This article is only a small sample from the SitePoint book, The Principles of Successful Freelancing by Miles Burke. If you’d like to read more, the entire book is available totally free for the next 10 days, when you enter the SitePoint Twitaway. Don’t miss out!
Providing great client service can give you a massive edge over your competitors. Not only is it just plain good manners, giving great service also means that you’ll have a client base that will refer you to others, be less likely to leave, and become real champions of your cause.
Great client service goes way beyond that practiced smile or the automatic “good morning” response when you answer the phone – it’s a far more holistic approach to just about everything you do.
Great client service consists of these five elements:
- manage client expectations
- maintain high availability
- practice courtesy and respect
- practice honesty in all communications
- be proactive in your service
Let’s discuss these elements now, in more detail.
Manage Client Expectations
From that first sales meeting, it is important to manage your clients’ expectations if you wish to build a really worthwhile long-term relationship. Be open and up front about your availability, the processes you follow, your rates, and what you believe the client’s obligations to be.
The absolute golden rule here is that you should never make any promise unless you are absolutely confident of keeping that promise. Ideally, you’d be better to under-promise and over-deliver. For example, exaggerate the timeline and keep tight control on the deliverables – and then surprise the client by completing the work sooner and delivering more than the client originally expected. This system also gives you important spare time and budget up your sleeve, should something go wrong during the work. If anything, having that extra time and budget allows you to give your work that extra little polish.
Managing client expectations often comes down to having consistent processes and good project management principles. You and the client should both strive towards having a situation where there are no unpleasant surprises and everything remains under control.
Maintain High Availability
It is important, as well as courteous, to answer your telephone, return calls, and reply to your emails in a timely manner. When speaking with or emailing a client, you should create the impression that they are the only customer of yours in the entire world. This also means that you should never blame other clients or projects for missing a deadline or not answering a call; it almost always sounds like a lame excuse.
This rule needs some degree of balance, though – you don’t want to become a slave to your email, and it’s a common trap that can quickly become time-consuming and counter-productive. Given that 95% of emails don’t need an answer within four or more hours, set some breaks between checking your email; otherwise, you’ll never get the work done.
You should also ensure that your responsiveness is not taken as an open invitation to your clients to start calling any time, day or night. It’s important as a business owner that you manage your time, being acutely aware of that all-important workâ€“life balance. You shouldn’t have any guilt or doubts about switching your business line to an answering machine or voicemail in the evenings; it’s an effective tool to combat those after-hours calls, and helps solidify your professional status in the eyes of your clients. Make sure you include your business hours and email address on your voicemail message. This approach provides a subtle hint to clients that emails are often better, and your business hours should be considered as reasonably fixed.
If you do answer the phone after hours, and it does turn out to be a non-urgent matter, you might consider delivering a subtle hint; explain that you are “out for dinner,” or even “out with the family,” and currently not near a computer. This polite hint should normally be clear enough for you to be able to follow it up with the stated intention to deal with the task tomorrow, and allows you to close with, “Would you mind sending an email to confirm?” This rule also applies for responding to emails – read them of an evening or weekend, if you must, but don’t respond unless absolutely necessary out of normal hours. If you do, you run the risk of training your clients to believe that you are available at any time.
Obviously, if you are in a situation where there is potential for client emergencies (for example, the web site goes down and orders are lost), ensure that you clearly define what constitutes an emergency, state what the response processes are, detail any costs or contractual arrangements in writing, and make sure the client understands. You might use a cell phone or voicemail as point of contact for this purpose – ensure that you check these regularly over weekends and holidays to ensure you’re up-to-date. There’s nothing more frustrating to a client than an urgent call being ignored when a seriously urgent situation rears its ugly head: Server down! Web site hacked!
You might consider offering a reasonable loading fee for any work done after hours; this could be 30â€“70% on top of your usual rate. This charge is normally enough to scare away clients with trivial requests – their money is suddenly more important than you doing the work right now, this evening.
Practice Courtesy and Respect
Think of those times in your life where you’ve felt that you haven’t received the courtesy or respect you’ve expected in that situation, and contemplate the reasons for why you’ve felt that way.
It may have been in a retail environment, or it may have been in an old workplace. We all have stories of feeling that we weren’t attended to at a level we were happy with or considered appropriate. Maybe the person dealing with you was unattentive, dismissive, or came across as just plain rude. There are many lessons to be learned there; the first is to ensure that you always provide the courtesy, respect, and excellent customer service that you’d want to receive if you were in the recipient’s shoes.
Never belittle a request, or speak of a client in a derogatory manner, irrespective of whether they are present or not. I’ve been in many situations where someone has complained about another person to me, and my immediate thought is, “I wonder if they say the same about me?” That, coupled with the risk that your rant or complaint may find its way back to your client, should be a good reason to always steer away from this situation. Furthermore, I’ve seen emails that complain about a client being accidentally forwarded to that client in an email thread – what a nightmare. Never, ever write something about a client in an email that you wouldn’t be happy for them to read; it’s just not worth the risk!
Be Honest in All Communication
Be honest, always. This is actually quite a challenge at times, especially in a situation where you disagree with a client. The practice of honesty, though, has some great results. You’ll find that people will admire you for being open, and they’ll be much more likely to reciprocate this honesty when you deal with them.
As an example, if a client of yours asks you about something of which you have little or no knowledge, let them know that you’ll read up on it, or ask others about it, and get back to them. This is a fantastic double advantage – not only are you being honest, you’re also offering great service!
Many people see honesty as the most important personality trait; as a professional, I don’t believe there’s any alternative to it. If you’re caught out in a lie – no matter how small – your relationship with that client will be in tatters, and very hard to recover.
Save yourself from that situation by always being honest, and avoid having your ethics brought into question.
Be Proactive in Your Service
Consider all the instances you can remember where you felt as though you received outstanding service. If you’re anything like me, it will be those moments where there were the little things. This may have been an extra-friendly welcome at your local cafe, or a super-fast turnaround to a technical support request. When you consciously think about it, it probably involved no extra work from the person serving you.
Be on the lookout for ways to go that extra distance. These can be deceptively small things, such as posting out a hand-written thank-you card at the end of a project, or bringing takeaway coffees for yourself and your client when visiting their office. Try sending a thank-you card to your client at a set anniversary after the project, say after three or six months. This is a nice way of letting the client know that you haven’t forgotten them, as well as issuing a subtle reminder you’re available, if they have future work.
Buying your long-term clients lunch once in a while is a great way to say thank you – as well as providing an enjoyable and legitimate reason for leaving the house. Take a few minutes before the occasion to check out the movements of the client’s competitors, and their new systems or techniques, and make sure you let your clients know about it – they’ll be pleased that you’ve taken some initiative to help their business, and are likely to ask you to implement a similar system for them. These lunches may seem to be merely good fun, but take the opportunity they provide to subtly up-sell your services, and attract new work!
Hope you enjoyed this excerpt from the SitePoint book, The Principles of Successful Freelancing by Miles Burke. If you’d like more quality freelancing advice, the entire book is available totally free for the next 10 days, when you enter the SitePoint Twitaway. Grab your copy now!
As Director of Bam Creative, and Chairperson of the Australian Web Industry Association, Miles spends his time managing his business or speaking about managing businesses. Recently awarded as one of the top Western Australian entrepreneurs under 40 years old, Miles can also be found writing at Miles' Blog.