Every business needs customers, or in the case of creative entrepreneurs, clients. Without your clients you don’t have a business. And so managing the client relationship is essential to running your business. And client relationships, like all relationships, can be complicated. You have to take care of client relationships—because your clients, ultimately, take care of you.
Managing your creative business involves four distinct roles. The production role—which is the creative part you already know, the administrative role which we covered last week, the new business role, and the client service role—which is our topic for today. When we think about managing clients, or managing projects, we’re operating in the context of a professional relationship. And while there are certain expectations for professionalism in these contexts, we need to always remember professionals are still people. And people have a wide range of temperaments, expectations, habits, and histories. And as people we all fail, make mistakes, forget things, become fearful, and sometimes angry.
In dealing with your clients, you’ve probably encountered people in all sorts of circumstances, and contextes. You’ve basked in their admiration and appreciation when they affirm a job well done, and you may have been crushed by their rejection of your work, and a threat of taking their business elsewhere. Intensifying these relational dynamics, in the context of a creative business, is the issue of artistic identity I talked about in episode 13. Because we identify so closely with our work, when clients express dissatisfaction, we’re likely to take it more personally than we should.
And so if we’re going to become adept at client service, we’re going to have to separate our personal feelings from our professional delivery. Managing ourselves, as we manage clients and projects, is the first challenge in client service.
But assuming we can keep our own reactions in check when the clients demands the bigger logo, or simply isn’t responding to our vision, we still have a big challenge outside of managing our own reactions. We have to manage the relationship as a whole, which includes managing them. Managing a client relationship goes way beyond presenting our work to them. It involves responsiveness to communication, predictability when it comes to billing and invoicing, coordinating schedules, and many other points of contact where critical trust can be either built or lost.
So as you work with your clients, remember first of all that they are people. There will inevitably be conflicts or tensions in your professional relationship. When things get tense, keep this tip in mind—never react to a person in the midst of a conflict. Rather, slow down your breathing, count to ten, and carefully think about a proper response, instead of an immediate and instinctive reaction. Responding thoughtfully, rather than reacting has diffused countless conflicts.
Another practice I’ve found helpful is to conceive of each relationship as though it had a trust account—and then pay attention to the rising or dropping balance in that account. The more trust you have, the easier it is to resolve conflicts, the less you have the harder it is. And bear in mind at the outset of a project a client has likely paid you a deposit, but you haven’t done anything yet. That puts you in the red in the trust account. But by the end of an engagement, when you’ve almost completed the work, but they still have to pay the final invoice, that trust account slides in the other direction. Having a sense of where the trust level is can help you think through your responses.
Next week we’ll move on to the new business role of managing your creative practice: and so until then, don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.