Communication Skills for Creative Professionals: How to attract & manage clients 

You’re not a writer and never claimed to be one. You’re a designer, artist or developer. Your clients hire you for your unique vision, not your ability to write. But are you sabotaging your career with poor communication skills and habits?

Strong communication builds healthy studios and loyal clients. When you communicate well, you reduce mistakes, delays, and bad feelings, which improves your relationships with clients, suppliers and administrators. Clients like working with you because they know what to expect and when they’ll get it, and also because they feel included. (Clients love to feel included.) You make them look smart and feel competent.

How to Make Clients Love You

  • Keep it focused on the client (what you can do for them). Remember that your job is to make them look good.
  • Read between the lines, and listen to what’s not being said.
  • Collaborate with your client—this is their baby too. Expect the client to think of themselves as the “real” parent and you as the surrogate.
  • Build in places where the client can have input; it’s a basic human desire to personalize things. Exploit their knowledge and industry expertise.
  • Give clients choices but don’t overwhelm them.
  • Don’t avoid or lie to your clients. If you’re going to miss a deadline, alert them. They may be responsible to a boss or committee—don’t make them look bad.
  • For many clients this project is just another item on their to-do list. The easier you make it for them to check it off, the more they will love you.
  • Creative professionals (like you) often get emotionally attached to their work. Try to be objective when talking to clients—they often have a more business-centric approach.
  • Educate your client. If they ask for something that just won’t work, don’t assume they’re an idiot or trying to drive you crazy. They are smart in their field—educate them about yours. Explain why something won’t work, then give options and explain why those are better. But accept that sometimes you have to go with the client’s choice.
  • Set clear deadlines for delivery, meetings and payment.
  • Ask questions.
  • Ask for feedback. Make it simple and structured: Do you prefer this color or that one; These features will add 3 weeks to the timeline, do you still want to add them?
  • When you answer a client’s question, end by asking “Does that answer your question?”

3 Tips for Great Client Relationships

1. Know Your Client. When you write or speak to your client, do so from their point of view. Think about your client:

  • Who they are—their age, position, experience, etc?
  • What do they already know, need to know, and want to know?
  • What else is on their mind?
  • How interested are they in the project? In what you have to say?

How does knowing your client change the way you communicate? If your client is less fluent in your language, for example, you would use fewer idioms and slang. If they have industry knowledge, you can use technical terms. If your client is older, don’t submit a proposal written in 10-point thin type at 30% grey.

Who else are you writing or talking to? If you write a Design Brief or Project Proposal you’re writing to the client, plus their marketing, legal and administrative teams, and the designers and developers who will work on the project. Adjust your language so everyone can understand you.

2. Communicate Early & Often. Good communication contributes to successful projects, business development and client retention. When you talk to clients, you’re bridging cultures. Their world is business, finance or whatever; yours is creative practice. They don’t understand your world or speak your language—that’s why they hired you.

Part of your job as a creative professional is to educate your client. You need to explain your choices to someone who may have no experience in your world. If your client reports to a team or committee, your ideas have to be remembered and repeated. Keep it simple. You may want to give written notes to ensure that your words aren’t forgotten or misremembered.

When you take responsibility for communication you set the tone of your relationship. You present yourself as an honest professional who deserves respect. Clearly outlining all expectations and responsibilities reduces the chance of missteps, creating a smoother process for everyone.

Some examples of great client communication practices:

  • Maintaining the client’s preferred level of contact before, during and after a project. Do they want every little detail or a weekly status report? Do they prefer email, phone calls, or formal reports?
  • Being proactive about deadlines and managing expectations. If you’re going to miss a deadline, let them know, and describe how you plan to handle it.
  • Educating clients so they can appreciate your choices and recommendations (ie recognize your brilliance).

3. Write And Speak So Your Client UnderstandsPresent your ideas in a way busy non-experts can easily understand and use:

  • Organize your thoughts beforehand.
  • Give the right amount of information (not too much; not too little). Don’t confuse your client with unnecessary detail.
  • Present your ideas in logical order.
  • Use words & phrases they understand. (Do they know what user testing is, or what CMYK stands for?)
  • Use only active words, not fillers like very or really. Or um, like, or you know when speaking.
  • Request feedback where appropriate. Reflect on your results, and learn from them.

Use simple words and short active sentences. Use the simplest word that works. Big, technical, or rare words can confuse or intimidate your client, or make you look bad. (Just ask the person who claimed to be selfdefecating instead of selfdeprecating.)

Write like you speak. It’s easy to become vague or overly formal when trying to be businesslike. That’s how people end up with horrible slogans like We provide business solutions for select clients. (Are they selling software or toilet paper?)

Make it easy for clients to read your documents:

  • Include lots of white space
  • Keep paragraphs short (especially for mobile devices)
  • Use consistent font sizes and styles; rarely more than a couple per page
  • Present your information in an obvious and scan-able hierarchy
  • Let bulleted lists be your friend
  • Add your contact info to each page
  • (And hey, you designers need occasional reminders about font sizes. Yes, 6-point type in 50% grey looks lovely on the monitor, but most people over 40 can’t see it and will hate you.)

A client who feels treated with respect and who understands your choices and recommendations is more likely—and faster—to hire you, pay your invoice, and hire you again. That’s how you build a loyal and generous clientele.

 

Lucinda

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Lucinda Atwood is a master teacher and coach who makes learning public speaking fun and easy. (Yes, it's possible.) She's a Communication Consultant based in beautiful Vancouver Canada.
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