Simple Secrets to Great Client Relationships
Concrete observations, real-life examples, and practical advice for building trust and affinity at work
Our work isn’t easy. It’s difficult to complete technical projects with non-technical clients. We understand a lot more about what’s going on, but they’re the ones making important project decisions.
Our work doesn’t live in best-case scenarios. Unlike bakers who have a recipe to predictably create the same cake over and over again, we have to change all the time. This is especially true in a consultancy like Palantir.net that has fully embraced agile.
Building trust and affinity, which is foundational to great client relationships, isn’t always part of the process. It also isn’t explicitly taught in school. That’s why I prepared this session for DrupalCon Portland 2022, to help my community learn the softer skills that are essential to our work. So, let’s uncover these simple secrets to great client relationships.
Greet like late night
Sometimes, we act like we’re watching a movie of the world around us, but people are always reacting to our energy, as we react to theirs. When we are warm to people, we’ll often find that they are warm back. Greet your client like you already know (and like) them. Then, leave space for them to shape the conversation.
In March 2020, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon used Zoom to interview celebrities in their homes from his home. This struck me as not dissimilar from my work within a distributed team. I noticed how he greeted people ranging from Kim Kardashian to Taraji P. Henson with almost over-the-top warmth and enthusiasm. Then, he let the guest shape where the conversation went next.
You can develop this skill by scheduling a quick happiness boost before client meetings that will leave you authentically joyful when you greet your clients. This can be as simple as spending four minutes watching an older music video like Pump Up the Jam (a nearly-universal happiness boost). You can also practice your greeting in the mirror, study talk show interviews on YouTube, or try an improv class.
Set and honor boundaries
Some think always being available creates great client relationships. I believe we build better bonds by setting and honoring boundaries that work for us. It may be tempting to respond to a client outside of your work hours. We think we’re teaching them how much they matter to us. However, it’s much more likely that we’re teaching them that we are always available. This can easily lead to disappointment or frustration when that expectation isn’t met in the future.
You can develop this skill by making clients aware of your collaboration boundaries. You can say things like, “I work 8:30-5:00 pm Mountain Time. What hours are you normally available for work?” This provides an opening for them to share their boundaries as well. You can also schedule non-emergency communication to arrive in your client’s inbox or Slack during your work hours. If you’re interested in digging further into boundaries, I found Essentialism to be a great resource.
Be their tour guide to our world
For many clients, the world of Drupal projects is unfamiliar. Consider yourself their Drupal guide. It’s your job to keep welcoming and orienting them to our world. Tours, like this great example of a university tour, are analogous to our work. I recommend watching at least the first minute of it while imagining that you are the guides and they are speaking to your client.
You can develop this skill by assuming your client is doing everything for the first time. Start with what’s immediately applicable, then zoom out. Use visuals and always translate jargon. Leave your clients space to think and ask questions. Take tours (or watch more online) through the lens of becoming a better Drupal guide.
Be curious about their world
Your client inhabits a world that’s unfamiliar to you. Your interest in their world will help you build trust and a better project outcome. Everyone likes other people expressing interest in our world, and it’s even better when they later remember what we’ve shared with them.
You can develop this skill by asking your client questions and remembering details. You can use a reference document to capture what your client shares with you, so you can easily follow up on what you learn. Notice changes, which could include a special piece of jewelry or a frantic late arrival to a call. You can share a complement or a moment to ground themselves in what seems to be a busy day. You can also keep up with your client’s organization via Google alerts, subscribing to their newsletter, or attending their events.
Let them be the expert
Rather than falling into a teacher or expert role, continue finding opportunities to learn from your client. When they share their knowledge with you, honor it with the respect it deserves. I learned this from a colleague after my company hired her as my new manager. She knew the role way better than me, but she didn’t know Drupal. She often found opportunities for me to teach her, which I later learned was no accident. Whether a manager, mentor, or consultant, we all appreciate work relationships that are mutual.
You can develop this skill by speaking in your client’s language, using the words and jargon that they use. When your client shares insights, be openly interested by rephrasing what they’ve said or asking follow up questions. If this is an unfamiliar approach, prepare by brainstorming and planning for occasions to continue learning from your client.
Connect beyond your role
When I first started my 9-5 career, I thought I had to be a neutral, professional automaton who was always poised, on topic, and efficient. However, people build connections with people, not perfect professionals. Share aspects of your life outside of work with your client. This will give them an opening to share aspects of their life with you. The more you’re connected as people, the stronger your relationship will be.
You can develop this skill by preparing a specific and concise anecdote to share about your weekend, or in answer to the outside-of-work questions you’re regularly asked. Especially if you work remotely, tell your client where you are when you’re away from home. Meet your client for coffee, either in-person or virtually, to talk about things that aren’t work-related. DM your client on Slack and ask non-work questions from time to time.
Make it fun
We all gravitate toward people who are fun to be around. Bring levity and play to your interactions with your client. For example, a client’s Outlook Calendar wasn’t cooperating with my Google Calendar, so she had two identical meetings from me. I added an exclamation point to the active invite, changing our meeting title to “[client name] + Lily!”. We kept it that way, and I smiled every time I saw the meeting appear on my calendar, hoping she did the same.
You can develop this skill by smiling and joking with your client, when appropriate. Within reason, talk to your client like you talk to your friends. Use an informal communication style and emojis to convey tone in emails and Slack.
We can all sense when people are being fake. That’s one of the fastest ways to damage trust. Make sure to stay genuine in all of your client interactions. As a podcast fan, I find Dax Sheppard in his role as host of Armchair Expert to be a fascinating model of authenticity, particularly the episode he released about his relapse.
You can develop this skill by modeling authenticity. Give honest answers to questions like, “How are you?” in front of your client. Speak the why behind your actions and recommendations with your client to help them understand your perspective. And, tell your client when you notice a contribution they’ve made. Be specific about its impact.
Adapt when needed
The more you learn about your client, the more you’ll understand their collaboration style. If there’s a big gap between your style and theirs, it may be time to adapt and meet them closer to where they are.
You can develop this skill first by avoiding making assumptions about your client before you meet them. Instead, notice how they react to your collaboration style, especially any friction or negativity. Also, notice how your client tends to collaborate and note your observations down. You can use them to brainstorm solutions, then try them out until you find one that works.
Tell the truth
We often think telling a half-truth or putting a rosy-colored spin on something will help maintain a great client relationship. In my experience, I haven’t found that to be the case. Even when it’s uncomfortable and not what they want to hear, tell your client the truth. You’ll be surprised by how much grace you’re given when you prove that you can be counted on for your honesty. It’s so much more valuable than anything we get from fibbing or stretching the truth.
You can develop this skill by committing to always telling your client the truth, but also remember that it doesn’t have to be the whole truth. You can say, for instance, that there was a miscommunication within your team without calling out individuals. If work is late because of five reasons, you don’t have to share all five. I also recommend that you voice your inner monologue when delivering difficult news. It can be powerful to say, “This isn’t a conversation I ever wanted to have with you,” instead of trying to find the perfect thing to say.
Stay on their side
It can be so tempting to develop an us versus them mentality with clients. If that ever happens on your team, stand squarely on your client’s side. You can even say something like, “I’m playing the role of client advocate. If they were here, I think they’d say something like…” You’ll bring some much needed empathy and valuable perspective to the situation.
You can develop this skill by saying things to your client like, “I can see how given this happened, you might feel that way.” Practice seeing things from their perspective, and if you struggle to understand it, ask them questions until you do. If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, I recommend Nonviolent Communication.
Watch my DrupalCon session that inspired this article
If you’ve read this far and want to keep digging into this material (or if you’re more of an auditory learner), I’ve included a recording of my DrupalCon session that inspired this article. There’s also an engaging Q&A session with the audience at the end. Whether you watch it or not, keep exploring connection and try new approaches until you find what works for you.