We all have clients. Whether you’re in a corporate setting, a supplier or consultancy, or work independently or freelance, your clients are your bosses, team leaders, functional heads, customers, and other stakeholders. We’ve all experienced a spectrum of positive and negative client experiences, and by taking a closer look at these ups and downs—and evaluating what works and what doesn’t—I’ve identified three steps you can take to build better clients:
1. Build a Better Brief
The biggest disappointments in client relationships tend to come from missed expectations. Perhaps they weren’t stated clearly by the client, understood clearly by the person doing the work, or, sometimes, the client hasn’t taken the time to think through what they really do want. In any case, a better brief can help.
Depending on your specific role, a brief could be a request for proposal, a creative brief, a project charter, etc. Whatever form it takes, there are a few critical questions that should always be addressed:
2. Build in Enough Time
A common mistake in creating project timelines is to underestimate the time required for activities outside the project itself. These include things like: upfront briefing and alignment, check-ins and updates along the way, reviews and feedback (potentially multiple rounds), and follow ups after initial project completion. The consequence of not building in adequate time for these things ranges from missed deadlines to compromised quality to going over budget—or getting underpaid.
To increase the accuracy of your timelines, draw on past project experience (your own and/or getting input from other team members) and think through the times that felt rushed, required trade-offs, and were otherwise unanticipated time-draws. This isn’t about creating padded or unnecessarily long timelines; by planning for these connection and feedback points up front, you can often be more efficient overall, or at least more accurate.
If you’re in a consulting or supplier role, try keeping track of time spent by type of activity (e.g. project work vs. client meetings, etc.) and keep a record for each project, which will help you better estimate for future projects over time. Regularly updating project timelines with actual dates and keeping them on file for future reference will help in corporate settings.
Robust, accurate and well-planned project timelines set appropriate expectations up front with clients, allow clients to be better prepared to provide inputs and feedback, and allow you to delight clients by delivering on time, as promised.
3. Build Relationships
Chatting and small talk don’t come naturally to everyone (myself included), but spending a bit of time on pleasantries adds an element of human connection that not only makes interactions more enjoyable, but also increases trust and sharing—and increases the odds that you’ll get the benefit of the doubt if needed. Remember when you’re writing an email that there’s an actual person on the other end and use a more conversational tone when appropriate. Open a phone call or in-person meeting with a couple of minutes of informal conversation. Gauge your audience of course—some people will be eager to get down to business and others would be happy to talk about their hobbies or kids for hours, but a sincere interest in your client as a person tends to go a long way.
Understand and respect their professional context and preferences as well. Find out how they prefer to communicate, certain days or times that are best to reach them or other facts that will make your communication more efficient and customized. Getting some context on who their key clients are, the priority of the project within their total responsibilities or within the overall organization, etc. will allow you to appear savvy and in-touch as well as helping you become a go-to, strategic business partner.
Practice professional empathy with your clients. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand their motivations and priorities. This can help you proactively tailor messages and deliverables and give you context to understand feedback and reactions. You’ll obviously invest more in building relationships with clients who are ongoing business partners or regular customers, but practice these approaches on a smaller scale with potential or new clients, in a sincere and authentic way, and they might just end up becoming ongoing clients (or key internal advocates) as well!
Some friends came over this past weekend and brought a strategy/building game I had never played before. They gave me the basics of the rules to start, then I figured out the rest as we played. Perhaps because I didn't know all of the rules or I was new to the game, I made several moves that the others questioned or advised me against. Call it intuitiveness—or stubbornness—but I proceeded with those plays anyway. And I won the game.
It's common enough for first time game-players to win and when they do, we call it beginner’s luck (at least the annoyed, more experienced players do.) Reflecting on this experience, I couldn't help but think of the connection to innovation. How many times have we seen startups ignore or break “the rules” and end up disrupting entire industries? How many stories have we heard (apocryphal or otherwise) about employees in large companies ignoring management directives, sometimes even working in secret or on their own time in order to develop the next big thing?
How can we make our own beginner’s luck to bring fresh perspective for innovation? Here are three areas to think about:
1. Internal Resources: When planning a brainstorming or ideation session, invite new hires, interns, administrators, and/or colleagues from other departments or disciplines. Ideally, they will bring different ways of thinking, help challenge assumptions, come up with new combinations of ideas, or provide relevant analogs from their personal lives and professional experiences. Pair more and less experienced people together for maximum benefit.
2. External Resources: Working with external specialists and consultants can often move projects forward exponentially, but also consider tapping experts from other, analogous fields for inspiration. What might a veterinary tech be able to learn from a physician’s assistant or vice-versa? What inspiration could a home improvement retailer gain from a professional visual artist?
Another way to leverage the “beginner” as an external resource is to consult with a researcher who is an expert in technique, but perhaps new to your specific category. In a previous role on a beauty brand, I frequently worked with a male moderator who used his gender to plead complete category ignorance with female consumers and therefore got a lot of detailed and useful feedback. I recently completed a research project with a restaurant client, and having never dined in their—or their primary competitor’s restaurants—was able to bring a fresh and unbiased view to the findings that the client found highly credible.
3. Techniques/Approaches: When doing in-context or ethnographic research, coach teams to approach it with “alien eyes.” Meaning, try to consciously put aside existing assumptions and really notice, as if for the first time, elements of the interviewee’s physical environment, how they perform tasks and use products, etc. This can help you uncover inefficiencies, compensating behaviors, and inconsistencies that can lead to innovative solutions. Another technique, “innovation by analogy” looks to other industries or the natural world for inspiration by asking questions like “Who else encounters similar problems or challenges?” or “How else has a problem like this been solved before?”
Another tool I love to use for ideation, is insight or technology “mash-ups.” It’s a relatively simple technique in which you create a grid or pairs of disparate ideas, consumer insights or problems, product features or benefits—or technologies. By forcing your brain to find connections between two seemingly unrelated things, you can often come up with something truly unique.
There’s a Japanese Zen concept, frequently associated with the late Steve Jobs, called “shoshin,” meaning “beginner’s mind,” which involves approaching a subject as a beginner would—with openness and a lack of preconception—even if you are an expert. This is the counterpoint to the cognitive bias called “the curse of knowledge,” whereby an expert assumes what s/he knows is commonly known and has trouble seeing from the perspective of a novice. Leveraging the resources and approaches listed above can help us see from a beginner’s perspective all over again—building a bridge to that “lucky” break through to true innovation.
CC image courtesy of Alexandre Duret-Lutz on Flickr
I recently celebrated my 1-year anniversary of starting my own business as a consumer insights & strategy consultant, which has been cause for reflection. There are some things that turned out to be harder than I thought, others that weren’t nearly as hard as others told me they would be, and still others that were absolute surprises and delights. And of course, many lessons learned along the way. My business is still very much in its infancy, but it’s been an educational start!
One thing I think I underestimated is the stress that can come with the business development side of being an entrepreneur. It’s just me, so I don’t have the pressure of ensuring other people’s livelihoods, but just knowing that if I don’t bring in the business, I don’t get paid, is quite a different feeling than getting a regular monthly paycheck from a corporate employer. That said, I really like the absolute direct link between my effort and my reward. I like that if I’m willing to take on more work, I can make more money. That sense of control makes long or odd hours totally worth it, because it’s my choice and my decision.
I also love the flexibility that comes with this type of career. I tend to work in sprints and find that without the endless meetings of corporate life, for the most part, I can work when I’m at my most productive and stop working when I’ve used up all my mental energy. My work time is much more concentrated now so I can fit much more productivity into fewer hours. In an office environment, I always felt obligated to physically be there for a certain number of hours, even if I actually didn’t have anything to do or was already mentally burned-out for the day, which was just wasted time. I work out of my home now, which makes this ‘sprint scheduling’ feasible and also allows for other side benefits, like wearing comfy clothes most of the time, eating lunch from my own kitchen, having my dogs curled up at my feet while I work, and of course, the occasional impromptu dance party just because.
One thing that other independent consultants warned me about was the sense of isolation—either just feeling lonely from being by yourself all day or missing the feeling of being part of a team and having other people to bounce ideas around with. I actually haven’t found that to be a huge issue for me personally for two primary reasons. One, I’m an introvert so I actually enjoy being by myself a good deal of the time (plus, I get to spend time with my husband and very high energy three-year-old son during non-working hours). And two, I proactively schedule regular one-on-one in-person networking meetings as well as attending professional events. I try to have coffee meetings or lunches with professional contacts (new and existing) once or twice per week and attend a formal or informal professional event at least once a month—things like: Meetups, Creative Mornings, NewCo, ProductCamp, etc.
That last point is related to another challenge I’ve identified of being a solo-preneur—how to stay current and fresh in your field of expertise and continue your professional development. Those local events that I mentioned as well as attending carefully chosen professional conferences can provide a big boost of not only creative energy and inspiration but also technical and specialized learning. I somewhat took for granted previously having access to the vast resources of a corporate employer who really invested in people development, including regular training programs and access to best-in-class experts in a variety of fields. Now, I’m trying to nurture my own informal expert network to help fill that need—people I can use as sounding boards, subject matter experts, and mentors; a list that is as varied as previous bosses and colleagues, friends from college, my author/artist/life coach sister, and even my mathematically-gifted father-in-law. It’s my personal “village” and it’s one of my most valuable resources.
The other powerful resource I rely on is my professional network—the collection of all my previous peers, team members and managers who also left our previous corporate employer to work for new corporations, agencies or even start their own businesses. I cannot imagine how I could have possibly been successful in my first year without these connections. Not only did my first clients come from these contacts, but almost my entire project list to-date can be traced back, either directly or through referrals, to this professional network. Consulting is indeed a relationship business and I’m very glad that I had 14 years to develop those relationships before making the leap to my own business.
The final lesson I’m learning is to ask. It’s amazing how far you can get by simply asking: Asking for the introduction, asking for help, asking for information, asking to meet, and of course, asking for the business. As the expression goes, “The worst they can say is no,” and I’ve been amazed by how often people will say yes. Most people genuinely want to help, especially those who are starting out or starting over, and I’ve been amazed by the graciousness of both close and casual contacts—and even contacts-of-a-contact—in giving of their time, guidance, feedback, and facilitating introductions. I’ve also tried to pay it forward by sharing my time and advice with others from my network as well as mentoring in my local startup community.
I’m only a little over a year in to this adventure and I know many more lessons, challenges, and pleasant surprises lay ahead. I guess the number one thing I’m learning is to enjoy the journey and to embrace the possibilities. When we’re children, we believe we can do anything; our entire lives are ahead of us and it seems possible that we could be a ballerina-princess-doctor or, my son’s current aspiration: a fire-fighter/astronaut. As we go through school, we learn—or are told—what we’re good at and what we’re not. Over time, our opportunity funnel seems to narrow until we’re defined by a single college major, then a single job description. My leap into self-employment has enlarged that funnel again as I now have the freedom to write my own job title and description—or even have multiple job titles. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.
Sarah Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting