Client Relationships: An Introverts Guide
When growing a client base, one of the mistakes creative freelancers make is going in for the sell too early. We’ve all been there. An opportunity presents itself and you become a shark sensing blood in the water. All you want to hear as a creative is:
“I have $20,000 and think your work is amazing! You’re probably too busy but do you think you could fit me in some time?”
ROFLMAO. Wouldn’t that make being an introverted freelancer a little easier? If this isn’t the case for you just yet, I have a few steps that will help you navigate the customer nurturing process with less awkwardness and self-doubt.
In an earlier article, I wrote about how I apply the know me, like me, trust me principle to help keep me focussed and less ‘salesy’. This principle is based on the notion that people won’t buy from you until they’ve had the chance to get to know you, decided that they like you, and understand why they can trust you. The following steps have helped me get through my own social anxiety and build strong client relationships without the hard sell.
Step 01: Know me
The first time you engage with someone, all you need to worry about is letting this person know you as a person. Don’t worry about trying to sell yourself, don’t even worry about them knowing you as a professional.
If you can’t accomplish anything other than them knowing you, you still deserve a gold star.
This puts you well ahead of anyone they don’t know, so you’re in a great position the next time you choose to reach out.
At this early stage, as hard as it is, try to show some vulnerability. This is the fastest and most effective way of helping someone truly know you. I’m lucky, as this is something that comes quite naturally to me. I wear my heart on my sleeve and have my foot firmly lodged in my mouth at all times. It becomes apparent very quickly whether I’m going to get along with someone. So even though you will feel a little exposed, vulnerability is an effective way to filter who you should or shouldn’t be pursuing.
During that first encounter, whether by email, social media, phone, or in person, try to remind yourself to:
Starting relationships can be a game of cat and mouse. Generally, we only feel comfortable opening up if the other person does so first. So lead by example. Share something personal and you’ll make it easier for them to feel comfortable with you. You’ll also get a better feel for whether you want to give them your time.
I can’t talk about my little boy without a massive smile on my face. So early on in the conversation, perhaps whilst chatting about our work, I might share how my two-year-old is better at drawing than me but I still get paid more. This helps disarm the client and reminds them that I’m a human, not just a creative resource or a salesperson. It also helps relax my nerves because I’m a natural when it comes to talking about that cheeky little butt-monkey.
Show your true colours
Try not to put on that ‘professional’ facade. Yes, be professional but know that it’s because you are a professional. People don’t fall in love with businesses, they fall in love with personalities. Your personality is the best chance you have right now, so don’t forget to wear it with pride and drop the act. And yes, you DO have a great personality. The fact that it’s not for everyone is a very good thing. Showing your true colours is how you discover your true fans. When you’re for everyone, you’re for no-one.
I received a phone call from a new client recently. Before we got into it, I said to her “This better be good. I was just about to bite into the most delicious Reuben sandwich that I’ve ever laid eyes on”. This is what I mean by putting my foot in my mouth occasionally. But that’s me and I lean into it as a strength. She’ll either be offended or she’ll have a laugh. Either way, she will have a better understanding of who I am.
Ever since that phone call, my client often asks for sandwich updates.
Highlight your flaws
This one is tough and it might not be for you just yet.
When your imposter syndrome kicks in, it is particularly empowering to simply say what it’s thinking.
You don’t have to give them a laundry list of weaknesses, that would be self-sabotage. But be comfortable with the soft spots that you might put on display and you’ll actually create more confidence. Nothing kills confidence quite like an elephant in the room that you both pretend isn’t there.
Public speaking is my number one fear. And my nervous little quirks can also present themselves in first meetings, usually as subtle ‘word salad’ and the occasional stutter. So when I feel the adrenalin rushing through my body, I simply acknowledge it and tell my client “Saying words isn’t my strong suit, as you’ll notice. But it’s probably why I’m decent at the visual stuff”.
This allows me to own my insecurities and turn them into a strength. On top of that, the client now has assurance that I’m self-aware and honest which creates confidence. The more open and real you are, the more someone will feel they know you.
Step 02: Like me
Now that you’ve revealed yourself, your potential client can decide whether they like you. Again, your instinct may be to jump the gun here, as you’re still reeling with insecurity from all the vulnerability you just exposed. You may feel the need to overcompensate and get to the part where they will consider you valuable or impressive. But it’s still not the time for that. Here in Australia, we have to navigate a layer of toxicity known as ‘tall poppy syndrome’. If you start spouting off your superpowers before someone has decided they like you, you’ll be knocked off your high horse with a swift kick to the ego.
It’s still not about you.
The most powerful weapon you have in your arsenal at this stage is curiosity.
You should want to know all about them. Ask lots of questions. You’ll find that most people love to talk about themselves when you’re actively listening. As long as you’re not being intrusive or creepy, people will happily tell you all about their own superpowers, lessons they’ve learned, business problems they’re trying to overcome, and even issues they’ve had with previous creatives.
The simple act of answering your questions and sharing with you helps them feel interesting, engaging, and most of all, comfortable. Be inquisitive and let them tell you their story. This is your time to explore whether or not you can be of value, so also ask questions that help you gain insight. Some of the simple and most useful questions to ask are:
Why did you get into this business?
Asking why instead of what will get you a richer answer about they’re values and prompts them to be more thoughtful with their answer. Instead of; “I’m an accountant”. They might say “Because I’m really passionate about streamlining the boring financial stuff for startups so founders can stay focussed on changing the world”. Asking why helps people talk about their purpose, which feels great to say out loud. You’re essentially asking a question that gets their motor running.
How’s that working out for you?
This question allows you to determine if they’re in a place of frustration. Quite often they will elaborate on all the tasks they have on their plate and even share some of the inner workings of their business. People love venting and they love an opportunity for a humblebrag. So either way, whether it’s good or bad, you’ve presented an opportunity to say things that make them feel good.
Do you have anyone that helps you out with all that stuff?
Once they’ve finished telling you about how tough it is or how good they are, asking them if they have help allows you to find out what sort of support and team they have at their disposal already. This is another opportunity to identify where you could be of value. The knowledge you gain from these questions allows you to prepare for the next stage.
Step 03: Trust me
Even though it feels like your time to shine, it’s still NOT about you. This is where you get to position yourself as an expert. Again, you’ll be tempted by the compulsion to spout off what you know and what you do. Instead, find a subject that you’re confident in that relates to something they shared with you, then go deeper into that.
The goal is to never lose their engagement. In order to do this, the conversation should always be framed around something that is of interest to them. Any learnings, stories, or past experiences you share should be relevant and relatable. To earn their trust, you need to be generous with your knowledge.
If you’ve asked the right questions, you should now have a good idea of whether or not you can add value. If you’re a graphic designer, for example, you might be in a position to discuss the name of their business which can lead to a brand conversation. Take this conversation I had with my accountant and now client, Hani El-Rafei.
Me: “Crunchlab hey? Sweet business name. Did you come up with it?”
Hani: “Oh cool, you really think so? It’s common for professional services peeps to use their surname.”
Me: “Oh true. Yeah man, Crunchlab sounds great because it’s Lexical, meaning you’ve used wordplay for memorability, like dropbox and mailchimp. It’s really clever. Using your surname would’ve been considered a Legacy or Founder brand name type, which is usually reserved for more stuffy organisations”.
Hani: “Yeah interesting, I didn’t know that. I probably just felt pressured to use my surname because I watch too much Suits! So you think Crunchlab will attract startups?”
Me: “I do. But let me reserve judgement until I see what you’ve done with the visual identity.”
In just a short exchange, Hani was leaning into what I had to say about his business name. I was then able to teach him something that validated his decision. I then began to flip the dynamic, positioning myself as an authority on branding. But the most important part here is creating a link to the next step. In this case, it was the suggestion that his visual identity was just as important as his business name. This led to Hani pulling out his phone and presenting a logo that was in need of some love. The rest is history.
Once there’s trust, everything professionally between the both of you is easier. Long and arduous proposal processes are no longer necessary. Never-ending revisions are gone. Insensitive and uninformed feedback doesn’t happen. And you’ll be treated more like an advisor rather than a tool that performs tasks they demand of you.
Remember to respect yourself
Trust is important but the most integral piece in all this is the ‘Like me’ phase. This is where you really get to learn about who you’re dealing with. And as much as you may need the work, try to put a higher value on relationships than you do money. Use the ‘Like me’ phase of the process to make sure you’re well-aligned. The needy creative in you may want to be liked by everyone but if you genuinely have something to give, make sure they’re worthy of your time and devoted headspace.
So, my advice to you when nurturing a client relationship:
- Be vulnerable, so people can know you
- Be curious, so people can like you
- Be generous with your knowledge, so people can trust you
I appreciate that this isn’t a natural and easy process for everyone. It can be particularly daunting if you are someone who feels anxious in social situations. But if you remember to approach one step at a time, you might give yourself half a chance of building a client base that supports you, as much as you support them.
Go easy on yourself.