Training the Perfect Client to Help Your Business Grow

Ah, freelancing. If it wasn't for the clients and the constant threat of starvation, it'd be the sweetest gig around.

The good news is, I can teach you how to train better clients, and that might end up going a long way towards solving your starvation issues, too. Whether you're a graphic designer, a video producer, a writer, or a freelancer of another feather, my own decade as a pen-for-hire has given me no small amount of experience when it comes to training clients.

In this and future articles, I'll be showing you how to get your clients to communicate better, to give you actionable feedback without a lot of back-and-forth, and to create more value for you as you do a better job for them.

It's such a good-spirited win-win symbiotic situation that I almost want to break into song.

But I'll spare you...for now.

Set Expectations Early

Eager to please is a great attitude in an employee, but it can get you into trouble when you're freelancing and have limited hours in your day to devote to each client.

One of the biggest mistakes I made early in my freelancing career—and I made it often—was promising almost anything to keep my clients happy. Shorter deadlines, lower budgets, loads of additional tasks that took time away from my core competencies—whatever the clients asked for, I was eager to say "I can do that!"

And I meant it, too.

The problem was, I ended up overworked, overbooked, and underpaid. Some of my work got turned in subpar as I rushed to accommodate everyone's extra requests, and when I sat back and realized I was getting paid the hourly equivalent of a lawyer's wage for some projects and a barista's wage for others I knew I had to change the way I was doing business.

I started by communicating directly and openly with all of my "problem" clients (though really, I had no one to blame but myself for my working relationships) and explaining that I could no longer offer added value elements or endless rounds of revisions at no extra cost. In brief, I explained that these habits were resulting in more communications and lower quality work for all my clients, and that I would be more concrete in my contracts from that point forward.

I lost some clients, ended up working less for some other clients, and was working fewer hours but making more money each week within two months of my changed perspective.

It's not that the customer/client shouldn't get what they want—they absolutely should, no question—but they might not be able to get it all from you, or to get it at the price point they have in mind, or to have it by tomorrow when they just emailed you today.

Be straightforward and even a little conservative when discussing price, deadline, and deliverables, and make sure you nail down the details. Setting the right expectations early on will lead to happier and higher-value clients, and it'll save you hours of misery and communication woes down the road.

Plus, when clients are clear on exactly what you'll be delivering, they'll be clearer on their feedback after you deliver.

Keep the Knowledge-Sharing Focus on Their Objectives

Your clients will never match you for expertise when it comes to doing what you do, no matter how hard some of them try, and that's a good thing. The best clients understand that you have knowledge and skills that they do not; hiring you is more efficient for them and creates more value for both of you.

Part of effectively educating your clients means accepting this, and knowing how to focus your client education efforts.

Over-educating about possibilities, processes, and personal philosophies is just as problematic as leaving things unclear and up in the air. You need your client to know enough to understand what they'll be getting—and, when it's not clear at the outset, how it will be creating value for them.

Too much information creates a "cognitive burden," and actually makes it more difficult for clients to give you the information you need. Too much choice makes it harder to close the sale, and to move forward with a project once a sale has been made.

Clients need to know the what, the when, and some of the why. The how doesn't really matter to most clients, even though it obviously affects a great deal of what you're able to do and how much it costs. Spend more time discussing how you'll accomplish things than you actually need to, and you're actually likely to turn away sales, frustrate your clients, and even lower their estimate of your expertise.

Your tools—your equipment, your software, your team's specialized knowledge—those are your business. You probably don't care what tools your carpenter uses as long as the cabinets hang straight and look nice, and your clients are the same when it comes to your work.

Instead of trying to bring your clients up to your level of understanding, stoop down to theirs. You don't want to condescend to your clients, of course—they have specialized knowledge in their field just as you have in yours, and they're probably making some allowances for your lack of expertise in their niche, so make some allowances of your own and adjust your own expectations.

Education can and still should occur, of course, but it should be broad strokes. If your client wants a 2-minute CGI roller-coaster sequence in their video, you can explain that this will be inordinately costly in terms of time and money despite the fact that, yes, you can do "special effects" with iMovie, but you don't need to go into the details of wireframes, rendering, and so on.

You don't want to constantly turn your clients down or try to dictate the deliverables, of course, but you want them to understand where the value is and where the difficulties eat up that value. Don't get too involved in explaining why certain things can or can't be done or how you're going to go about achieving the goals you've set out together. In these areas, less is more, and meeting them on a lower level of expertise will actually create a more valuable relationship for the both of you.

Leave On a High Note

This is far from my final word on the subject of training the perfect client, and I have some tips on finding the perfect clients, too. But for one last quick takeaway here on this post, remember to close every communication with your clients with an invitation to offer feedback, and some honest gratitude for being able to work with them.

Thanks for reading, freelancers, and may your hours be filled with clients who listen, behave, and learn. And be sure to let me know if I've screwed anything up by leaving a comment below.