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What Would You Learn if You Could Read Your Clients' Minds?

by Dana Winslow

Woman looking through telescope

Why Do Your Clients Hire You?

We're going to start this off today by doing a quick little exercise.

Take a few moments to clear your mind. Then take a look at this sentence and finish it off with what you think the right ending should be without describing your business or what you do:

    Clients hire me because ________________________________________________________________.

Acceptable answers to this question would be positive answers:

    ...they believe that I have the solution to their problem or need.
    ...I am able to demonstrate my knowledge and ability very well.
    ...I am warm and personable.
    ...I am willing to research and offer personalized solutions.
    ...I can help them make money and achieve their goals.

If, on the other hand, your answers were anything other than joyful rays of sunshine, then you'll need to do some rethinking. Unacceptable (but common) answers include:

    ...they can't do the work themselves.
    ...they couldn't find anyone better.
    ...I offered him a discount.
    ...I can save them money. (Yes, believe it or not, this is on the negative side. Clients want to make money – not necessarily keep from spending money.)

And then there are, of course, the non-answering answers. By that I mean the answers that really don't say anything other than what you do. They're fairly useless answers – but also very common:

    ...I do graphic and logo design.
    ...they need someone to redesign their website.
    ...they need help with their writing and marketing.

But What Are They Thinking?

It's important to know the superficial "why" that motivates clients hire you. But understanding what clients are thinking is even more important.

What is the client actually looking for? How does the client work? How much does the client know about the task at hand?

These are all questions that, if answered, would make our jobs so much easier right from the start.

Of course, we're not psychics. And as much as we might wish we could read our clients' minds from time to time, we can't. However, there are some clues available to you that might help.

Putting Yourself in Your Clients' Shoes

I'm sure you've heard the advice about "walk a mile in their shoes...." Who hasn't, right?

But, to understand how a client's mind works, you need to understand where that client is coming from. The good news is that this shouldn't be too much of a stretch for you.

At least once in your career, you've had to turn to someone else to finish a job. You've either had to hire someone or go to a business and purchase a company's services. So think about what it was like to be on the customer side of things.

By doing this, you can create a list of needs and expectations that about 75% of your clients will have in common with you. Okay, so it isn't quite the same as reading your clients' minds... but at least it gets you a few steps closer. And, overall, this exercise will help you better anticipate and prepare for your clients' needs and expectations.

Here are a few ideas to help get you started:

Six Thoughts Your Clients Are Having

1. I Hired You Because...

A lot of people seem to think that a client will hire someone simply because they can't do the work. Well, that's not true. In fact, most of the time it's completely the opposite.

When was the last time you hired someone to do a job that you could do without a problem? Ever have anyone else mow your lawn? Cook and serve your supper? Watch your kids? Clean your carpets?

These are all jobs that you could do, and probably have done multiple times. So why would you hire someone else to take care of these things? Maybe you just don't have the time to do these things anymore. Or maybe you need a break. Maybe your back is getting a little sore. Maybe you're bogged down with other things. Or maybe, just maybe, you just don't want to do it.

And, of course, we've also bought services from various people simply because we don't have the desire, or the time, to learn how to do it ourselves. How many times have you bought clothing before? Hundreds? But could you sew your clothes yourself, right? Probably, if you learned how to do it. But do you have the time to learn how to sew? Do you even want to learn how to sew? Does this mean you don't know what kind of clothing that you want?

We, as freelancers, have a tendency to believe that a client hires us only because they can't do the work or don't know anything about it. But this isn't true. Clients know more about their project than we give them credit for. So before you dismiss their knowledge as diminutive and / or nonexistent, remember that they aren't hiring you because of the services that you offer. Rather, they are hiring you because of the way in which you offer those services.

Clients are looking for someone who has both the time and the skills to get something done. Well, that list of criteria narrows the field down to every one who bids on their project. So why are they hiring you?

Once you can understand why a client has hired you, it's important to live up to that expectation. Did they go for your bubbly personality? Three weeks into the project, are you still displaying this bubbly personality or has it changed?

For example: My clients tend to hire me because I am friendly and brutally honest. Of course, there are a few other quirks and characteristics that help me to stand out, but these tend to be the top two. So why would I all of a sudden, in the middle of a project, become unfriendly and lie to them or sugarcoat things?

Remember why you were hired and live up to that image.

2. Be Prepared to Do Your Job...

Mower

Not very long ago, I hired a young man to mow my lawn (I hate mowing lawns). The first week went very smoothly, but the next week he showed up without a lawn mower. What?

Before you ask, no I wasn't exactly pleased. But I figured that maybe it needed repairs, so I did show him where my old lawnmower was, and he continued about his merry way.

The next week, he showed up, again, without his lawnmower. This time, he explains to me that he had borrowed what I thought was his lawnmower from someone else. He didn't even have a lawnmower.

If you were going to hire a graphic designer, would you hire someone who did not already own either Photoshop or Illustrator (or both)? Would you want to provide these tools to the person that you've just hired?

Completely unacceptable.

Clients expect you to have the tools and equipment you need to work on their project. And that means that you should have those tools. Additionally, your equipment and resources should be industry standard.

Of course, there may be times that a particular project requires some specialized tool that you're only going to use for that one project. For example, there have been times when my clients wanted to use a very specific bit of code that they would own once the project was completed. These exceptions are perfectly reasonable; the client should provide the tools, either by way of purchasing them and sending them to you, or by giving the money to you to purchase on their behalf.

3. Did You Bite off More Than You Can Chew?

I don't think I'm alone when I say that freelancers are moving away from being the traditional "experts" that they have been in the past, and moving toward a bit of the Jack of all trades type of work. What does this mean?

This means that more and more freelancers are testing the waters in other areas that are related to but not directly involved in their jobs. Web developers are becoming more involved with web design; web designers are trying their hand at SEO; SEO experts are stretching out towards marketing.

I'm not going to sit here and say that it's wrong to stretch yourself like this. The truth is that it's a sign of the times. Clients want more bang for their buck; so if you can provide the bang then they will throw you their buck... Or something like that.

A few years ago, I was working on a Drupal site for a client. As we were discussing the details and everything that she wanted her site to be able to do, I found myself promising everything. "Absolutely, I can do the graphic design. Yes, I can do videos. Sure, I can write up your content for you."

I was so caught up in wanting to be this woman's go-to person for her web needs that I didn't know where to draw the line between what I could do and what I knew how to do. I didn't know anything about editing videos – I didn't even have the proper software to do so. But I found myself promising to take care of it for her. I didn't have the first clue about her niche or products, but I was promising to write up her content for her.

And the next thing I knew, I was spending more time trying to learn how to do all the things I had promised her than I was actually spending on her site. And although I was finally able to deliver on my promises, there were a few delays. And there were numerous times that she either emailed or called me and asked, "Are you sure you can do all this?"

At that time, I figured that she was just worried about her site. Which is understandable, of course. But now, years later, I realize that she was more worried about me and my ability to do everything that I had promised. What would happen if I couldn't deliver? What was she going to do if I floundered? Was there even a backup plan? What if I gave up?

Clients love it if you can deliver on more than one skill set. But they appreciate it even more if you can actually deliver on more than one skill set. Making all the promises in the world isn't going to be what gets you hired. Promise only what you can deliver, and then deliver it. If the client has to ask you whether or not you're sure you can handle everything you've promised, then it might be a clue that you need to re-evaluate your promises and make sure that you can.

4. Ask Questions if You Need to...

Most clients want you to ask them some questions. Asking questions ensures that you understand their vision and their needs. But don't go overboard with this.

You have to remember why a client is hiring someone to do this job – because they either don't have the time or the desire to do it themselves. This also implies that they don't want to have to worry about the project; they hired you to make sure that the project will go smoothly without their constant micromanagement. Which means all those 800 questions that you want to ask will quickly work right under your client's skin.

Clients expect that you can answer a lot of questions yourself. True, most will appreciate having their input valued and included. But once you have the information and details that you need to see their vision, take care of it for them. Work like a competent freelancer and take care of the other 795 answers yourself.

The same goes for answering a client's question. Be concise, clear, and don't lose them in the details.

What do I mean? Well, let's see.

I am neither a car buff nor a mechanic... not even close. But I do know when my car needs an oil change. And when that happens, I take it in to a place that performs oil changes. Now, what do you think I want to know when that mechanic comes out to talk to me?

I want to know whether or not they can do the oil change, and how long it will take. A few questions might be in order, such as what my driving habits are, to ensure that the new oil will take care of my needs.

I do not need (or want) to know how many screws they need to unscrew to get to the thingy holding in the old oil. Nor do I need to know exactly how much oil got drained or how much oil was poured in its place. I do not need to know what kind of screwdriver the mechanic used for each screw. I just want to be able to trust that when my car is done I can drive it away and it will work.

This might be different if I were a car buff; then there would be a chance that I would want to learn about these things. But I'm not, and I have no interest in becoming one. I'm sure I could give my car an oil change if I took the time to learn how – but I just don't want to. And when I take my car in for an oil change, I expect to answer just a few questions and then for that mechanic to do his job. At the end of that process, I expect him to tell me that it's finished and any other important details... "By the way, I did happen to notice that your transmission fluid is going to need to be replaced in a few months...." That's it. Don't bog me down with every little detail.

5. Don't Make Me Guess What's Going On...

Guessing

As much as clients don't want to get bothered by every single detail and every little question, they really do want to know what is happening with their project. Have you worked on it this week? Have you come across a hurdle that you're trying to overcome? Is it close to finished yet? How much longer until it is completed? Will it be on time?

You've heard it a hundred times... Time is Money. Prior to starting on a new project, you probably spoke with the client at length regarding the timeframe and deadlines for that project – estimating hours that you would need to finish it and aligning that with the delivery date that the client needed.

And sometimes, especially for short term projects, it's easy to start and finish the project with no or very few progress updates. But for those longer projects, progress updates are a must. You don't need to share every single detail about what's happening or what hurdles you have come across. But you do need to share enough to let the clients know that you have not forgotten about their project and that you are working your way through those hurdles.

Clients depend on those deadlines – probably even more than you do. But most clients are also human beings and they understand that sometimes things just happen that are beyond your control. And they will understand that these things happen. But what they will not understand is if you hide it from them and just send in your work late with little or no explanation after the fact.

Think back to the last time you went out to eat. You sat down, read over the menu, and a server came over to take your order to the kitchen. Which scenario is more acceptable to you?

  1. You wait for about 45 minutes to an hour, and the server finally comes out with your food and says, "I'm sorry this took so long. We're short-staffed tonight."
  2. You wait for about 15 minutes and the server comes back to the table without your food and says, "Thank you so much for your patience. I wanted to let you know that it looks like your food might be a little delayed, but I promise that I am working on it and in the meantime I'll be right here if you need me." Perhaps they even bring a free or discounted appetizer in the meantime.

Of course, neither scenario is ideal. Both scenarios entail that you're waiting longer than expected for your food. But in the first scenario, all you're offered is late food and an excuse. In the second, you're offered an expectation of the late food and support. Which would you prefer?

6. Please Do It Right the First Time...

Believe it or not, clients hate revisions. Probably even more than you hate having to do revisions.

Getting back to that restaurant scenario for just a minute.

Even if you're food was on time, or at least delivered within a reasonable time, what if it was the wrong order? Maybe it was something small like they gave you the wrong dressing on your salad or something bigger like they overcooked your steak. Either way, what happens when you say something about it? The server (promptly, I hope) takes the incorrect food away from you, brings it back into the kitchen and comes out with a new dish that is, hopefully, correct. Sure, you're not paying for this new second salad; but does the fact that you're not paying for it really make up for the inconvenience that it was wrong to begin with?

Not having to pay for revisions does not erase the frustration that comes with realizing that there needs to be revisions. It's a consolation prize and nothing more.

It is true that sometimes revisions will need to be made that are out of your control. Perhaps the client changed his or her mind after the project was already completed, or maybe he or she was more than just a little unclear in describing his or her vision. But short of these rare instances, the client really just wants his or her project delivered right the first time.

And this goes double if you're late on the project. Regardless of the reason behind the delay, if you're late then that project had better be exactly what you had promised.

Okay, So You Can't Read Your Clients' Minds

Most freelancers are not mind readers.

We have to rely on other skills to relate to our clients and deliver on our promises. We have to be able to identify and answer their needs, and if we can anticipate those needs before the clients have a chance to ask, then it's all the better for everyone involved.

Chances are, most of the thoughts that you've had about your clients are probably wrong. or at least in some way inaccurate or exaggerated. Clients are not the ignorant trolls looking for the lowest bidders that so many freelancers seem to think. Place yourself in a client's shoes – think about your own experiences as someone else's customer and how you were treated. Was it a bad experience or a good experience? Did you like the way you were treated? Are you treating your clients the way you would want to be treated?

It doesn't take a psychic to answer these questions.

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