What do clients want? It’s the age-old question, and obviously there’s no single answer. But in my best client relationships, my clients have ultimately wanted me to provide one thing, and I’ve been able to give it to them.
Whenever I get the feeling that a client wants this thing, I know I’m in a great position to have some fun, do some good work, and make some money. What is that thing?
The one thing my best clients want
My best clients don’t want me to write or edit. They want me to solve their problems.
My best client relationships move beyond the basic skill I offer. They use other experience and capabilities I can offer to solve additional problems — perhaps even problems my clients haven’t yet foreseen.
Ultimately, my best client relationships arise when the client sees me not as a commodity — someone with the skills to do X, Y, and Z — but as a professional who has a broader understanding of a market, discipline, or industry that I can use to anticipate and solve the problems their project faces, adding value to the overall outcome.
When the client begins to see me as a problem solver, their questions begin to broaden out from the original reason why they met with me (for example, to edit or write a piece of content) to bigger issues: communications strategy, target audience access, content usability and so on. Because they’re looking for answers, they tend to be quite candid, so in these situations, I can usually find out quite a lot about where the project’s headed, how it fits into a broader strategy, what they’ve already considered, and where I might be able to help.
These discussions provide the opportunity for me to propose additional services, or draw attention to areas in which I can add value, and to explain what that value is and how it’ll be achieved. They enable me to establish rock-solid rapport very swiftly. And they allow me to demonstrate that I share my client’s passion for their project, and want to do great work with them.
Moving from commodity to valued counsel
Shifting your position in a working relationship from commodity to valued counsel can be challenging. In some cases, your client will refuse to see you as anything but a designer or a developer or a writer — they’ll typecast you in their own minds. It can be difficult to break down this perception, because, in my experience, such clients are rarely willing to put aside the time to speak about any aspect of their operations that they deem to be beyond your sphere.
But there are a few tactics you can use to engage clients in more detailed discussions that will help you both to understand the problems associated with this project — or others — that you can help them to solve.
1. Ask questions
I usually find that my initial and brief-taking meetings with a client provide great opportunities to explore their needs in more detail. Since I’m already asking questions, the client is usually in the mood to talk openly about issues they’re facing in other areas of the project and, possibly, their business.
Last week, while I was taking an initial brief on a book edit from a new client, we began to discuss her target audience. From there, I asked about how she was planning to promote the book, and the ensuing discussion gave me the opportunity to make a few off-the-cuff suggestions about how she could use her existing content in different ways to promote the book more effectively among given audience segments. Many of these ideas were all-new to her.
2. Make suggestions
The ideas I put to my new client during that briefing meeting weren’t particularly specific, but as I explained them, I could see that she hadn’t thought of these possibilities, and appreciated my input.
By making valuable suggestions to help solve problems clients face, you reveal your broader expertise and knowledge, and you gain the opportunity to back up those suggestions with examples of past clients or projects where you’ve used similar tactics to great effect. This helps to qualify your recommendations, and encourages your client to stop seeing you as a skillset and start valuing you as a skilled solutions provider.
3. Back up those suggestions
If you don’t back up the suggestions you make to your client with more information, further research and/or written recommendations on the solutions you can provide, it can be difficult for you to realize any value from your broader skillset.
The conversation I had with my client alerted her to considerations she hadn’t been aware of. She may well be unsure of how important those promotional issues are, or what she should do about solving them. This uncertainty provides the perfect opportunity for me to step up and fill the “expert” role that we sketched out for me in that meeting.
So when I send her the project estimate, I may include a range of broader problem-solving recommendations for the project with their own cost estimates. Or maybe I’ll detail the issues we spoke about, and provide her with some extra background information on why it’s important that she addresses these issues with care. Perhaps I’ll send her information on other projects I’ve completed in which similar problems arose, and were successfully addressed, and offer to meet to discuss them separately with her.
Whatever the case, if I want to help her solve her problems, I need to back up the discussion we had with some concrete action items.
4. Invite engagement
There’s no point letting all this hard work go to waste — I’ll need to invite my client to agree to take me on to solve these other problems if I really want the work.
Demonstrate your commitment to quality outcomes for the project, and your enthusiasm for the job and your client, by inviting them to engage you to do the extra work.
I think clients really want to have their problems solved, and this is how I go about meeting that need. What do you think clients want most? And how do you make sure you deliver it?