If you work remotely, either for yourself or an employer, you know communication can be an issue. This is compounded when it comes to working with clients who have hired you (or your company) to perform a service. With your own team you probably have a standard routine: maybe you have a Slack channel, a daily check-in, a weekly progress report email. But how about with clients? Some want to call you every five minutes to see how their project is coming along, and some you don’t hear from for weeks.
So what is your responsibility as a service provider to initiate communication with your client?
You do have a responsibility here. Somebody who is paying for a service — whether that service is design, writing, development, or basket weaving — expects a certain standard of professionalism with that service.
You’re not just a UX designer. You’re a customer service representative. Whether you’re representing a creative agency you work for or just your own brand as a sole proprietor, you have a responsibility to the client who, at the end of the day, is your customer, plain and simple.
One thing inexperienced freelancers have a tendency to do is let the client call all the shots. You’re just thrilled they want to pay you for your services. But this is a mistake. Not only does it set up an improper balance of power (where you’re getting the short end of the stick), it’s simply not good client service. You, friend, are the service provider. You should approach a client with confidence and authority, with the reassurance that you know what you’re doing and you’re going to guide them through your process.
If you work for an agency you may get off easier here, because you probably have a project manager or similar teammate who handles much of the face-to-face with clients. But if you’re a solo provider, this is all on you.
If a client has approached you through your website or social media looking for a service provider, you should step up into a position of authority and set the tone for the relationship going forward. Your job is to make this easy on the customer. They came to you because they need something done that they don’t know how to do. You do. You’re the expert.
Making it easy means doing some legwork, sometimes. Your client shouldn’t have to email you every week to ask for an update. Now, that doesn’t mean you should call him every day to tell him what’s going on. So what’s the happy medium?
You should first tell the client up front what to expect from you. Presumably you have a contract (you do have a contract, right?) and Statement of Work (SOW) that will at least give a framework for timeframes and work to be performed. We suggest also creating a separate document of milestones and touch points with clearly defined points in the timeframe for client contact — that is, points where you will contact the client proactively and without any action required from them. Put these in writing, and be sure you each have a copy.
This way the client will have a clear schedule to refer to, and so will you. Then be sure to honor that schedule! You’ve now made a promise, be sure to keep it.
Getting to know you
If you’ve never worked with a particular client before, you won’t know their personality and work style. Maybe they’re the type who wants to wash their hands of this and let you do your job. Maybe they’re micromanagers who want updates every day. It’s important to set boundaries; yes, you want to gain your client’s trust and show them that you are giving them your best, but you do not owe hourly updates to anybody. Be clear about what the milestones are and that you will be contacting the client at each of those milestones with an update (and then be sure you do so).
As you get to know the client, you’ll start to get a feel for them and what they need to feel comfortable. If you’re lucky enough to work with the guy who doesn’t want to hear from you until it’s done, great. That’s probably going to be pretty easy for you. Still, make a point to check in periodically according to your scheduled milestones. Don’t wait for them to panic and call you, and don’t go in a direction that you’re not sure about because they haven’t called to ask if you have questions. It’s your job to go to the client with questions if they arise.
On the other hand, if your client is the high-touch type who wants to know what’s going on every moment, be agreeable but firm. Explain that you are busy working on his project and that you will be sure to let them know if you have any problems or questions. Refer to the SOW and list of milestones, and frame those milestones as “points of contact” where you will be checking in with updates.
With a client like this, it’s helpful to rephrase their questions and concerns and couch them in answers that show you hear and understand what they’re saying. Remember: be confident, be authoritative, but be an excellent listener.
You may want to take it upon yourself to give this client a call or shoot them an email a little more often than you’d promised, just to keep them happy and reassured. But do set boundaries and feel free to send their calls to voicemail if they become excessive and begin to interfere with your work. If you’ve followed all of these steps and feel your duty to communicate is fulfilled, you should not compromise your own work in order to cater to a needy client. A client who can’t trust you to do your job may not be a client you want to work with again.
The best way to put an edgy client at ease, of course, is to finish the project on time and on budget. Early and under budget is even better. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are a customer service agent, and your job is to make this customer happy...within reason.