IT Employment

10 ways to make sure you and your clients see eye to eye

IT consultants need more than technical knowledge and experience -- they need to make sure they're on the same page with their clients. Jack Wallen suggests some ways to make that happen.

It can be frustrating when you and your clients are at odds with one another. It happens for many reasons and when it does, you run the risk of losing the client. Obviously, consultants aren't in the business of LOSING clients. The goal is to make them as happy as possible. But there are times when meeting a client half way becomes more than a challenge. The best way to nip this in the bud? Make sure you and your clients are always on the same page.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Educate your clients

Let's face it. The less your clients know, the more they're going to need you. But this train of thought can cause some sticky situations. When your client is calling you about every little thing, you're faced with, "Do I bill them for these 10 minutes on the phone or not?" This situation can be prevented with a little education. For example, if your client doesn't want to pay the small fee for a spyware application that will do auto updates and scheduled scanning, make sure you instruct them how to run the updates and how often they should manually run the scan. This will save you from having to constantly rid their machines of malware and spyware... thus reducing those 10- to 15-minute phone calls. It will also go a long way toward keeping clients happy because they won't be having to pay for your service all the time. And a happy client is a referring client!

2: Explain things to your clients

I have seen this many times. A previous consultant on a job will completely neglect to inform the client about what they're doing on a job. Some less-than-trustworthy consultants assume that keeping clients in the dark is the best way to keep them keeping your lights on. It's not. Keeping clients in the dark only causes them to second-guess the work you have done, as well as your skills and your ability to run a reliable business. Always tell the client what you're going to do and what you wound up doing on a job. Making sure they know what was wrong will help prevent it from happening again.

3: Take control of documentation

Documentation should be a two-way street. It's not. Documenting jobs -- and this means passwords, usernames, addresses, etc. -- will inevitably fall in your lap. You're going to have clients who NEVER can remember their usernames and passwords. Retain the documentation so you can refer to it and keep those clients happily working. The day you tell a client it is their job to retain their passwords (even though it actually is) is the day you lose sight of the bigger picture.

4: Be respectful toward nontechnical users

Have you ever gone to an auto mechanic and been told why your car was doing what it was doing... and you had absolutely NO idea what the mechanic was talking about? This is how your clients feel when you try to explain to them what is going on. Always remember that your clients are coming at this from a completely different vantage point. More than likely, they know next to nothing about how their computers work. They just know when they don't work. Treating your clients as if they are idiots for not knowing something is like when an auto mechanic rolls his eyes because you don't understand the air:fuel ratio that's causing your turbo to fail.

Don't talk to your clients as if they were children just because they don't understand that their DNS servers are keeping them from getting online or that using out-of-date antivirus definitions is the reason they're constantly getting virus infections on their PCs. Treat those clients with respect, no matter how little they know about the technology you often take for granted.

5: Bill consistently and professionally

Billing keeps the lights on in the shop. It has to be done and your clients have to pay. The most important aspect about billing is consistency. Don't just send an email with your bill detailed inline. Make sure your billing is done professionally. If you have QuickBooks, you can use its built-in tools to create invoices and then email the generated PDF as an attachment. This will have your logo and all the detailed information about the job listed for the client. And details are key. Make sure every job you do has as much information on the billing statement as possible. Leave no holes or questions open in your billing. Be complete. Be thorough.

6: Be accessible

You have to be available to your clients. If a client calls and you do not respond within a decent amount of time, that client is going to lose faith in you. Make sure you have a standard setup for return calls and follow-ups. You don't want clients getting upset and heading off to your competition. Give your clients the means to contact you: Business phone, business email, text (if you allow it), and (especially) a help desk system.

7: Know your clients

This is one of the more challenging aspects of being a consultant. You need to know your clients. When you know them, you will know how to deal with them. I have certain clients I have to treat in certain ways -- it's just a part of life. I have some clients I will do anything for. With other clients, I will do only what they ask. I have clients who have certain protocols for jobs and clients who are more like pals when I arrive. Treating everyone as if they are the same entity will cause you more headaches than you can imagine. Take the time to get to know a client. Find out their quirks, what is important to them, and what they are willing to spend money on. When your clients know that you know them, you will see eye to eye much more often.

8: Know when to say you don't know

There are times when you can BS your way out of a situation. There are times when learning on the job is okay. But when you simply have no idea how to resolve an issue or how to approach a problem, it's time to say "no." If you don't, and you get yourself caught knee deep in the muck and mire of failure, your clients will have plenty of ammunition to fire at your head. If you don't know how to solve a problem, tell your client so and tell them you will see if you can figure it out. Let them know your efforts to solve the puzzle will not be on their time, and a solution will be found. Your other option? Outsource that job. Regardless of how you deal with it, make sure you are completely honest with your client so there will be no ugly outcome.

9: Resolve the situation

Sometimes, you do a job, but whatever you do fails to resolve the issue. When this happens, your client is certain to call. In some cases, that client is not going to be happy. If this isn't the first time this has happened (especially on this particular job), that client is most certainly not going to be happy. The best way to resolve this situation is to, well, resolve the situation. Hit the job from a fresh angle, research what you did, search forums for alternative solutions... whatever you have to do. Ultimately, you are in a contractual agreement that says you are going to resolve your client's issues. When you do not (or cannot) resolve those issues, the client will be justifiably upset.

Remember, from your client's perspective, they're paying a LOT of money for your services. They pay you to make something work that should "just work." If they have to continually pay you to get something working, you are going to lose them (and possibly other clients, thanks to word of mouth). I have heard of consultants who leave pieces of jobs hanging to keep the cash flow flowing. This is not only bad business, it is unethical. See your job through to completion.

10: Know when to let go

There may be clients you just can't see eye to eye with. Maybe there are personality issues, maybe a job went wrong and the client can't seem to forgive you. Regardless of the reason, you need to know when a consultant-client relationship simply will not work. It will be far better for your business not to string that client along (for fear of losing business) than to keep an unhappy client around. The longer you retain such clients, the more likely you are to develop a bad reputation. And the last thing you need is word getting around that you can't be trusted, that your work is subpar, or whatever gripe that client has. When you see a relationship isn't going to work out, end it professionally. Refer the client to someone who can help them. Do whatever it takes to leave as much of that bridge unburned as possible. There may be a time when that client, based on your professionalism, will refer another client to you.

Keeping it copacetic

The quest to make your clients happy requires a tricky balance. Not only are you charged with getting the job done, you must do so in such a way that you and your clients start and finish on the same page. Making sure you and your clients see eye to eye on as many levels as possible will make for a far richer relationship for both parties. Have you come across a situation where you and your client didn't see eye to eye? If so, how did you resolve it? Or if you couldn't resolve it, what was the outcome?

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

21 comments
Candle, burning at both ends
Candle, burning at both ends

Great set of reminders for those of us in consulting. Consultants who never quite finish the job, along with those who withhold information from the client in order to foster dependency, are the barnacles who give us a bad name.

darshininr
darshininr

This article is just so good, most of it is what we are following and helpiing our business grow too.

derek
derek

This was excellent and I wholeheartedly agree. Consistency is the key. I have always said also that the way you start the relationship is usually going to set the tone for the relationship as well.

csr
csr

This is excellent advice for any business. I sell on eBay & Etsy and apply these same principles to my work there. Great that you start with educating the clients, since that could help avoid the other 9 on the list, but knowing when to let go is one of the most important and difficult. It's very important not to take it personally. Great post! I tweeted it =) Anita @ModelSupplies

ncuster
ncuster

I have always prided myself on taking time to explain everything my clients wanted explained to them. Of course it can get quickly to a level of detail where they are giving you the "deer in the headlights" look, so that's when you regroup. For any geek that thinks this is a waste of time based on the intelligence of your client, remember that if you can't explain something to a 7-year-old, you probably don't understand it very well yourself!

Thump21
Thump21

A client, known to be a hot-head, once insisted my staff simply drop Ethernet cabling on the floor rather than install it above ceilings and through walls, something I normally sub-contract out to professionals. The client wanted to save money but I didn't wish to have such a poor looking job attached to my name. This was in an area where other businesses were also my clients and they interacted with this client. I also didn't want to risk liability should someone trip over a cable run. I offered to do the full cable install personally at a reduced rate over the coming weekend but the client insisted on *not* paying for cable installation at all --odd, since this was a very nice suite of offices and the client is known for buying luxuries for both himself and his staff. I explained to him why I would not have my reputation attached to a poorly done job, nor would would I do the job free of charge. The conversation ended with my explaining I could no longer satisfy his technology needs and he should locate a new support organization.

Thomas907
Thomas907

Your page does not work and I am not going to retype my comment!!!

TRKulas
TRKulas

I've been using Harvest (getharvest.com) on the web, and its associated iphone/ipod app to record my time and produce my invoices. It creates pdfs, and lets you post client payments as well. It allows even the smallest consulting practice (moonlighting, etc.) look professional. Sorry for the fan-boy post, but I really like it!

SSandersTX
SSandersTX

One of the best articles that I have ever seen on TechRepublic! Lots of good information without rehashing everybody else's work. Thanks, Jack! I won't even hold it against you that you are a Red Hat fan.

reisen55
reisen55

And not the other way around. One of my major accounts is a lovely medical house with a staff that I adore. They are wonderful people and, like all medical houses, stressed to the max with insurance forms and medical protocols that are truly awful. My job is to make their day with the computer as painless as possible. I am a doctor!! But no matter how often I told them, over 2 years, to turn off the patient management system at the end of the day, so my backups are not corrupt - they would not. Finally I gave up and WORKED AROUND THEM leaving them to their own version of hell and took that task onto my shoulders by automating as much of the office as I could. Now it turns virtually by itself, problems are next to nill and my billable hours ... eh, worked myself out of those!!!! Happy client though.

charles-leblanc
charles-leblanc

Great article to keep the common sense interactions between customers and providers in perspective. Reviewing basic interpersonal relationships in one place is good.

roy.evison
roy.evison

no argument but the client is not always right.

luke4k
luke4k

Great article. Right on target. I'm talking small to mid-size clients here (Big shops either do their own or demand contractually what they need): I consider it a huge part of our job is to provide the client with a living document of at least what I did. I try to get them to let me document their system as a whole. I own it (my know-how) but they paid for it, they get a copy and an update able source. Charge the client appropriately to do it. Use a template you create so you save time for both of you and then show the client how to properly STORE it with other IT documentation. The value will become evident in short order the next time you or someone else comes out to do something related. They'll take one look at your stuff and sing your praises for your piece and you'll get more work and referrals. I've seen too many consultants leave NOTHING thinking the documentation is theirs and a way to have the client by the throat for more biz or to "get at them" if they get fired. Professionally, I think that's a horrible work ethic. On the matter of PWs. You better store their information on an encrypted and secure source. You have it so you better darn well better protect it. Having the info for a client is great but remember the risks too. We're one of those few people that know all our clients secrets and generally where the bodies are buried too. Keys, passwords, remote access, software codes, even credit card numbers... RISK vs. Reward - build the trust, and follow-through with being trust worthy. Too many scam artist I/T people out there. I usually get all my clients as referrals from that type. But that can make a painful (& expensive) first engagement for me as well as the client. I often even store client original software to protect it from their own office managers (tend to have sticky fingers). But that's another service.

sidsaff
sidsaff

Fantastic ideas.good stuff

013gonzo
013gonzo

I am i IT bussines from 1976 and this is the first time that somone from IT said the right things. Evri point is to my mind the Bible of relations IT consultants (and any other IT workers) with clients. I always use the same coorelation between IT bussines and cars.

groundhog32
groundhog32

Agree - Best article for a long time. Will definitely give Harvest a look. If you like using iPhone for recording billable hours and expenses, give Time Master a try. Superb app that is highly configurable but simple enough that you spend a minimum of time working with it, which is as it should be!

scott.lakey
scott.lakey

Great Article! I now work full time for a former client making less money ( I found that happens more often than I realized). Previously, I subcontracted for a consulting firm and learned more from my boss about the people side of this business than I would have ever imagined. In short he always preached to me to never take on more than my current skill level, document everything, set realistic stopping points along the way for each project so that each step would provide a usable product. But the best advice I received was to prepare to work yourself out of billable hours on each project. That's the main goal of your work. If you do that, you will either get another project or a nice referral.

gechurch
gechurch

You are right, but it's not the point. They pay the bills, so it's in your interests to keep them happy. The article shows you ways to do that, both preventative stuff to stop problems from occurring in the first place, and tips for when problems do occur. As a consultant, the ability to keep your clients informed and happy is at the core of your business. It's at least as important as your technical know-how.

Editor's Picks