If you've ever been in a client-facing position--and I bet if you're reading this you have--it's pretty easy to differentiate between a good client relationship and a not-so-good one.
Good client relationships make you feel like a true partner to your client. They trust and listen to you, and you feel good about the work you do for them. As a result, your relationship builds and expands into bigger and better things, either through longevity, additional projects or business, or the biggest compliment--referrals to other clients.
But building a strong relationship goes beyond delivering on what your contract says, although that's of course crucial. Here are some tips to help you wow your clients every day and further boost your reputation as a strong partner.
1. Really Get to Know How They Work
In sports, there's a term for this: "KYP," meaning "know your personnel." Coaches spend hours dissecting their upcoming opponents' plays, patterns, strengths, and weaknesses to design an effective game plan.
The same goes for client relationships: Know what you're walking into so you can present yourself and your work effectively.
When you first make contact with a client, do your research on the company, team, past projects (if applicable), and the individual client contacts. This way, you go into your initial conversations with confidence, enthusiasm, and easy material to use to create a great first impression. For example, it never hurts to reference coverage of their new product in The Wall Street Journal, mention how fun their latest company retreat looked on Instagram, or discuss your mutual LinkedIn connections.
Part of getting to know your client is also about learning to speak their language. That may mean picking up industry-specific jargon if necessary, or reading the room to understand the appropriate tone and level of professionalism. It also means feeling out (or just straight up asking) what the best form of communication is. Do they prefer chatting by email, by phone, or in person? Do they tend to write longer messages or keep things short and sweet?
A great way to get to know your client from the start is to have a kick-off meeting in person. Going on-site gives you the opportunity to get a feel for the office culture and how their team communicates. If you can't go in person, suggest holding a video conference to get face time. Because while you can do all the research possible on someone, getting to know them organically is how you'll truly learn to work with them effectively--and avoid giving off stalker-like vibes.
2. Check in Frequently
Set regular check-ins (maybe every few days, once a week, or once every couple weeks) with your client during a project, and stay organized and respect one another's time by creating agendas. Check-in meetings should include project updates (even if the update is "business as usual"), and also time to walk through any pain points or questions that need to be addressed.
When you're in the neighborhood, it also never hurts to ask to stop by for a quick hello, a tour of the office, or a chance grab lunch (taking into consideration their busy schedule). Particularly if you work with clients in different states or parts of the country and you're traveling for business, make the time to see as many clients in the area as possible. This can be especially helpful after finishing a project as a way to acknowledge and even celebrate work well done, and can create a more casual space to ask for and engage in feedback (more on that below).
3. Ask for Feedback
Getting feedback isn't just for wrapping up finished projects. You should always be consistently and deliberately asking your client how you can improve the way you work together.
When you finish onboarding them, for example, give them a quick call to ask for feedback on how it went, what they liked about the process, and if there was anything that was challenging or could have been done differently. Not only do you show interest in their opinion and happiness, but you also learn valuable information for future clients you may onboard.
It's also important to state the obvious--tell your client upfront you are open to, and encourage, any and all feedback they have. Creating an open relationship where feedback is respected and shared freely sets a foundation for successful long-term partnerships.
Don't be afraid to ask for feedback from people outside your direct contacts either by asking questions like, "How did the rest of the team react to X?" or "What was the general consensus in your department about Y?"
And it's never too late to follow up--in fact, in some cases you may want to check in a while after the fact to see how the results panned out. For example, after you've finished a print job, check in a month later to see how the distribution went and how the materials were received, and if they noticed anything that they hadn't thought of at the time of completion.
The most important part? Make sure to actually take their feedback seriously and implement any changes that need to be made. If you can't necessarily fix or alter something, be honest and upfront about your limitations and offer instead to pass it along to other people who may be able to help.
4. Set Expectations and Deliver
It probably doesn't need to be said, but I'm going to anyway: Do what you say you're going to do, and deliver on what you promise a client. And don't just meet expectations--exceed them with incredible communication, energy, and results. Simple as that.
You can follow through by setting realistic expectations with your client from the start, from what you're going to actually deliver to how you're going to deliver it to how you're going to keep in contact throughout the relationship. This means understanding your own capabilities and timelines, and being honest with yourself if you have any limitations.
Then, be explicit with your client about what that all looks like from the start--both in person or on the phone as well as in writing via email or a formal document.
Let's also not forget a key ingredient to delivering and exceeding expectations--your attitude! Never underestimate the power of a calm, cool, collected, and positive attitude to instill confidence in your client. And a quick tip I carry with me from a summer job working at a luxury hotel: You can hear a smile over the phone.
5. Create Accountability
Great, we're all on the same page about delivering.
But what about your client? What are they responsible for? Partnership is a two-way street, and the best partners hold each other accountable.
So it's perfectly acceptable (and frankly crucial) to set clear expectations for your client. What deadlines do they need to meet? How should they communicate with you, and when are they allowed to contact you--are non-working hours off-limits? What specific tasks do they own in each process?
These should be set (and put into writing) from the very beginning of your relationship, and reaffirmed in each new stage you enter together.
An easy way to do this is to set timelines and strategies you both agree feel manageable and realistic for your respective workloads. Just as you need to be held accountable, when your client doesn't hold up their end of the bargain, don't be afraid to advocate for yourself, your team, and your work.
This of course can be done in a constructive and respectful way. For example, if your client isn't getting back to you with necessary feedback on a project, you can send the following email:
I'm following up on the feedback we're waiting for to move forward to phase two of the design project.
When we last spoke, we agreed you would provide feedback within a week of receiving design drafts. Does this timelines still work for you? If we need to adjust or extend the deadline let me know since we'll also need to readjust our overall project timeline, as we're not comfortable moving forward until we get the okay from you.
Let me know if you would like to jump on a call and we can strategize any changes we need to make.
Confronting a client to hold them accountable can be incredibly intimidating. But doing so actually makes them respect you more. When you take control of the relationship, you show organization, initiative, and confidence--all qualities of a great service specialist. And it leaves little room for mistakes, unexpected emotions, or the blame game should something fall through the cracks.
6. Embrace Your Role as the Expert
Trust is another key ingredient to a strong client relationship--and it's easily earned when you show yourself to be exceptionally qualified and self-assured in your craft.
Becoming the expert in the eyes of your client is really about more than just delivering on what you promised. It's done through showing you have broad industry knowledge that informs how you do your work.
For example, if you're a recruiter facilitating the hiring of an executive assistant for a startup, you might inform the client of the recruiting landscape and industry standards for compensation so they can create a competitive package for candidates.
Another great way to show you're an expert is to be an ongoing, reliable resource for them to ask questions and learn from you. This can be as simple as sending over an article you thought they might find interesting, or recommending an event they might like to attend, or connecting them with another expert in the space.
And sometimes being an expert means saying no--for example, when you can't deliver what they need or you need to push back when their expectations aren't aligned or are unrealistic.
Let's continue with the recruiting example. Maybe your client's expectations of experience and skill set of a candidate are not aligned with the compensation they're willing to offer. It's then your role to push back and educate them on what type of candidate they can expect for their price point. Even if it feels uncomfortable to do, it'll be much worse to let them continue on and ultimately fail in hiring someone.
7. Be a Stellar Communicator
Communication plays a pivotal role in building strong relationships with anyone, but especially with clients. And while we encourage leaning on the personal touch that face-to-face or phone conversations can provide, most of your communication will probably be done via email. So it's important to know how to effectively interact online.
Always write emails that are clear and concise. This means not rambling or providing information that's irrelevant, and keeping things short and to the point with a clear purpose or call to action. Also make sure the important stuff is close to the top (if not highlighted) so it can't be missed.
And this may be another "it goes without saying" moment, but don't forget to edit your emails for spelling and grammar--simple mistakes can have your client questioning your attention to detail or level of professionalism.
One last note about email communication: It's always best practice after any conversation with your client to recap what you understand the takeaways to be in an email. It ensures you know what needs to be done, leaves no room for confusion or surprises, and holds you both accountable.
8. Own Your Mistakes (and Be Solutions-Oriented)
Mistakes and mishaps are bound to happen--the key is how you bounce back from them.
That means addressing the issues right away (and apologizing if you're at fault), communicating clearly what's going on, coming up with real, thoughtful solutions to what went wrong, and following through on those solutions.
For example, let's say you're a publicist, and somehow your team misses the early-bird registration deadline to confirm a booth at the biggest tradeshow of the year for your client. As soon as you realize the mistake, regroup with your team, strategize a solution, and tell the client. It might sound something like this:
"I wanted to update you on our progress. We had an internal miscommunication and missed the booth registration deadline to lock in the cost we originally discussed, and now the cost is X. We know this is unacceptable, and sincerely apologize. We want you to know we've made some changes internally so this won't happen again, and we will incur the cost difference to register for a booth so you won't see any changes to the budget."
9. Be Yourself
Remember: You were hired because your boss, company, and client believed you were the right person for the job. So embrace that.
Plus, people tend to catch on when you aren't being yourself. When you operate with authenticity, people know what to expect from you in terms of communication and the type of support you can provide, and it allows you to create actual connections that last in the long term.
10. Don't Just Be All Business
Yes, you were hired to complete work of some sort, and a huge part of a successful client relationship is about getting that work done--and well. But strong client relationships that grow and withstand setbacks are built on genuine connection, not just transactions.
It's all in the small details--like offering recommendations on places to visit for an upcoming vacation and then remembering to check in to see how that trip went. Or acknowledging accomplishments that have nothing to do with your work together, like their recent promotion or a speaking engagement they participated in. Or sending them a card over the holidays or when they have a baby.
Clients are people first and foremost. When you treat them as such--and not just as vehicles to hit your goals or make money--you instantly make yourself stand out from the pack.
I can't tell you that following these tips to a T will guarantee that all your clients stick around for the long haul. Even the best client managers lose out on key relationships for reasons outside of their control--like budgeting issues or priority shifts.
But good client managers also recognize that delivering is about more than just hanging on to a client--it's about maintaining a positive reputation that encourages people to maybe return one day or spread the word to others. That's what makes these actions worthwhile.