5 Critical Ways to Keep Clients Happy When You’re Self-employed

In the best of all possible self-employment scenarios, the clients you work so hard to get appreciate the services you supply, pay promptly without haggling about prices, and treat you like a valued resource and peer.

Finding a client who fits this description is like striking gold, and you will be wise to do all you can to keep them happy so they stay on your client roster for a long, long time.

I am proud to have worked with several public relations/ghostwriting clients for well over a decade; I even had one client that I served for over 20 years. Self-employed consultants and service providers of all types know how hard it is to keep client relationships going for such long periods. Many things that have nothing to do with the quality of your work and are outside your control can cause clients to stop working with you.

Companies get sold, the person you’ve worked with leaves or gets fired and the new person has their own preferred vendors. Not least of all, the economy can go south and while a client may love working with you, they may not be able to afford you due to the economic downturn’s effect on their own business.

Yes, the list of what can cause a hard-won client relationship to fizzle without you doing anything wrong is endless and pretty depressing. However, any equally long list of ways to please clients is well within your purview. But before getting into the keys of how to create long-lasting client relationships, I want to say a quick word about the obvious:

Not every client is a good client. You’ll find some real stinkers out there, and my advice on that is to kick them to the curb as quickly as possible.

Even better, hone your intuition over time so you quickly recognize the red flags that a prospective client might not be a good fit for you. Then find a gracious way to turn down their business. Several techniques work for this, as I advise in my book The Self-Employment Survival Guide.

For example, one effective way to nicely reject a prospect is to explain that your dance card is just too full at the current time for you to take on a new client. Do not waver or allow yourself to be talked into taking on a client who your gut is telling you will be a pain to work with.

Firing bad clients or avoiding taking them on, to begin with, saves your energy for concentrating on keeping good clients satisfied and happy so they stick with you over the long haul. So what are the secrets to achieving this goal of client longevity?

Here are five ways to make this happen.

1. Define and practice your core values

An essential component of your ability to keep clients happy will be your values. These are the rules you live by in conducting your business. Sadly, many people don’t take time to consider what values they intend to operate their business under and, invariably, they’re faced with business quandaries that require them to make a value-based choice.

If you find it difficult to make a choice when faced with a difficult situation with a client, it may well be because you have never taken time to define your values; if you had done so, coming up with the right solution is generally fairly simple and quick. Ideally, you will have defined your values early on, but it’s never too late to take time to delineate what standards drive you in your work life…and, by natural extension, in life outside of work as well.

In my own business, I have tried to follow the values below. Check these out and see if they would work for you and add any principles that you feel would help you do a better job for your clients or customers. For example, I don’t have any employees; if you will have employees, you should define the values that guide how you will treat them.

Be honest in every aspect of your dealings with clients.

Always tell clients (and prospective clients) what you really think, not what you think they want to hear. If you’re just going to parrot back to clients what they want to hear and not what they need to hear, save them some money and just shut up.

Also, if something is outside your area of expertise, say so and offer to find someone who can help; don’t take work you aren’t qualified for with the notion that you can do a quick study on the topic.

Always do your best.

In my line of work, for example, it’s easy to get tired and frustrated by the time you’re on the fourth draft of a press release or a book chapter. But don’t just start to “mail it in.” Get up every day committed to doing the best you’re capable of doing that day.

Be trustworthy.

If you say you’re going to do something, do it. On those rare occasions when you are going to miss a deadline, let the client know before, not after the fact, and be honest about the reason. Also, always be absolutely scrupulous in your billing practices.

Treat clients as you want them to treat you.

Clients are more than just a check at the end of the month; they are people who have problems and bad days just like you. So don’t take it personally if they’re snippy or abrupt or not as responsive as you’d like.

Don’t take anything personally because it almost never is about you; it’s about them and the totality of their lives, most of which you know little about.

Be willing to listen.

If a client wants to veer a conversation off into an area totally unrelated to your work, listen.

As an outside consultant, you may be one of the few unbiased people in your client’s business life, and sometimes people just need to vent or sometimes they truly are looking for a second opinion. Whatever the case, be there for your clients.

Your values and how they impact your choices play out in a myriad of ways during the course of a given workweek. For example, I had a query a few years back from someone who was looking for an editor for his fiction book. It would have been easy for me to take on the project, but I’ve worked only with nonfiction.

While as an avid fiction reader I could probably add some value to his work, I know there are other people far more qualified for the job. So since he was in eastern Massachusetts, I pointed him in the direction of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, where I was sure he could find someone to help him.

Sure, there are people out there who would take on such an assignment even if they’d never edited a fiction book before, just as I’m sure there are ghostwriters who tell people their weak book ideas are actually great, all in the interest of getting assignments and growing their income. But that’s not me. And this example leads directly to my next key to building strong, long-lasting client relationships.

2. Never oversell your skills or try to be all things to all people

When you’re first getting your business off the ground or any time you experience a cash flow ebb, it is tempting to jump at any project, even if it’s something you’re not an expert in or even enjoy doing. This trying to be all things to all people might bring in your initial clients or solve short-term cash flow problems, but in the long run, it can get you in trouble.

In an ideal world, you perform work that you’re well qualified to do, and, as a result, you’re doing a fabulous job for everyone. Also, you love what you do, and this shows in the results. The outcome will be happy clients who want to continue working with you.

Contrast this with what happens when you take on a project that isn’t really your thing. Maybe it doesn’t match your key skills or you don’t have a lot of experience in it. But you’ve managed to sell yourself to the client anyway, chiefly because they don’t know enough about what the job actually entails to understand why your experience doesn’t match their needs. Or perhaps it’s something you are qualified to do but hate doing.

In the vast majority of cases like this, problems are bound to ensue. Maybe you do an okay but not a great job. But as we all know, okay doesn’t cut it in today’s competitive environment. The client is disappointed and decides not to hire you again, even for projects for which you are eminently well qualified. And forget about ever being able to use this client as a reference in the future!

In cases where you are qualified to do the work but it is something you dread doing, the outcome can be just as bad. If your heart isn’t in the work, the results usually show that and a client will walk away unhappy.

Here’s a real-life example of what can happen when someone takes on a project they shouldn’t have:

A few years ago a long-time friend hired me to revise the copy on her consulting website. As I read the copy she had hired someone to write three or four years previously, I couldn’t believe how bad it was. It violated basic web copy rules; it featured lengthy paragraphs and language that was not the least bit engaging. It was a snooze fest.

When I realized the scope of the problem, I asked my friend if the person who had provided the website copy for her had a lot of experience in that type of writing. “No,” she responded. “She has a lot of experience as a writer but not with websites. You were busy at the time, so I hired her instead.

My friend had made the big mistake of thinking that writing is writing, not realizing that writing copy for a website is significantly different than other types of writing. This is a common misunderstanding, so I wasn’t as disappointed by my friend’s lack of understanding as I was with the fact that the writer had agreed to do her website.

That person was trying to be all things to all people and, in doing so, left my friend with a website that did nothing for her business. And, naturally, my friend never considered hiring that writer again for any project, even one for which she may have been well qualified.

Here is how to implement this piece of advice:

Never mislead clients about the extent of your skills and experience.

Know what your strengths are, as well as your weaknesses. Always remember that the client’s interests should remain uppermost in your mind.

Sure, it may be possible to make a quick buck from someone who doesn’t know the right questions to ask you to determine your qualifications, and you may even end up doing a half-decent job. But then again, you may very well bite off more than you can chew if you tackle a project for which you’re not really prepared. Your reputation will invariably suffer if you stray too far from your strengths.

Don’t build your skills at a client’s expense.

If you want to get experience in a new area, first read as much as you can or take a course or two to get up to speed. Once you have a good grasp of the subject, consider partnering on a project with someone who knows that field really well.

This will ensure that the client gets a good product, you’ll start gaining the hands-on experience you need, and everyone will be happy. This is a far better and more ethical approach than trying to master the learning curve on a new skill on your client’s dime.

Avoid projects that will make you yawn.

Of course, there are boring bits and pieces to almost any assignment, and you just have to slog through them. But if the entire project promises to be tedious, you have two choices.

First, you can turn down the project altogether. Ideally, you can recommend someone else better suited for the work; this helps the client and also benefits the person you propose, who might very well send you a referral in return sometime down the road.

Your other choice is to partner with a junior person who you can supervise as he/she does the tedious work while you do the higher-level planning and execution. That should make everybody happy. You’ll make less than if you took on the project alone, but you’ll not be in danger of doing a less than an optimum job because the work doesn’t hold your interest.

3. Don’t overpromise when it comes to timeframes or budgets

Nothing disappoints – or even angers – a client more than missed deadlines and going over budget. This shouldn’t even need to be said but I’ve seen too many cases in which a consultant who is anxious to bring in a piece of business overpromises on either the timeline in which the work can be done or the cost of the work–or sometimes even both!

Will a client be willing to overlook a little slippage in one of these areas once? In most cases, yes, particularly if the error is not great. But do this time after time and you will find yourself needing to find a new client.

When you’re just starting out as your own boss, it can be a challenge to determine the number of hours a job requires and to, therefore, know what timeline and budget you should propose. Also, if you’ve never worked completely on your own before it may take you a while to learn how to set realistic timetables since you’re not used to doing every single thing yourself.

And, to be honest, it is far from unusual for clients to press us for unreasonable deadlines and/or unreasonable budgets.

Needless to say, if you agree to a budget, you need to stick to it unless the client changes the scope of the work. This may involve eating some hours that you don’t get paid for; this is a painful way to learn not to agree to unreasonable budgets, but learn it you must.

Go through this several times and you’ll be less inclined to agree to unrealistic budgets that leave you working hours for which you aren’t being paid.

When a client wants something for less than it’s worth, this sometimes means they have no idea of the work that is actually involved. The correct response, in this case, is to put together a detailed description of all the steps that will be required to get them what they want.

Then, if they balk at the price, ask them which of the steps they could take on internally or if there is any aspect of the job they could scale back. A client who doesn’t meet this discussion in a reasonable fashion is probably one that you might want to kick to the curb, i.e., a client who is bottom-feeding for the lowest cost provider, which is something you never want to be.

4. Keep your skills up to date

Ever have a conversation with a professional colleague where it becomes clear that they aren’t as up to speed as you’d expect them to be on a new development in their field?

For example, I take it for granted that my public relations colleagues are knowledgeable about and engaged in social media. But now and then I have a conversation in which it’s clear the alleged PR expert I’m talking with is clueless about how Twitter actually works or why Pinterest or Instagram might interest their clients who sell consumer products.

Not keeping your professional skills and knowledge current is dangerous for anyone. If you’re self-employed, allowing your skills to become outdated can put you at a severe competitive disadvantage and is a quick way to make clients unhappy. But the problem is that it’s even tougher to keep up-to-date when you’re self-employed because no one is going to pay you to get the needed training.

Related: 8 Skills That Are Essential to Self-Employment Success

When I worked in corporate America, my employers made sure I got training in any skills they wanted me to have. This training was either provided in-house or I was sent to conferences and seminars put on by outside organizations. And, of course, I was being paid the whole time I was receiving this training.

In contrast, when you are self-employed, any training you get is at your own expense and on your own time.

Take an hour out of your afternoon to listen to a webinar, and that is one hour in which you’re not earning income or working to bring in new business. Nobody is going to pay your fees and travel expenses if you want to go to an industry conference or meeting. When new technology comes along that you need to master, that definitely can be time-consuming and, in some cases, may even involve adding a new expense to your monthly costs.

Self-employed people who don’t invest time and money in keeping up-to-date are focusing on the short term and risking having their clients defect to consultants who are staying current with developments in their field. I know it’s sometimes tough to add one more thing to an already busy schedule, especially when you might not see an immediate payback. But take this approach for too long and clients and prospective clients will begin to notice.

Sure, if necessary, you can always outsource portions of projects that involve skills you have not yet mastered. But this involves sharing part of your income with someone else, which isn’t something you really want to do over the long haul, especially if it involves skills that are becoming integral to your profession.

Regularly devoting time to professional learning makes much more sense and will help ensure that you maintain that competitive edge that will keep clients coming back to you time after time.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Client communication is a critical skill that all consultants and other self-employed folks need to master.

To serve a client well, you need to know what’s going on in their business that might affect your work. It is also helpful to know what clients are worried about in case you have ideas about how to solve their dilemmas or know of resources that would be helpful to them. This is particularly true if you consult with a lot of self-employed people, as I did.

Sometimes you will be their only sounding board, and, as mentioned earlier, being willing to listen when they want to talk about the state of their business will add value to your service.

Clients don’t like surprises.

As I said earlier, they especially don’t like surprises that are related to deadlines or budgets. The minute you realize you’re going to miss a deadline, communicate this. Ditto if you realize there is a problem with some aspect of the budget. Say you’ve asked for bids on printing a marketing brochure for a client and all the bids come back higher than anticipated.

Don’t hide this; communicate it immediately so you can work together with the client to find an acceptable solution, such as cutting back on the number of pages of the brochure.

Straightforward, honest communication is essential to building a long-lasting client relationship. Don’t ever think you can pull the wool over a client’s eyes. The risk is too big and the outcome, if you’re found out, will be disastrous.

Set up regular check-in calls or meetings with clients.

Provide whatever progress reports they want you to provide. Yes, this can sometimes seem unnecessary and part of the boring “administrivia” that adds to your workday, but communicating the information the client wants is essential, especially in the early days of a relationship.

Keep in mind that sometimes a client asks for this type of information because they have been burned badly by previous consultants; once they gain faith in your ability to deliver, they may scale back on the demand for frequent reporting.

So there you have it, five keys to keeping clients content with your services.

Always remember that the value of a happy client goes beyond just the regular check in the mail and a good working relationship. Clients who like your work and the relationship they have with you are apt to refer friends and colleagues to you.

Nothing beats such word-of-mouth marketing when it comes to being an effective way to build your business. Such referrals smooth the way for you as you meet a new prospect; your client will have done some of the heavy lifting of new business development for you.

A glowing referral is worth its weight in gold, which another huge reason to make sure you are doing all you can every day to keep your clients happy.

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Website: SucceedingInSmallBusiness.com

Jeanne Yocum is the author of The Self-Employment Survival Guide: Proven Strategies to Succeed as Your Own Boss, published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Her book is based on her nearly 30 years of experience as a freelance public relations consultant and ghostwriter of business books.