10 Ways to Build Better Client Relationships

two men shaking hands

Blindingly obvious opening statement: clients are very important to your business.

Not only are they your number one source of income, but also more than half of your new business will come from existing clients and recommendations from them.

I disagree with a lot of advice about client relationship management: “phone them up all the time and ask them how they are, invite them out, go to meet them, make yourself available at all times”. That is definitely not my approach.

The most important way to build a good client relationships is to work with really great people in the first place.


1. Choose your clients

Now, this doesn’t mean “I’d like to work with Richard Branson, I’ll give him a ring”. (But, it wouldn’t hurt, would it?) I still advocate getting your clients to find you through your blog.

What I mean by “choose your clients” is to be very aware of the sort of people you want to work with first. I like to work with clients that are demanding, exacting and dynamic and I don’t want to work with people who are unclear, lazy and dishonest.

Here are a set of “red flags” to listen out for during the initial contact:

  • “This won’t take you long”
  • “If you do this for free / at a low price, there’s guarantee of future work”
  • “Can you come and meet me to discuss this potential project?”

Relationships with the client should be based on mutual respect. If someone is happy to waste your time before they’ve even hired you, they’ll continue to do so.

It’s not a pleasant analogy but a pertinent one: nobody respects a girl who’s been with every member of the football team before she leaves school. So don’t fall over yourself trying to please every client at a reduced price. They’re not going to respect you in the morning – or at any time!


2. Choose the companies you work with

Just as important as choosing the client is choosing the companies. As a graphic designer and marketer I often work for lone entrepreneurs who are starting something up. These are great people to work for.

However, I also get work from larger organizations, for example Accenture (225,000 employees), and these organizations are definitely better for repeat business.

Large organizations are understandably more cumbersome and bureaucratic so take this into account when dealing with them. So, when dealing with large organizations, don’t apply the “red flags” of my previous point so strictly.


3. Treat everyone equally – from post room boy to CEO

This may sound contradictory as I’ve just said to favor some clients over others, but it isn’t. Even when I turn potential clients down, I always try to treat everybody with the same respect and politeness.

Every interaction you have with people – be they clients, prospects, students, suppliers, members of the public – reflects on your business. Make sure everything you say and everything you write in emails follows your core values.


4. Have a written philosophy

If you don’t know what your core values are then it might be an idea to write them down. Here’s mine:

At Rob Cubbon Ltd we aim to provide the best possible design and marketing solutions and put the client in the center of everything we do.

brick wall

5. Don’t say “no”

Well, if you’re a pig farmer and a client asks you to fly them to the moon then you may wish to decline. However, some of my best work for clients has been in areas I have had little or no experience in.

People will always want to work with people they’ve already worked with. And for this reason, you will get asked to do things that you’re not sure how to do. When this happens say, “Yes!” It’s a win-win situation. The client gets the job done; you get experience. If one person asks you to do something, you can guarantee that someone else will ask you to do that task in the future.


6. Never say anything negative

When discussing projects with clients never say anything negative. If the client suggests a course of action that appears counter-intuitive to you, meet the suggestion with positivity pointing out the advantages as well as the disadvantages.

There’s two reasons for this: Firstly, people don’t like negativity and don’t want to hear words like “difficult”, “delay”, “complicated”, etc., and that negative association will rub off on you. Secondly, I am constantly amazed by how good my clients ideas are. Even if you’re the expert and they aren’t, they are coming at the job from a different angle and will see things you can’t see. And vice versa. That’s what a relationship is.


7. Approach all of your issues with a smile

As Stephen Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, be proactive.

The key to being proactive is remembering that between stimulus and response there is a space. That space represents our choice — how we will choose to respond to any given situation, person, thought or event. Imagine a pause button between stimulus and response — a button you can engage to pause and think.

From Stephen Covey’s blog.

If a situation comes along that looks “bad”, don’t approach it as such. If you approach situations whilst thinking how bad they could be, they invariably get worse.


8. Listen to the client

This shouldn’t be hidden away in eighth position even though these tips are in no particular order! Listening to the client is the most important thing you’ll ever do. It is essential that you understand what they are trying to achieve. 99% of all client dissatisfaction is caused by bad communication.

Sometimes, a client can be very good at telling you what they want the website to look like and forget to tell you what the actual purpose behind it. Work out which questions you should ask so you can deliver exactly what they want.

Constantly refer back to written communication with them. I always have in writing exactly the nature of the job and the agreed price.


9. Know their knowledge

Related to the point above, it is necessary to understand what they know and what they don’t know technically. In web design, clients have all sorts of prior technical knowledge but it is important not to assume they even know how to fire up a browser and surf the web. In order to make a website that can be easily edited by the client it is essential to understand their technical know-how.


10. Balance

With all the above points it is necessary to achieve a certain equilibrium between being helpful and available on one hand and not spreading yourself too thin on the other; between working with the right people on one hand and not being too fussy on the other; between being positive on one hand and realistic on the other.

Put the client in the center of everything you do. Understand what the client wants. And be 100% real about it.

I hate to see people slagging their clients off on Twitter. If you’re doing that, you’re doing it wrong!


As always, I would love to hear your comments. Do you think I’ve hit the balance right with clients? Please enter your comments below or Tweet or vote for the post using the buttons below!

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  1. Andrew Kelsall says

    Interesting and insightful post Rob. I had to laugh that you mentioned clients been demanding being one of traits you look for. I know what you mean, though.

    I was also curious as why you refer Robcubbon Ltd as “we”. I thought you were a lone freelancer? or, do you concider designers you outsource work to part of your company, so to speak?

  2. says

    Haha Andrew, yes, I’d better say I’d rather demanding clients than vague, dishonest, etc. And, on your other point, that’s a funny one, haven’t you ever noticed that successful people always use the word “we” even when their talking about their one-man-band businesses? Yes, I am lone trader, probably always will be (with just a little bit of outsourcing). But I’ve been trying to use that word “we” but it never felt right until today. Don’t know why!

    All the best.

  3. says

    I once asked Jacob Cass why he used “we” too, a couple of years back. He said he referred to himself and JustCreativeDesign. I don’t know, but to me, I reckon it can give the wrong impression about whether or not your are a lone ranger or a part of a group of designers. If it confused me, It’ll probably confuse your future potential clients (??)

    Just my ‘2 cents’ as it were. Maybe ‘2 pence’ for us 😉

  4. says

    I was thinking that it could be construed in the wrong way but so many people do it I think it’ll be alright. I’m also hoping that the potential clients will be interested in the quality of the service and the price and not too bothered about the number of people in the company. That’s the plan, anyway 😉 Good point, though.

  5. says

    Hi Rob,
    Good points made here! I seem to get the clients who know it all when really what they are saying will not be beneficial for what they are after.
    I have normally talked them to my way of thinking which I think in time proves you had a genuine concern for their project. But the real stubborn ones have normally come back (looking a bit sheepish) realising they should of listened.

    Just found this site:
    could spend hours on it got some very funny stories :)

  6. says

    Hi Derek, talking clients into another way of doing things that would benefit them is definitely a skill that comes with experience. I’ve seen that site before, very funny!

  7. says

    This advice is so helpful, especially since I am just starting out. I am afraid that clients will ask me to include something in their design I have no clue how to accomplish. I now see the advantage of not saying no and then go about learning the task. Thank you for being willing to share such valuable information.

    • says

      You will find that clients are the best educators you have, Gloria. They push you to do things you wouldn’t have thought of and make you better at your job. Glad you found the article useful.

  8. says

    Hi Rob… it is so helpful and such a pleasure to read your blog!

    My philosophy would be “every contact with a client is a treasure”. Your blog fully supports this.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!