Helen is the Creative Director at Ads R Us Advertising Agency. Beyond her talent at creating the kind of ads that get people talking, she prides herself on her unwavering dedication to her clients.
When Linda, the Advertising Director at Wow Widgets, calls at 4:59 PM and asks to have a big project completed by 9:00 AM the next morning, Helen blows off her dinner plans and works late into the night. When Linda calls her on her cell phone on Saturday, Helen interrupts her walk on the treadmill to talk strategy with her for 20 minutes. And as she drops her kids off at school each morning, Helen typically finds herself texting messages back and forth with Linda, addressing a string of Linda’s urgent concerns. Gradually, over time, Helen starts to feel intruded upon by Linda. So when Linda asks her to work all July 4th weekend to generate additional creative concepts, Helen politely declines. The next thing she knows, Helen is sitting in her boss’ office being dressed down for ticking off an important client. How did so many good deeds lead Helen here?
Ironically, the very things Helen did to please her client, were exactly what caused her to get angry with Helen. While I hate to blame the victim, it was Helen who trained Linda in what to expect from her, then fell short of the very expectations she had created.
So is it possible to have both a happy client and a life?
You bet. You have the power to mold your client’s expectations. But, in order to create a partnership that will serve you both, you must take a thoughtful and proactive role in ensuring that the shape the relationship will take is, first, well defined and, secondly, consistently reinforced. Ideally, you will kick things off by establishing the rules of engagement and creating a good vibe. Then, once the relationship has been established and is ongoing, you must walk the talk–in other words, consistently behave in a way that reinforces the expectations that you’ve worked so hard to create. These are the key areas into which you will want to make inroads.
Set the tone. The message you want to put across is this: I am your partner. Rather than establishing a client-vendor relationship, this is your chance to turn “you” and “me” into “we.” Let the client know that you have shared interests and will always word toward the same outcome.
Clarify the particulars of communication. Without discussion, your client will assume that you communicate exactly as she does. So nail it down: Will you meet weekly? Talk on the phone every morning? Email as issues come up throughout the day? How will you formally disseminate information on the status of projects? How long should each of you expect to wait for a response from the other? How will you ensure that significant communications are captured and signed off on in writing?
Define roles. Describe the role that each team member will play. This is a golden opportunity to create a favorable image of your team and its capabilities. For example, maybe Helen will handle the conceptual development, but Linda can go directly to Jade–the far more specialized and accessible copywriter–for copy changes.
Discuss how decisions will be made and by whom. Clarify who is authorized to make decisions on both sides. Can Linda sign off on ads before they go into production or does she need her boss’ okay? Can Helen negotiate fees or is that for others to handle? Understanding the parameters of authority will save time and avoid confusion and frustration.
Talk timing. Inform your client about realistic turnaround times required for typical tasks and address the implications of missed deadlines. Having a written timetable, even for small projects, ensures that everyone is working from the same page. Importantly, creating a timetable forces you to look at the individual steps involved in a project, which helps educate your client as to the work involved. If a timetable for a print ad includes two rounds of copy revisions, your client will not expect ten.
Set boundaries. Within the confines of what your industry and company deem acceptable, give yourself permission to manage your time in terms of work hours/workdays and when you handle phone calls, email and other interruptions. Remember: what you do is always more powerful than what you say, so if you don’t want your client to expect you to answer her emails the second you receive them, don’t answer her emails the second you receive them. If you don’t want to work weekends, consider the consequences before you do it just this once.
Educate your client about possible changes/obstacles. If there are relatively common snafus that arise with projects, better to float the possibility up front than have your client experience an unpleasant surprise later on. You’ll want to be careful, however, in how you frame it. Put across your experience in handling such obstacles and telegraph: We’re on top of it and it will all be okay.
Don’t over-promise. Particularly in the process of wooing a new client, you may find yourself saying “yes” to absolutely everything. Don’t! While it’s tempting to do, the more realistic your commitments are, the fewer unrealistic demands and disappointments later.
Role model. Treat your client as you would have her treat you. If you want meetings to start on time, make sure that you are always on time. If you don’t want last minute requests, don’t make them of her. If you don’t want after-hours calls, don’t make them.