishing and maintaining that personal connection that is vital to the partnership, and b) creating a platform in order to better serve clients and thereby growing and increasing your role and understanding in the work.

KT: I have found it immensely helpful to have that regular personal contact, so making it a regular part of the week sounds good to me. I really like the opportunity to find out how the client’s priorities may have shifted, and what new information may impact projects we’re working on.

Danielle: Absolutely! Eventually, when you’ve worked with a client for a number of years, you may both find that the connection is so solid you don’t need that level of frequency, that your communication and relationship with each other is so sympatico that your email exchanges pretty much take care of everything. At that point, you may find that twice or once monthly meetings is all that’s needed. But do continue to meet on a regular basis of some kind. It helps “water” the relationship and keep it thriving.

KT. I think this is a fabulous idea!

Danielle: The important factor, I’ve also found, is making it systematic. Don’t let it be willy nilly. Make it a planned and regularly scheduled event in the relationship. Not only will it make it that much easier to manage all your weekly telephone meetings with clients, but it will also be less disruptive to actual work. Set it and forget it is the idea (not forget it, of course, but just get it scheduled for the same time/same day every week so it becomes a routine for everyone).

KT: Ideally, I would like to do them on Monday morning. I can’t think of a more productive way to start the week.

Danielle: Whatever day makes sense for you. I don’t know how you feel about this, but one thing that’s helped my business run smoothly is that I don’t let clients decide what day these calls are held. I tell them right in the consultation process that we’ll have a weekly one-hour meeting and I do those on Tuesdays and I give them a couple times to choose from that will be their regular “slot” from that point on. They don’t get options so they have to be able to work with that or we can’t work together.

KT: How do you get around a client saying that they aren’t available at the time you want to schedule the call?

Danielle: What I tell them is that if they aren’t available for a particular week’s call, I would expect them to give me advance (not last minute) notice so that I can schedule other things and that we’ll just resume the following week. I don’t do reschedules for that same week. I have a very systematic, scheduled system and I serve clients exceptionally well because of it. I don’t worry too much about the time unless it feels like there’s a real abuse or disrespect going on. Then we’ll have a talk and if it ever comes down to it, the time will come out of their hours. Of course, when that is the case, it’s usually time to recognize whether a client is a fit or not. But that’s worst case scenario stuff. Personally, I haven’t had much problem with that in many, many years and you usually don’t when you make sure you’re working with ideal clients who value you in the first place.

KT: Is there any advantage regarding who places the call, you or the client?

Danielle: Whatever your personal preference is. I think there can be power plays with that whole thing, which isn’t of any interest to me personally. I tend to see that stuff as game-playing and that’s definitely not relational. I call clients because I feel it’s an opportunity to demonstrate customer service. But either way, you might both decide that it will be the client who calls you. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way as long as it’s not decided out of game-playing or power-tripping.

KT: Are your clients fairly long-term?

Danielle: All of my clients since about 2002 have been long-term (i.e., monthly retainer).

KT: When a client wants to work with you, what criteria do you use to determine whether you want to work with the client?

Danielle: That’s a good question… of course, there are my hard criteria — the qualifiers and list of prerequisites that help ensure I’m not wasting your time with anyone who is absolutely not going to be a fit. They have to be in my target market (I work with solo attorneys in business, intellectual property and entertainment law). They have to be at a certain income level. I avoid those in start-up phase; they’re generally too disorganized and tend to have no money or reliable cashflow at that stage. Then, once I do meet with someone in consultation and I determine that their goals are things I can help them with, I look at the person themselves and ask questions to get some insight into their their relationship/communication/work styles are. That’s when it comes down to intuition and chemistry. If you have a reasonable sense that you’d enjoy working with someone, go for it. You do what you can to make as educated a decision as possible when choosing clients (because it’s definitely not profitable to work with poor-fitting clients and after all that work you’ve invested onboarding them, you want it to be worth your while), but if it doesn’t work out, no big deal. Either of you can walk away at any time (with some courteous amount of notice, of course).

KT: Regarding certain income, how do you verify that the client isn’t just telling you what you want to hear?

Danielle: Well, you don’t ever know absolutely for sure. Trust goes both ways. You just have to go with your gut. If they appear to be truthful (looking the part) and you feel they are being truthful, and you feel a good chemistry and authenticity, go for it. And again, if it doesn’t work out, walk away. Exercise your option to terminate the contract with whatever notice is stipulated. Simple as that.

KT: How did you handle it when your gut was telling you to walk away, but your wallet was telling you that you desperately need the income? (I ended up walking away, but not nearly soon enough.)

Danielle: There’s no miracle solution for that. Reality is reality. I think the best you can do when you feel you can’t immediately walk away (because you need the money), but recognize that the situation isn’t good for you or your business, is that you work as hard as you can to replace that client ASAP so that you can let them go. I’ll say this, however: that being invested in the money or outcomes is exactly what enslaves you to poor-fitting clients. It’s a tricky business, but if you can somehow mentally train yourself not to care about the money or what happens, however you want to explain how that works in the world (laws of attraction, power of intention, whatever), it really does work out for the best. In fact, I would tell you just out of my own experience, things always work out far better when you can do that. You make better decisions and more ideal things come in to replace the unideal much more quickly.

KT: Danielle, you are such a sweetheart to share your wisdom with me. I really do appreciate it! I’m gonna try and log some billable time in this afternoon, but even though it wasn’t billable, this has been the most productive part of my day.

Danielle: My pleasure; it was fun talking with you. You ask really smart questions and I love that about you.