Always being compliant with everything that a prospect or a client says is not the best practice to build a sustainable business.
This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over a decade of running a business and separately running a consultancy—advising small and medium enterprises. Regardless of the fact that clients often want to hear what they’re asking for, they’re not necessarily in the right position to give the best piece of advice.
I had a sales meeting a couple of weeks ago with a former client we used to work with back in the day. He joined a new organization and needed professional services and called me and said, “Hey, you know we had a solid working relationship and really happy we have another opportunity to work together. The reason I wanna work with you guys is that I’m tired of yea-sayers and nay-sayers.”
They just want someone who understands the business, who isn’t afraid to say when something isn’t going to happen on time or something isn’t implemented in the best possible manner, and someone who is going to actually work alongside us on building the business. We work with partners. We don’t look for vendors just sticking to the team.
As a result, these are the tips on how not to be a prick and yet still stand your ground and be the expert that you are.
1. The Client Isn’t Always Right
This is the most fundamental thing you need to learn from the get-go.
Clients are working from the perspective of what they know about the business and what they understand about their own business. This doesn’t mean they can command the best possible way of implementing solutions or manufacturing goods or logistics or anything along those lines.
You are the industry expert within your specific business. And if you believe that what you’re doing is right, you’re complying with the best practices, and you’re providing the best solution on the market, then you should tell them. Inform them of the reasons, the business decisions, and the rationale behind what you’re doing in the way you’re doing it. Tell them exactly why you feel that what they’re doing is not the most optimal thing or the best thing out there. Just make sure you have a well-defined argument for them to use as the next step.
Again, the client isn’t always right—they have a perception of what needs to happen but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the case all the time.
2. Clients Don’t Understand the Industry as Well as You Do
Your strong point in running a business is you understand how the competitive landscape works, how pricing works, and how much talent charges. Whenever we get a customer that says “Hey, you’re too expensive” or, “We know people from Eastern Europe and they don’t charge as much as you do”— anything like that.
This is no longer a problem we have to face simply because if you’re looking for individuals to send a document to and they follow blindly whatever you believe is the best to happen, then go ahead and just hire a freelancer or hire a cheap agency out there. You’re better off without us.
If on the other hand, you are looking for a consultancy being able to guide you through the process and show you the possible flaws that you’re going to face, then we will be there to assist. Furthermore, if you are looking for a consultancy that will identify possible challenges within your specific niche and business segment based on what we know works best in the business and common problems that similar projects are facing, then we’re more than happy to help.
There are common objections and obstacles, as well as common perceptions for every business. Lots of your bigger competitors are going to try to influence your prospects’ decisions based on how they operate and based on what they do in order to acquire a bigger market share. However, being smart and knowing your strengths well are going to help you position yourself better.
Because you understand the industry and the competitive landscape, you can use this to your advantage.
3. Adopt the Consultative Approach Above All
The best way to build a strong relationship with a customer is by helping them out in a tough situation. And instead of following their requirements blindly, try to consult them and take the following steps:
- Give them a helpful piece of advice.
- Show them a roadmap of how you believe things are going to happen.
- Set proper expectations on the product or service they’re receiving from you
- Ask them to confirm that their business problems are aligned with the expectations
Here’s an example: If someone orders a Roomba or any other cleaning robot, and they ask you if you supply that, then tell them, “Do you know what a Roomba does? Do you know that it doesn’t fly? It doesn’t clean windows. It can’t step on surfaces like desks or tables, or anything like that. If you’re looking for a comprehensive solution that actually cleans your house, Roomba is not going to cut it. Roomba itself is a wonderful product but it only fits certain designated goals of whatever a room is designed to do the way it’s designed to work.”
So, having misaligned expectations and looking for the wrong product are going to cause friction within your plan. As the consultant, you can actually help them get through the right decision or show them the different options and be on the same page from the very first step.
The same principle is applied within every scenario regardless of what product or services they want. There are a lot of assumptions in the process. And adopting the consultative approach is going to be a lot more helpful and build more trust within the customer-vendor relationship.
4. Know That Not Every Client Is Right for You
At the beginning of every business, it’s really common to just try to close every deal there is because you’re trying to survive—especially in the feast and famine cycle.
Along the way, you may have clients that are not perfect for you. But regardless, your goal is to work with the best clients possible that need your services, the ones where your process is best aligned to serve them in an efficient and optimal manner. This is a process that your staff can understand, can follow through, and can reach perfection.
This is why understanding which clients are good and not so good is really important for you. Sometimes you may want to make a deliberate decision to take home a client and spend extra time and attention to them. For example, you may want to penetrate a new market, industry, or vertical, or learn new skills and develop an exciting product.
Note, however, that investing more resources and stretching your staff can potentially lead you to lose a client relationship that is going to impact your business a lot more than not. Be really cautious. And if a client does not seem like a great fit for you, you might as well tell them right off the bat.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Argue Purely From a Monetary Standpoint
Customer-vendor relationships often fail when a client is paying a lot and they’re holding the vendor hostage. The vendor needs the money which could be why they’re making compromises or they’re stalling simply because they don’t want to know your plan.
Once again, a client can recover from a problem, but lying to them once or twice is going to harm the relationship forever.
To prevent your relationship with a customer from failing, communicate right away if there is a problem or a blocker. If they’re pushing you for an unrealistic deadline, you can tell them that although you are going to do whatever it takes, you may still need more time, and they must be open to that.
Here’s how you can lay it down to them: “We can’t commit 100% to you. We are going to do whatever we can within our powers but there are also external factors, and this is not the normal process. So you need to be aware of that.”
6. Learn to Approach With ROI in Mind
A common problem between clients and vendors is following through with whatever they want or providing an estimate for something that you understand, without really realizing how important it is for a business.
For instance, when a random customer approaches Amazon to order a table or a chair, the first things that you might be wondering about would be their budget and their specific needs. They may be looking for Ikea, a Chinese historical table, or a chair from the sixth century.
Different businesses come from different perspectives. If you are just starting coffee shops, you’re probably going to start with cheap furniture because you don’t have the funds. If you are an expensive five-star hotel or a gallery or something that’s artsy, you’re probably going to buy the most expensive furniture there is because you’re a boutique business, and you’re working with the elite clients, so you want to show off to them.
The requirements, the expectations, and even the ROI can vary.
Understand what is the impact of your actions on your client. Is it going to automate the process for them? Is it going to save them money or time? Is it something they need to have as compliance? Consider and keep these in mind when dealing with your clients and working on their projects.
7. Push Back Early to Avoid Scope Creep
We already touched on that barely. But if you’re uncertain of something or even if you have any doubts whatsoever, risk management is your best friend. We have written a post on scope creep: defining and identifying the problem, and the possible resolutions.
Discuss possible problems with your customers as early on. This is one of the first things that freelancers also have to learn because otherwise, they end up in a really terrible situation. If you need something from your client ahead of time, let them know and tell them how this is going to affect the process along the way.
If you have other stakeholders that have to approve, make sure you schedule a meeting with them as early as possible. If there are any other blockers, vendors, or logistics issues such as any systems that you need access to, make sure you arrange them ahead of time or you set a deadline of how soon you can get access to them.
In cases when you can’t launch an event or campaign because creatives, sponsorship tickets or prices are not ready, this is going to affect you as the final delivery person and you need to discuss these ahead of time.
Push back or arrange everything as early as possible if you see any risks with that, and put it in the paperwork if possible just to avoid further problems.
8. Expect the Unexpected
Many of those things that you’re going to mention in your paperwork or those things that you’re going to predict are probably going to happen.
The reason you put them as disclaimers is you’ve probably been there or you’ve heard other horror stories from other people. But still, you need to budget for rainy days and you need to budget for unexpected surprises—especially this 2021 and in the midst of the COVID crisis.
Do you know how many things have changed over the past year? Lots of companies switched to remote or had to close for several months in a row. With distance limitations, food delivery services skyrocketed simply because going onsite was no longer possible. The way we do business has changed dramatically due to COVID.
A lot can also happen from a logistical standpoint—a truck may fail or you can end up with a flat tire or someone may go on leave, or there may be turnover issues. Make sure you budget for some extra resources or extra time or just put some safety nets in order to prepare for the unexpected surprises that may happen. The same goes for arranging finances, upfront payments, or everything else.
9. Disagreement Doesn’t Mean an Argument
Speaking about client communication and the fact that the client isn’t always right, this puts so many people in an uncomfortable position. In a lot of cultures or with a lot of introverts, disagreement may automatically mean an argument but this is not really the case.
A disagreement is a good basis for having a discussion if you have the right arguments and you can make your case as helpful as possible.
Instead of bluntly rejecting a request, you can express your disagreement this way: “We don’t believe that your requirements are going to best fit your needs, but we do have Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C that we feel are more applicable to your scenario. We may as well be on the wrong track and more than happy to help on a discovery session so we can study your needs better, study the competition better, and make sure we supply you with the best solution that you need.”
A similar context may be extremely helpful. But what really matters at the end of the day is that a disagreement with your prospect or your client doesn’t automatically mean you’re not going to get the deal or that you have to make compromises just for the sake of it.
Discuss possible problems or any cavities you see ahead of time, so that you’re both on the same page and in agreement when you start the process.
10. Grow With Your Best Customers
We already discussed in number four that not every client is right for you. Now, what you need to identify is what the right client is.
For instance, ever since we pioneered WordPress Retainers, we only look for customers who understand that Retainers are the way to go. In our case with web development, the vast majority of the companies out there offer one-off solutions or basic support/maintenance activities.
We do believe that a web project is a living breathing creature. This is why we’re offering ongoing services including maintenance, consulting, development, and other services such as marketing, business development, or relevant technical-creative activities. In any case, we know this is best and we’ve seen a lot of businesses that understand it best. This has also helped a lot of companies, later on, get acquired by Facebook or some of the largest publishers on the planet.
So, what we do is we target and pay special attention to businesses that outright look for retainer services and not just one-off solutions. We spend more time with them as they are the right client for us.
In a similar fashion, figure out what the right customer is for you. Also realistically assess that if you have some of those customers, make them become a buyer persona. Find out about their needs, know the size of the business, understand your role, or just analyze them. This can keep you on the lookout for the best customers. This is going to be the more practical solution at the end of the day.
Pleasing clients is always a nice gesture but only whenever there is an alignment between what you can offer and what you believe is right with what they’re asking for.
Otherwise, stand your ground and be the consultant that helps them make the right decision. These can make them become more satisfied with your services, and hopefully, you can have a long-term relationship with your clients.