One creative I really admire is Carl Smith, who owns a strategy, design, and development studio called nGen Works. Several years ago at ConvergeSE, Carl told a story that illustrates one of the best growth strategies I know.
Before meeting with a particularly obtuse client, Carl printed out an agenda. As the client settled in, he glanced at the sheet of paper and noticed the first item on the list: “What’s this about discussing trust issues?!”
I’m not going to get Carl’s response exactly right, but said this in effect:
Well, I’ve noticed that you don’t seem to give us the benefit of the doubt anymore. You fight every decision we make. If we have lost your trust, then we need to talk about earning it back. And if we can’t win back your trust, then we need to figure out how to part ways amicably.
(Kudos for the cojones, Carl!)
When you consider that nGen Works has a portfolio full of blue-chip brands, including Nintendo, National Geographic, and Starbucks, then you begin to realize how much was on the line that day.
What would have happened to the company’s payroll if that client had stormed out of the meeting? Or had fired off a couple of nasty tweets? Or had sued?
When the lifetime value of a client relationship can far exceeds a $25,000 website or a $100,000 product launch, courage, honesty, and humility become costly. Say the wrong thing, piss off a client, and lose her forever.
That day, Carl was able to open better lines of communication and salvage the relationship. He did the hard thing necessary to keep his client.
Passivity is even more expensive than honesty.
But even if the story didn’t have a happy ending, we creatives can learn a second high-dollar lesson for free:
When you avoid doing the hard thing, you will lose not only the healthy conflict and the stronger communication that grows out of it but also your self-respect.
Passivity tells you that for her to walk all over you is better than for her to leave. Passivity tells you to take the abuse and earn your stripes because things will eventually get better. Passivity and fear join forces to brutalize your good judgment and common sense: If I say what I’m really thinking, then I’ll lose this project, and this relationship, and my reputation, and my business, and my livelihood, and my well-being.
We don’t realize we’re going there, but we do. We attribute to people and situations, emails and meetings, more power than they really have.
“Do what I say, or else.”
How many “elses” have in actuality shown up and ruined your life?
The funny thing about people who threaten to tarnish your reputation is that their reputations precede them too. Their reputations aren’t sterling, and this theoretical group of cronies who will believe everything the bully says, which will somehow hurt you, are, in all likelihood, inclined to like and respect you if you’ve offended a jerk.
The enemy of their enemy is a friend.
In my experience most bullies go looking for easier prey as soon as you stand up to them. Bullies don’t like a real fight. After all, the need to dominate and control has insecurity at its root. A real fight is too risky because a bully doesn’t want his insecurity exposed. Better to offer a flimsy excuse—“You’re not worth my time”—and beat a hasty retreat.
But enough talk about bullies. Most of your clients aren’t trying to bully you. They’re fallible human beings who have fears and needs, and the biggest fear is that those needs won’t be met.
Two Powerful Questions
The best way to diffuse that fear is to ask a client, “What do you need?” And then to follow up with, “What are you afraid of?”
Once you get those knots out on the table, you can start untying them. That includes being honest about your own needs and fears: “I really need to be fully present with my kids at night, so when you call me during dinner, you’re taking me away from my family. My family are my biggest supporters, and I can’t do my best work for you unless I protect my time with them.”
Do you have the guts to say something like that? Can you check your ego at the door and be vulnerable?
Vulnerability saves relationships.
Consistent vulnerability will save your relationships. You’ll find that when you lead with vulnerability, your clients will follow. When the lifetime value of a single relationship can pass the million dollar mark, letting a client simply slip away is folly.
Three Ways Clients Slip Away
How do we let clients slip away? Well, three reasons immediately come to mind. None of them will surprise you.
Reason #1 – Passivity
Carl’s story clearly falls into this category. He sensed some distance, or maybe he sensed the client’s frustration in a curt email or sarcastic remark. Regardless, he pressed in.
Think about the gumption required: admit to yourself that things aren’t good, ruminate on what to do about it, pick a strategy, schedule the meeting, show up for the meeting, take your punches from the client. Not easy, to say the least.
Small wonder that rather than have a difficult conversation, we bop along with our work and pretend as though nothing is wrong. Then, we’re shocked—yes, we even feel betrayed!—when we hear that the client quietly hired a new writer, a new design shop, without even having the decency to give us a heads up!
Actually, we do notice weirdness, and we feel anxious about it. That vague sense of menace in the back of our minds inhibits our ability to do our best work. Yet, ostrich-with-your-head-in-the-sand passivity keeps you from picking up your phone.
- Where are you being passive in your work?
- What hard conversations do you need to have?
- What apologies do you owe?
- What reparations do you need to make?
Or on a more positive note, what thank you notes do you need to write?
If your clients want to leave, it is probably because you are giving them no compelling reasons to stay.
So do the hardest work of all, and let your clients teach you how you can improve or how you need to be more proactive, professional, or thoughtful.
Reason #2 – Hurt Feelings
Ego is a main ingredient in creativity. We creatives believe the world needs our art, our innovative ideas, our panache. I’ll be the first person to tell you: I know I’m good at what I do, and I take pride in my work.
But because we’re bound to work with people who don’t make a regular habit of acknowledging and celebrating our contributions, that same pride backfires.
Passion turns to frustration. Frustration becomes resentment becomes bitterness.
Pride has injured both my friendships and my business relationships.
We get our feelings hurt and withdraw.
He rejected your perfectly good (or even brilliant) ad campaign because he wasn’t the one who thought of it. So what?
She blamed you unfairly for a missed deadline. So what?
He said he scoffed your initial logo treatments, but when his boss liked them, he took credit.
So what? Hurt feelings happen all day, ever day.
Manage the maelstrom.
You need to proactively deal with your hurt feelings: your piqued sense of justice or fairness, fear, outrage, sadness, and even a certain pettishness because you’re a beautiful flower and you want to be admired, not trampled.
So what? She’s a beautiful flower too. Get on the phone with her. Keep it brief. Share how her words or actions made you feel. Propose how you can have a stronger working relationship in the future. And forgive her.
Press in, then move on because, in business, your hurt feelings have a price tag.
You cannot nurse resentment and do your best work.
And look on the bright side: Even if that heart-to-heart chat blows up in your face, at least you know that the client was in fact in the bottom 10% and you can get on with your life sooner rather than later.
Reason #3 – Silence
You may lose a client here and there, but probably not for the reasons you think.
Client relationships die for the same reason that marriages die.
The fire goes out slowly, over the months and years, because one or both of you stopped trying. You grew apart. You stop opening the door for her. The lingerie stays in the drawer. Long familiarity replaces polite gestures. You give each other crumbs, not your best stuff.
How do you keep the romance alive?
As a general rule, you keep clients by making them feel special. My grandmother would probably call it “thoughtfulness.”
- Giving small gifts.
- Mailing hand-written notes.
- Doing acts of service (off the clock).
- Saying thank you.
- Saying I’m sorry.
- Asking what can you can do to help.
- Asking how you can improve.
- Choosing your battles.
- Fighting for clear, copious, consistent communication.
- Keeping promises.
- Keeping in touch.
About keeping in touch: I’ve become fanatical about adding people to Highrise. It’s certainly not the best-looking or most powerful CRM out there. But as a non-techie, I only needed the .22 rifle, not the bazooka.
One thing I’ve consistently failed at in the past is staying in touch with clients.
Sure, if my pipeline started to dry up, I’d email every client and prospect I could think of in a three-day period. But clear, copious, continuous communication? Not so much.
My old clients had no clue when I got into mobile app development or when I became conversant in lean startup methodology. They might have new needs, and I would have no clue!
Yet, I know from experience that when I put in a touch here and a touch there that they remember me. And when they have more work, I’m the obvious choice. The business-y term is “top-of-mind awareness.”
If you can get past the yuckiness of that slang, then you can see the common sense behind it: people can’t hire you if they forget about you. So take the time to say, “Hi. I’m still here, making awesome stuff. What’s up with you these days?”
In closing out this long, meandering post, let me share one of a favorite new hacks. You’ve heard of Gmail. You’ve heard of Highrise. What about Ecquire? It is a Chrome extension that serves as a bridge between Gmail and Highrise.
From inside Gmail, I can create a new Highrise contact, and Ecquire then sucks in and auto-populates all of that person’s information. I can also automatically add new email conversations to that Highrise contact.
Rather than log in to Highrise and manually input each and every contact, I can now keep my network vital and up-to-date with three clicks in five seconds.
Once those I’ve got those people captured in Highrise, I can set reminders to follow up, stay in touch, and find some small way to be thoughtful.
The Three Best Growth Strategies I Know
Most clients don’t leave because you made some epic blunder. They leave because you weren’t honest, you weren’t vulnerable, and you didn’t make them feel special.
Yesterday, I received a black hoodie and a note from Upwork. I’ve been using Upwork since the oDesk days before the merger with Elance, and they wanted to say thank you. I felt special.
So be like Upwork. Show the love!
Honesty, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness are the three best growth strategies I know. Practice them, and you’ll get more work from existing clients, more referrals, and more new clients already sold on the idea of working with you.
Do you want to build a profitable business you love?
Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.
No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.
Also published on Medium.