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4 Keys to Perfect Client Service Every Freelancer Must Know

4 Keys of Perfect Client Service Every Freelancer Must Know

Delivering excellent client service is crucial for your business and career. Your reputation is only as good as your client’s last experience from working with you. Luckily, there are many keys or tips you can use to improve client’s experience. And, as a result, provide excellent client service. In this article, I will share with you four of these keys. I hope these keys will help you find a way to improve your current client service. Without further ado, let’s begin.

Key no.1: Never lie

The number one key for excellent client service is being always honest with your clients. It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable the situation is. It doesn’t matter that if you tell the truth it can cost you the project. Never lie. There are no exceptions to this rule. What’s more, if you screw up something, be the one who will tell it to your client. Don’t wait until she will find it out. Otherwise, you will have to later deal with much bigger problems. Talk about your mistakes and don’t wait.

Key no.2: Respond as soon as possible

Let’s say you just landed new client. Everything looks great. The project is challenging and you like to work on it. Your client also looks more than happy with your work. From time to time, she will send you a message with a couple of requirements. You take reply to her and change what is necessary. Everything changes after you finish the project. When you ask her whether she wants to work with you on the future projects, the answer is “No”.

You don’t understand it. Your work was exceptional and you did everything she wanted. You have no idea about where you made a mistake. This is something that can happen to many freelancers. Chance are that the reason may not be on the “hard” side of your work, quality of your work. The real reason may be on the “soft” side, quality of your client service. Specifically, the cause can be too long response rate. Ask yourself: “How long does it take you to reply on client’s mail?”

Let’s say your client asks you to make some changes. Your immediate reaction? You disappear for a couple of days and immerse yourself in work. After a while your client will start to worry about the project. She gets in touch with you to ask you about the progress of the project. Even when she contacts you, it usually takes you about two days to respond. Do you see the mistake? I hope so. If not, you are probably doing the same mistake.

Clients can’t read your thoughts

The example I describe above is illustrates how I used to work about a year ago. I would contact my client usually twice a week. One exception was if she wanted to make some changes. Yet, even then I remained relatively silent. I would do the work and got in touch with her at usual schedule – twice a week. Sometimes, I would not even let her know that I made the changes. I know, this is just horrible client service. What was I thinking? Maybe I thought that she will read my thoughts.

The truth is that clients can’t read your thoughts, at least the majority of them can’t. This is a problem because we often think they can. Clients usually want to know about the progress of the project. They also want to know if you made the changes they wanted. Neither of these needs will be met if you don’t communicate with them. You have to explicitly say that you made all the changes that were required. Otherwise, your client service will start to suffer.

Reply immediately or ASAP

His brings me to the second key to excellent client service. Your response time has to be short. If you want to provide excellent client service, you have to reduce your response time. There is no way around it. Is your standard response time two days? Good luck with that. You may achieve good client service. However, it will be nothing your clients will want to talk about with their friends. If this is what you want, forget about responding in “just” two days.

My first tip is to set one day as a maximum time for replying to your client. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to your client to reply. Your maximum response time is one day. Related to that is my second tip: don’t make any excuses. It is tempting to respond in two days because your client does it too. Remember, you have your own standards. Follow them. Never break them. Third tip is to reply to your client immediately when you see you have new mail from her. This doesn’t mean that you have to know the answer right on the spot.

At this moment, your goal is just let your client know that you got her mail and you are working on it. Remember, she can’t read your thoughts. Therefore, she can’t know whether you read that mail or not. Let her know that you read it. When you find the answer, reply again. Don’t be afraid of communicating too much. There is nothing like that. Even if you send your clients 50 emails, it is still okay. It may look a little bit weird. Yet, it is better than not communicating at all. Even if you overdo it with emails, your client will appreciate your effort.

Go beyond response time

Excellent client service requires much more than just incredibly short response time. Your service has to also have some quality. It doesn’t matter that you respond to your client in an hour. If your response sucks and it is not helpful for your clients, it will never work. In other words, you have to establish and maintain standards for both, the response time and quality of your response. This means that when your response must be helpful and easy to understand.

Every time you answer client’s question it has to meet these two criteria. Your answer must fully answer client’s question. Your client should not need to ask you again the question, or some variation of it. Make sure your answer is descriptive enough. I understand that you may like to respond in shorter form. I like that too. Many of my emails usually contain only two or three words. Yet, when my client asks me on something, I will ignore this tendency.

If it is necessary to explain something in seven paragraphs, then be it. It is usually much better to provide more information than less. However, this doesn’t mean that you should just copy and paste some lengthy article from MDN, Stackoverflow or W3School. Your answer also has to be easy to understand. If your client can’t understand your answer, it will not help her. Therefore, explain everything in simplest terms that even your grandma could understand it. If you are really good at what you are doing, this simplification should be easy.

Key no.3: Stick to deadlines

I hope you are good with time and project management. Why? The reason is that third key to perfect client service is sticking to deadlines. We discussed this topic of sticking to deadlines in one of previous articles. For this reason, I will do my best to keep it short today. First, you have to understand one thing. Setting clear deadlines and meeting them is crucial for perfect client service. You can’t be seen as professional unless you deliver on your promise. Failure to comply with deadlines is often mentioned complaint related to client service. Clients don’t like that.

Second, you have to be willing to experiment. Getting good with estimating deadlines and creating schedule requires practice. Chances are quite high that you will not be successful on the first try. This is normal, so don’t get discouraged by it. With time and practice you will get better at estimating how much time each phase of the project will take. Unfortunately, there might be two problems with this approach. First, it can be too slow. Let’s say you are working on a smaller number of projects. Then, you will need more time to train your skill to estimate the deadlines.

Simulation as a way to practice

The second problem is that you may not want to test your skills on real clients and projects. You want to improve your estimating skills. However, you probably don’t want to jeopardize the quality of your current client service. For this reason, I would suggest following: set aside some time to work on side projects. Side projects have many benefits and can help you accelerate your career. For now, side projects can help you train your estimation skills by simulating real projects.

The first step is to take a look at the client projects you are working on the most often. The second step is to use these real projects as a template for creating fake projects. The third step is to do approach these fake projects as you would the real ones. Meaning, estimate the time necessary to complete the whole project first. Second, split this estimate into smaller deadlines and create a schedule. Write everything down so you can analyze it later. Third, get to work.

When you finish this fake project, compare the real results with your estimates. Run these experiments couple times and you will start to see where your weakest spots are. This method can help you significantly improve your estimation skills and polish your client service. However, there is one rule you have to keep in mind. Normal practice will work only for certain time. Then, you will hit the plateau. If you want to avoid this, you should focus on deliberate practice. You should also introduce some variation into your side projects.

The importance of variation in your simulations

What I mean is that you should not blindly imitate your real projects. This will help you improve your client service only to some degree. The idea is that you want to practice your estimation skills on large sample of situations. What is the probability that you real projects will introduce these variations. It is very low. Therefore, you have to do it artificially. What variations or random changes are we talking about? Basically everything that could possibly happen during the project.

For example, your client may decide to completely change the project brief. Or, she may tell you that she needs to finish the project in less time. Another, random change can be change in design direction. Your client can also decide to drop some parts of the project. Or, she may decide to increase the size of the project. The original scope of your work was seven pages. This is no longer true. Now, you will have to design website with 15 pages. Unfortunately, you will have to do it in the same time. Is it extreme? Yes. Is it impossible? No.

Whether you like this scenario or not, it can happen. Have you ever worked in or for some bigger design agency? In case you did, you probably know how chaotic work in deign agency can be. Imagine that you wake up in the morning and open your mailbox. The email is from your client. She completely changed her requirements for the project. Now you will have to say your employees that they can start from all over again. Again, this can happen. Yet, the majority of freelancers are not prepared for it. You can bulletproof your client service by simulating it.

Deadlines, schedule, planning and management

The last aspect of sticking to the deadlines is planning and keeping your schedule and using the right tools. There are two quotes related to planning and managing your schedule that are great for situation. The first quote is by Winston Churchill:“He who fails to plan is planning to fail.” The second quote is either by Peter Drucker or Lord Kelvin: “What gets measure gets managed.” For now, it is not important for us who said it first. Important is what we can learn from these quotes.

Let’s start with the first quote. What we can learn from this quote is pretty straightforward. We should always plan our work. If we skip planning, it is the same as if we decided to fail. Some people will probably think that this statement is taken to the extreme. Yet, I believe that conscious planning is crucial for excellent client service and results. The core message of the second quote is simple as well. If we want to manage something, we have to measure it first.

What I mean is that we need to know how are we doing right now before we can improve it. Let me put it in other words. You have to know where you are before you can find the way to the final destination. Imagine that you want to travel to Rome. How will you get there? The answer is: “it depends.” It depends on the place from which you want to begin. If you are in New York, you will follow different road than someone who is in Prague. Therefore, you have to start to monitor your schedule. Then, you will be also able to train estimating skills.

The difference between amateurs and professionals

Careful planning and creating a schedule is also one of the things that distinguishes professionals from amateurs. Professional will be able to estimate how much time will every part of the work need. This may be true also for more experienced amateurs. The difference between professional and amateur will be visible at the end of the work. Chances are that professional will finish the work either on time or even sooner. Amateur, on the other hand, will be behind the schedule and need additional time to get the work done.

Why professional will get work done on time while amateur will not? Why professional have an advantage to provide much better client service? There are at least two possible answers that can explain this. The first answer is skills. It is logical. Professional with significant amount of experience will have skills on higher level. Yet, I don’t think that this is the ultimate explanation. The second answer is planning. Professional knows how to split the whole project into smaller and more manageable parts. Professional also knows how much time will each part need.

This is, I think, the key difference between professional and amateur. It is also the difference average and excellent client service. Amateur not used to planning will approach the project as one big chunk. Based on his approach, he will roughly estimate time needed to finish it. Professional will approach the project as one set composed of smaller chunks. He will estimate time needed for each chunk and then calculate the time for the whole project. Case solved.

What’s worse, amateur is prone to becoming paralyzed. Since he approaches the project as a whole, he is under much bigger pressure than professional. If he can’t cope with it, it is more likely he will miss the deadline.

Creative craft, routines, schedule and planning

In case of creative craft there is the paradox of being creative and having a process. Significant number of people believe in one myth about creativity. If something is based on creativity, one must avoid following any process or routine. Let’s take design as an example. Design is largely based on creativity. This is something we all can agree on. You will have a hard time creating exceptional work without creativity. If that hypothesis is true, designers should avoid routines.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it doesn’t work. The most successful people in creative disciplines have often days filled with routines. These people couldn’t be successful if that hypothesis was true. If we look at these people and how they structure their daily lives the conclusion is clear. Creativity requires creating structures, processes and habits in order to flourish. Is it possible that you may need to create a couple of new routines and habits?

I think that one of the reasons why this myth exists is that people think that creativity is related to chaos. The problem is that creativity is not the same as chaos. Creativity is also not related to lack of structure or order. Yes, creativity often happens almost accidentally. However, there is something hidden from sight. The truth is that these creative accidents happen only after we give our ideas some time to grow, connect with other ideas and evolve.

When you work creatively, you are taking bunch of dots and connecting them together. You are creating structure from mess. Your might be working with chaos, but it is not chaos itself. Your work is based on process.

Key no.4: Do excellent work

The fourth key to perfect client service is doing excellent work. You probably heard about the approach of under promising and over delivering. Many freelancers are using this approach every day in their businesses. In most of situations and for the majority of freelancers, this approach will do the job. I think that this approach is not the best practice for people aiming higher. The problem is in the first part, under promise. I believe that under promising is the enemy of excellent work.

We are used to under promising

The great danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling too short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. This is one of the quotes I love. It attributed to famous artist Michelangelo and we all should learn from it. All too often you are setting our standards too low. You take on a new project, but you don’t want to push ourselves and our skills too much. As a result, you under promise. You know that you will need somewhere about 30 days to complete the web design, in the worst case. Yet, you tell your client that you will need 37 days.

Another example can be coding a website. You know that you will need plus or minus 12 days to code the mockups. Still, you tell our client that you can’t get it done in less than 16 days. Maybe you did the same thing at school or College. You knew that you will need one week to write down the essay. Yet, you asked the teacher for twice as much time. Or, how often have you accepted some task just to add that you “can’t promise that you will make it work”? It is all the same story. In all the examples above, we were under promising.

As you can see on these few examples, many of us are used to under promising. This is not a surprise. Many of us were using this method from the early stages of our life. And, when we repeated it often, it became a habit. To make this habit even stronger, we like to think that under promising is a good thing. Just take a look at the number of posts about under promising and over delivering.

The problem with under promising

The problem is that under promising is a terrible philosophy. What’s worse, under promising is one of the best ways to mediocre client service. When you start to under promise, one thing will happen. Your clients will soon start to question you in one of two ways. First, they will start to wonder if you are really bad at estimating the amount of time it takes to do a job. Second, they will start to wonder if you are really as good as you say you are or if you are just faking it. In other words, your clients will start to question your competency.

The whole situation will get worse if your client will find out the truth. Let’s say that your client will reach out to another professional. Then, he will ask her how much time should the job really take to complete. It will be quite a surprise for your client to find out that you should need only 12 days, not 16. When this happens, you can forget about providing perfect client service. Working with that client on another project in the future will be out of question as well. Now, you are a liar.

We should think about under promising as a type of cheap shortcut. This shortcut is meant to help us avoid setting to high expectations. It may work in the short run. However, we should think about the consequences under promising will have in more distant future. These consequences do more harm than good. In other words, this shortcut will not work. Yet, this doesn’t mean that you should over promise and then fail. In that case, you demonstrate two things. First, you cannot be relied upon. Second, you have no idea how to budget your time or resources.

The danger of under delivering and lowering your standards

Let’s briefly discuss the omnipresent danger of under delivering. Everyone who worked on a couple of projects knows how easy it is to give in to temptation and lower her standards. This temptation is quite strong in the moments when we are stressed or depressed. You are working seven days a week. The project, you are currently working on, looks like an endless. It took already double the time than you estimated. What’s worse, your client is constantly coming up with new comments and request. Each day, you are closer and closer to the edge.

In moments such as this, you may start to think about taking a couple of shortcuts here and there. What’s wrong with that? Nobody will know about it. You might be right. You may get away with it. However, there will still be at least one person who will know about it. This person is You. Every single time you will take a look in the mirror, you will see the face of a cheater. You will see the face of someone who is willing to jeopardize when things go tough. There is also another problem with occasionally lowering your standards.

You do it once, you do it twice and before you realize it, it will become a habit. Before you realize it, half-assing your work will become your daily routine. What’s more, it is likely that you will become known as someone delivering poor results. You will get less work opportunities and your previous and also potential clients will start to avoid you. Soon, all your reputation will be gone and your business will start to suffer. The question is: are you willing to take this risk?

Excellence is a habit

Let’s end this section positively. As we previously discussed, you transform half-assing your work and mediocre performance into habit. In a fact, we can transform almost everything we do into habit. This also means that you can do the opposite and transform that into habit. What this means for you? First, you have to decide to deliver excellent results every time no matter what. Second, you have to make this your routine. You have to repeat it over and over again and make sure you will never break this routine. Think about it as one of your personal values.

Does it sound too hard? Well, that might be one of the reason why only a few people in the world are doing it. I’m pretty sure you heard about some of them. These people are the top performers who are constantly pushing the limits. People willing to make excellence a habit are usually those who have to reject clients. You read it right. They have to reject projects and money because they simply can’t handle any more work. What’s more, this applies also to situations when market is weak and clients hesitate to pay. These people have still full schedule.

Many of us, if not every one, wants to be among them. We are constantly looking for some secret sauce or tool. We like to believe that’s all this is just a matter of talent or magic. Let me tell you one thing. Neither of these things are real. There is no talent and there is no magic. There is just daily hard work and constant pursuit of excellence. Nothing more and nothing less. Do you want to become member of this club? You know what to do: stop talking and start working.

Closing thoughts on the keys to perfect client service

That’s it. Now you know the four keys for providing excellent client service. Sure, there is a lot of other things you can do. However, these four are at least a good way to start. Let’s quickly recap. Key number one is to always speak truth. Even if you find yourself on the bottom, don’t lie to your clients. Second key is to keep your response time as low as possible. One day should be your maximum. When you get an email from your client, let him immediately know you read it.

Remember that your client can’t read your thoughts. She will not know what you don’t tell. Also, make sure you give your client answers that are useful and easy to understand. Your client is not an expert. Simplify it. The third key is to stick to deadlines. This is the difference between amateur and professional. Professional know how much time the work will take. Then, he will deliver on time. Train your estimation skills on personal projects. Learn how to split the whole project into individual parts and milestones. Then, find out how long each part takes.

The fourth key is to set high standards for yourself and your work. You have to always deliver excellent results. What’s more, say it explicitly. Forget about under promising and over delivering. That’s philosophy of underachievers and losers. Be proud on your excellent work, use it as your advantage. Also, never lower your standards. You do it once, then again and again. Before you realize it, it will become a habit. Fortunately, excellence can become a habit too. Focus on that. Remind yourself this daily and keep up the great work!

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