As professional service providers, we know how critical client service is. It’s what can make or break our career! But often, our definition of excellent client service prevents us from delivering our best work, and maybe worse, can leave us burnt out and looking for a new career.
Let’s define “client” before we dive in.
Every job, traditionally client-facing or otherwise, has a “client” in the mix. Even someone in an entry-level admin role should be thinking about client service. In this case, that person’s supervisor becomes the client. For folks at more senior levels of an organization, they may face many clients (both internal and external), all with different needs, interests, and concerns. At its core, good “client” service is simply the ability to manage up effectively. And, while we at Fringe PD think managing up is a core professional development skill necessary for career advancement, it likely wouldn’t surprise you to see how many seasoned professionals come to us with little to no knowledge of the skillset needed for managing up successfully. So, let’s start with some basics and debunk some of our favorite client service/managing up myths.
Managing Up Does Not Ask You to be Exclusively a “Yes!” Person.
As an initial matter, excellent client service does not mean saying yes to every request. Following the lead of improv comics, our inclination should not be to say yes to every ask; instead, we should be saying “yes, and…”
Remember, our clients are working with limited information. They think they know what they need and the timeline they need it on, but you’re the expert. Clients come to you with their wants, and it’s your job to help them understand their needs. How do you bridge that gap?
Step one of great client management is to ask a lot of questions. Rarely should a client request not be followed by clarifying questions from you. Understand why they’re asking for what they’re asking. What are their goals? What do they hope to achieve with this request? What stakeholders are they trying to please? Knowing this background can help you determine whether what the client is asking for is really what they need or whether they need something else entirely.
Client Service Means Setting Boundaries to Provide Quality.
Second, be straightforward about your limitations. We often sense that if we say no or push back, the client will find someone else to provide the service. But clients are people, too, and are often more understanding than we give them credit for. Be upfront if a client imposes a deadline you’re worried you can’t meet. Ask where that deadline is coming from – often, deadlines are arbitrarily chosen dates based on our best wishes and can easily be moved. But sometimes deadlines are set in stone. If that’s the case, be clear about what other resources you might need to meet that deadline, or, if those resources aren’t available, the sacrifices in work product that might need to be made to reach that deadline.
To Serve a Client, You Must Understand their Needs and Desires.
Not to flip-flop on you, but you also don’t want to be a “no” person. While you don’t want to give an unreserved “yes,” you also don’t want to give the impression that you always say no. Nothing will turn a client off more than feeling that every time they ask for something, they get a no…or a very disgruntled yes. Even if you’re asking questions or pushing back on a client request, do so with a positive attitude and reinforce that you share the client’s goals: to get them exactly what they need, on time, and at the highest possible level. Find ways to meet the client’s needs while managing your (or your team’s) bandwidth. Pro tip: We find that sharing the difference in quality with a client can between their timeline and yours can be illuminating.
“We can certainly get that to you by next week. We can provide a cursory analysis and minimal guidance to get you started in that timeframe. If we have an extra few days, we can deliver a more thorough analysis and a full set of recommendations. Which would be most helpful for you?”
Oftentimes, as the section on “yes” above illustrates, we are making assumptions about the needs of our clients. With the example statement, you might find that the client would prefer expediency to thoroughness and will be happy to take your qualified work product on a faster timeline. They may also realize the importance of the detail you outline and change their mind about the pace of the work in light of that. Of course, there will always be clients who want both outcomes. In these situations, we are reminded of the old saying, “Good, fast, or cheap, you can only have two.”
Strategies for Refusing a Request in the Best Possible Way
Finally, think creatively about how you can say no without saying no. Frame the conversation as an opportunity or a challenge that you and your client can tackle together. The goal is to devise a solution that meets the client’s needs while recognizing that you cannot blindly say yes whenever they ask for something.
By being more assertive, you can find better solutions that meet your client’s needs while maintaining a positive relationship and delivering the highest quality service. Ultimately, balancing your client’s desires with your realistic capabilities is beneficial not only for your client but also for you and your career!
Good client service isn’t just about saying yes – it’s also about knowing when to say no. Establishing boundaries and understanding the client’s needs can help you provide excellent service while avoiding burnout and unhappiness. And by asking questions and thinking creatively, you may find solutions that reach beyond a gut reaction of “yes” or “no.” In the end, the best approach is to be assertive and collaborative with your clients, using the technique of saying “yes, and…” to ensure that you both get what you need.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and push back when needed to get the best results; your clients will thank you later!
Looking for more support in managing up or providing excellent client service? Executive coaching can help you implement these skills in a way that feels authentic and comfortable. Reach out to us to learn more.