Those of you working in various creative fields would probably agree that client relationships are sometimes just as important as the work you’re able to produce. For freelancers and studio runners, you could even say that client relations become a job unto itself and for good reason: Clients are important.

When I started working in college, it was a balancing act between classes and three jobs in the service industry. I had little experience with clients then. I remember having a nasty boss whom I thought had a wooden stake ready to end my nightshift with his endless complaints and “to-dos”. Little did I know that all his frustrations came from feedback from the clients and not some rumor about me being a vampire.

To say the least, I had to learn how to deal with clients faster than I can cram an all-nighter for a final exam.

Luckily, just a few months later, I had the pleasure of going through a hands on training adapted from the 7 Deadly Sins of Hospitality Services. Ever since, I have catered my learning to everything that I do and compiled what I think are the key to improve client/worker relationships.

Be Interested

The client/worker relationships is based on, first and foremost, service. They pay you and you serve their needs. They have to know that you’re interested in the project. My first dealings with my client as a freelancing web developer were a disaster. I was still in college and I took on freelancing as an opportunity to make money on the side.

I had a client, who wanted a fully functional website with a Flash landing page. I made the mistake of putting off email responses as well as sending phone calls to voicemail because I had other obligations with my part-time jobs. In all honesty, I was disinterested. That ended in quite a big chunk of change that would have made a big difference in my monthly bottom line.

Be Proactive

There’s no better action than being proactive when you’re running your own studio or freelancing in the market. And in any client/creative relationship, there is always an opportunity to drum up business as well as constantly seeking improvement to better serve your clients. In my experience as a web developer, I found clients becoming more excited when I offered new ideas and different ways to improve their product/services through my work.

Think outside of the box and constantly remind your clients that you are valuable. You can do this by going beyond the boundaries of just simply reacting to your clients’ needs. Go ahead and make that suggestion you’ve been dying to make, and let them know what’s relevant and awesome. Just be careful not to confuse this with scope creep, which could ultimately capsize your budget and timeline.

Be Friendly

A smile goes a long way. Being friendly is simply the easiest way to set a positive tone with your clients.  Being friendly was never my weakness; however, I did know a few colleagues who struggled with this. Having very little experience with team environments as well as lacking a rich social network, they were just shy and preferred to keep to themselves. Clients would misconstrue their personalities as unfriendly or cold.

We have a saying at Design Instruct: “Never underestimate the value of ‘I like that guy.’” Us? We love being loved. It opens up new opportunities, shows people that we’re fun and charismatic, and it puts us at the top of people’s minds.

Never rest on the value of your skills. Skill is only one factor in a thousand other factors that a client has to take into consideration when choosing to work with you.

Think about it this way, if you were to audition for a part in a movie that was looking to cast someone with a certain look; a certain type of acting skill; a certain type of talent; you would find yourself in a quiet waiting room filled with people who look exactly like you, talk exactly like you, and could probably do everything you can do. Therefore, when it’s your turn to make an impression in the room, what is going to set you apart?

Be Open-Minded

Your clients don’t like to be treated like a child or be insulted. Do you? Being condescending could be a natural reaction to facilitating your intention to help.

At one point of my career, I was completely new to team leadership, and as a newbie team leader I had this nasty habit of assuming my new teammates were oblivious to the scope project, more specifically the work we provided. I began to talk to them as such. What I didn’t realize is that my teammates were completely fluent in the skills required for the job, and I not only wasted a lot of time trying to “help” them understand but I also came off as condescending when I thought I was being helpful. My teammates could have easily been my clients, and that would have insulted them as I have with my team. Know your clients and be humble, respectful, and tactful.

Be a Human Being

Client/worker relationship can be described through work between two persons. How your clients perceive you as a worker can be easily translated to judging you as a human being if work is the only determinant for your relationship. With that said it is easy to fall into the habit of responding to requests or answer daily tasks like a pre-programmed robot.

One of the most rewarding experiences of my career is answering support calls, the feeling of giving someone satisfaction by solving their problems is great. A happy customer is win/win. Nonetheless, there were a few instances where I would zone out and started to regurgitate the same phrase “Sure. I can help you with that!” when in fact, I couldn’t.

I find it helpful to put a face to a client’s voice, even if we haven’t met. This allows me to be engaging and separate the calls by individuals. In the end, be mindful of your clients and treat each one as a different person, because… they are.

Be Flexible

Most clients don’t take “I can’t do that” softly, and the problem isn’t in your ability to produce what they need—it’s that you’ve already killed the conversation to discuss opportunities. You may be limited in your resources being a one-man shop, but that shouldn’t stop you selling what you can do for your potential clients. The advantage of being a freelancer is that you set your own rules, so be flexible in what you can offer.

I had an interesting experience that was mutually beneficial for my friend who is a graphic designer. A client came to me for a side project involving a creative website, the concept she had presented was beyond my design experience. Under normal circumstances, I would not have taken on the project knowing my skills were limited. But I saw the need for a dynamic website, and that I was my niche. I offered different ways we could collect data from the users as well as including  interactive components such as a forum. She loved it. I got my graphic designer friend on board to design the layout and all the necessary graphic components, and we ended up with a great product for the client at a higher fee.

Be Available

I think many of us have been through the headache and frustration of automated telephone system: just when you think you’re going to get to a customer representative, you somehow end up in the main menu again. To say the least, it is important that you are available to the small clientele in your bag as it is already hard enough to build a good reputation in the competitive freelancing market.

I had to learn time management the hard way, often times I failed by taking on too much and without knowing my time capacity. This lead to over-promising and under-delivery. This significantly affected my availability to my clients. I was constantly looking for new ones and catching up with current projects.

Being available also means knowing your capacity with regard to there is only 24 hours in a day. If you are not using a project management tool or even just a simple calendar to plan your projects, I would highly recommend you start doing so. You need to plan enough time to give your current clients the TLC they need because your current clients are the ones who will allow you to build your reputation. In other words, you have to take care of your current clients so you can get new ones.

Final Thought

We’ve all encountered the 7 Deadly Sins of Hospitality Service, whether as customers or as professionals. Fortunately, though, you don’t actually need a checklist or a guide (or deity) to avoid these. Just be empathetic to your customer and his or her needs–which isn’t such bad advice for dealing with people in general.

Author:

JC Parmley is the Associate Editor and Creative Specialist at Design Instruct. Having the background in academic and government web development and design projects, he seeks compliance without sacrificing design. When he isn't bogged down with work, you can find him killing dragons in World of Warcraft and pretending to be a culinary mastermind in the kitchen. You can contact him directly at jc.parmley@go6media.com or follow him on Twitter as @jonnycasino or connect with him on google+ here.