Image via by Ralph Walker, via Flickr.

Image via by Ralph Walker, via Flickr.

Do you remember Client Relations School? I don’t either. That’s because no one teaches you about client relations.

I suppose Client Relations are really Human Relations but dressed in business attire. Or maybe it’s taught by the Sociology Department, I don’t know. I do know an actual sociologist who truly believes everyone should take some sociology courses but then again, he would. He’s a sociologist and can talk your ear off about self-interest.

But client relations? Or how about “the art of the pitch”? These sound like book titles. Because they probably are. Because no one else teaches this stuff.

For most of us, we learn client relations on the go and through trial and error. We figure things out. Eventually. And one of the things you learn is that each client is different and demands unique strategies. Each client is a snowflake! That every client is different seems obvious. After all, a business plan is a template waiting to be trampled upon. Like that old saw “you have to know the rules before you break them” a business plan is just waiting for real life to intrude up on and smash it to pieces. Not a huge insight.

And so it was with me until two things. The first was a potential client that came to us to help them tell their story. Mostly, they’d just lost a big pitch and looked themselves in the mirror and didn’t like what they’d seen.

The second was being part of the team assembling a massive pitch and then meeting the person – the potential client – who was running the entire RFP process. And I felt sorry for him.

He was relatively new on the job, two of his lieutenants had just left the company, he was massively undermanned, and he was about to go into a tiresome process of reading hundred-page plus responses and then sitting through three or four multi-hour presentations. He looked tired already and the whole thing had just started. And these two things got me thinking about a word I’d never really used before.


How often does anyone in business put themselves in the shoes of the person across the table from them? Why are so many client relationships adversarial? No one wins when that happens. War is hell, you know?

So. Being a list kind of person (I can still use the word “listicle” unironically), I came up with a list of 10 Things To Remember About Client Relations.

1. The client is always right. Even when they’re wrong.

This works in retail and it works in business. A colleague joked this works for marriage, too. The basic truth: Your client is never wrong. Ever. Don’t roll your eyes. This detail is going to save you a lot of heartache.

2. You can tell them they’re wrong only when you’ve earned the right to tell them they’re wrong.

This takes time. Trust. Respect. It all takes time. They hired you because you impressed them. But they’ve taken a chance on you. That’s important to remember. You know you’ve earned the right to tell your client they’re wrong when you know you won’t get fired for doing it. Time will tell you a lot of things about each other.

3. Your client is busy doing a million different things. Never forget that.

And if you’re successful, so are you.

4. That means, be empathetic. From the start of a project to the end. Put yourself in their shoes every once in a while.

A little empathy can be the start of a long and beautiful – and profitable –  relationship. Because if you put yourself in your client’s shoes, they are eventually going to do the same with you.

5. You are the expert.

That’s why you were hired. You don’t need to remind the client of that. They already know. They want your work to prove they made a good decision in hiring you. This makes them look good. And you want your client to look good.

6. Talk at the client’s level. Always.

Don’t assume the client speaks the same language as you or understands what you understand.

I call this the “Avoid Artspeak” rule. Art Critics are especially egregious in writing in a kind of code that keeps everyone but other art critics out of their communications. Almost as if to prove their education was worth it.

Digital folk are right up there with art critics. If anything, the digital echo chamber, because it’s more widespread (and, let’s face it, commercially successful), is worse. A lot worse. It also ends in failure. Remember Rule #5? Not everyone’s an expert. Everything will work itself out if you and the client are speaking the same language.

7. Always remember that you and the client share a common goal.

It’s amazing how quickly this one gets forgotten. While you and the client may not be on the “same team” (you are but let’s allow for the fact that you might be beholden to different people) you both share the desire for a common outcome. Or outcomes.

The client has hasn’t hired you to sabotage anyone. Well, perhaps the competition, but that’s still a common goal.

8. Be open.

Why wouldn’t you be? Transparency gets you to Trust a lot sooner. Bad news is not just bad, it has a way of getting worse. If your unique client is a Snowflake, bad news is a Snowball.

9. That doesn’t mean you need to show the client “how the sausage is made.” Unless they ask specifically to see how the sausage is made.

Quick: do you know exactly how your fridge works? Do you care, or do you just want it to keep your milk and veggies from spoiling? (I realize there are some smarty pants reading this who know how their fridge works and to them I say you know what I mean.)

Digital people, especially, like telling people how the sausage is made. I’ve always been the kind of person who doesn’t care. I just want results. So does your client. Unless they are so invested in minutiae (which is a warning sign in and of itself) that they want to know how you got to Point B, don’t tell them.

This rule stops working when there’s a problem. The client needs to know that (i.e.: See Rule #8). Especially if that problem is existential.

10. The client pays the bills.

This one is self-explanatory. Or it should be.

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