When you think about providing service to your clients, do you ever fear that you’re being regarded as a mere order taker? Have you ever felt pushed around by a client making demands to “just make the logo bigger?” There is a strong tension between the creative part of what we do and the service part.
Of course this tension is not unique to creatives. Every professional working in the fields of professional service wrestles with the tension between the desire to be treated professionally and the need to be responsive to their client’s needs.
Bad Clients Can Make Service Intolerable
These tensions are intensified when we encounter bad clients. Bad clients tend to focus almost exclusively on how much things will cost, rather than on the value delivered. Bad clients imagine that they could “do it themselves” if they only had the time—and therefore perceive us as merely an extra set of hands. Bad clients are self-absorbed, demanding your attention the instant they need it, and then when you need their input—crickets.
If Only They Were All Good Clients
Really good clients, on the other hand, value what you do, they’re willing to pay for value, and they really listen to your insights and recommendations. They respect your time, responding to your communications in a timely manner. No doubt, our ability to serve a client well depends in large part on the quality of the client.
And so you need to be careful as you qualify prospects, and learn to spot the tells that reveal a bad prospect. You might want to read my past article, When to Say “No” to a Prospective Client or listen to episode 74 of my podcast, “How to Avoid Toxic Clients” for some tips on improving your qualification skills.
Great Service Depends On You
But in this article I want to explore our side in the creative service transaction. Because while a bad client can make service a nightmare, and a good client can make it a joy, we still have to learn how to provide service effectively. Any latent distaste for being a servant on our part, can end up becoming the cause of our own frustrations in serving clients.
The label “servant” can have negative connotations. We tend to associate servanthood with being taken advantage of, or being treated with contempt. That might be due to the fact that we’re so often confronted with really bad experiences of customer service. Just try calling the Internal Revenue Service if you want a case study in horrific service. It’s ironic that “Service” is even a part of their name. Infernal Revenue Star-Chamber is more like it.
But on the other hand, when we encounter excellent service, that stands out and we marvel—again, probably because we so rarely find it. If you’ve ever been to Disney World you will find the mirror image of the IRS. Disney provides highly optimized, well-trained, and exceptional service. If you deliver IRS-like service you will ensure that you have plenty of disgruntled clients, and their negative reactions will reinforce your hatred of service. But if you provide Disney-like service, you’ll build a client base that raves about your company, and who express genuine appreciation for all you do.
Service Does Not Mean Order Taking
Becoming great at client service does not mean checking your brain at the door and picking up a pad to start collecting orders. In fact, the better you are at client service, the more your clients will appreciate your professional insights and respond to your leadership. Excellent service builds trust, and trust is essential for leadership. So counter-intuitively, the better a servant you are, the more effective your leadership can be.
So how can you improve your service? I’m going to offer a few general categories to explore in cultivating new skills, but my first and best recommendation is to pick up a copy of Harry Beckwith’s, Selling the Invisible. I’ve referenced this book many times before, but Beckwith’s insights and practical observations on what it means to demonstrate trust are pure gold.
Blocking and Tackling
Being great at service starts with the basics. You need to be organized, you need to watch your schedule, and you need to communicate proactively. Organization and communication demonstrate dependability. If you want to be regarded as a creative professional, then you have to act professionally. Your own self-management will enable you to manage your clients needs, and increase their trust.
It takes a lot of work to maintain an organized practice. And in today’s day and age this effort will almost certainly involve using systems to help. And so you need to learn how to manage your inbox. You need to use a time tracker—not just for billing—but to evaluate all your time usage so that you can optimize your productivity. You also might need to use systems such as Slack, or other project management systems.
Creatives tend not to be systems people, and we also tend to shy away from structure and organization. If that’s you, I would strongly consider hiring a virtual assistant to help you with this part of your business. You can’t provide great work, and dependable service if you don’t get organized.
Much of your actual creative work happens behind-the-scenes and between your ears. Your clients can’t see that, and they can’t measure it. All they see is the final layout, not all the labor that went into it. The same goes for all the non-creative services that enable your creative work. They can’t see you working on a schedule, answering emails, or evaluating your time resources. And so whenever possible, you should find ways of expressing these efforts in some form of concrete deliverable. If you put together a project plan, take a little extra time to take a screenshot and email it to your client. If you answer a question for them verbally, take a few minutes to follow up with an email that reviews what you covered. Every time you provide something concrete you give expression to the invisible work you do for them every day.
Be Clear and Consistent about Costs
Talking about money can feel awkward, but you must overcome that. Being crystal clear about costs, and about your billing practices, is so important for building and maintaining trust. Never surprise your client with an unexpected invoice. If they request things that are out of scope work, raise the flag immediately and fill them in on the extra costs. If a project is going to go over budget, give them plenty of notice and explanation.
Unexpected changes in costs have wildly disproportionate effects than the actual amount of money involved. Everyone hates being overcharged, or feeling like a bait and switch has been pulled on them. It doesn’t really matter how much money is involved, it’s the principle. And so make sure that you serve your clients by always being clear about costs, and then being consistent in your billing.
There are of course thousands of other recommendations that can help you improve your services. But if you’re going to up your service game, the first step is simply coming to terms with how important the service part of creative services really is.