I've had a couple of instances recently where I've bumped heads with clients due to mismatched expectations about how the relationship should progress.
It reminded me of a piece of advice I was given when I set up my business: train your clients, or they will run rings around you.
Maybe the word "train" is a bit harsh, but it is important to make sure both sides of the relationship have a common understanding about its nature. If they don't, guaranteed it will end in tears.
I also think it's important to keep in mind the client is coming to you for your advice. If they knew how to do the job themselves, they would. But they don't, so they've asked you.
This is important to understand in terms of the relationship because power is skewed in favour of clients. They are the ones who do the hiring, firing and paying. But as the service provider, your centre of power is your skill set and that's the position from which you should negotiate.
Let's say you love Cadbury's chocolate. You're never going to walk into the factory and say, "Hey, love your stuff, and I want to buy your products, but would you mind making it the way I tell you from now on?"
You leave the chocolate making up to Cadbury's and it's the same with clients and your services. Of course you have to take a brief and fulfil it. But the way you get there depends on your expertise. If you kowtow too much to clients and let them run the show, they won't respect you or your experience and you won't be able to charge a premium for your services.
So here are my top tips for managing client relationships.
1. Agree expectations about how you work early on
In my line of work, I'll usually produce a number of drafts of an article for a client before we get to the final product. But as soon as the client engages me, I let them know that my quote includes two rounds of changes and anything beyond that is charged at an hourly rate.
It's a good way of ensuring I don't end up making changes to umpteen versions, which ultimately affects my bottom line. It also sets an expectation early on in the client's mind that we'll produce three versions, with the third one the last one.
Of course there are exceptions to this, especially for highly technical writing. And if that's the case, discussing how many rounds of changes I do early on in the engagement allows the client to raise the prospect of further rounds of changes if it's likely, and I can quote accordingly.
It's the same with your business. No matter what you make, tell the client what the production process looks like at the start of the relationship so he or she knows what to expect.
2. Set communication boundaries
You only have yourself to blame if you're taking calls and responding to emails late at night or at weekends when you'd rather be doing something else.
If you're replying to a client during these hours, it sets up the expectation that you're available. And if you are, by all means go ahead and get back to the client outside normal work hours. But don't complain down the track if your client wants your undivided attention in the middle of your best friend's wedding on a Saturday night.
3. Negotiate payment terms
When you enter into a relationship with a client, you need to actually talk to them about your payment terms - not just include them on your first invoice.
Let's say your terms are 14 days and you're relying on a client to pay your account promptly. When you agree to the relationship, tell them what your terms are.
Lots of businesses, especially large ones, have an internal policy about their payment terms and small businesses often can't negotiate on this. But at least you'll know when to expect payment, even if it's outside the terms on your invoice, to avoid getting stuck in a cash-flow rut.
4. Know when to walk away
Relationships end for all sorts of reasons but in my experience it's better to end earlier on good terms than see a deterioration over time to a point where the relationship is unsalvageable.
So if a client relationship is not progressing well, I often think it's better to resign the account than have them sack you down the track.
Sure, you might lose some short-term revenue, but that will open up the potential for you to attract new clients. And you'll reduce the risk of reputational damage to your business.
This advice is, of course, not set in stone. Client relationships are about people, and each situation is unique and requires a fresh approach. My way works for me, and over time, many of my clients have become dear friends. But everyone has their own style and ultimately it's about finding an approach with clients that works for you.