Communicating with clients… on your own terms

Written by: Karl Sakas

Sometimes, clients want to communicate with you more often than you want to communicate. This can be expensive (especially if you can’t bill for all of it), disruptive (if their contact prevent you from completing the work they’re calling about), and frustrating (if it seems unnecessary).

Although it’s reasonable to want to talk less, consider Warmth & Competence—instead of complaining, put yourself in your clients’ shoes. If they keep calling—or requesting unbudgeted meetings, or requesting additional documentation—it means you’re not giving them everything they need.

From my 20 years of working with clients, here’s my advice on meeting clients’ needs without driving yourself crazy.

Train clients to use the right channel

It’s up to you to train your clients to use the right contact approach. Clients usually only call you directly when either 1) there’s an emergency, or 2) there’s no emergency but they don’t know how else to get in touch.

If it’s an emergency, deal with it. Give your clients a summary of how to get in touch with you, plus the response time they should expect.

If it’s not an emergency, transfer the situation to your non-emergency workflow. For example, non-urgent requests should go through your project management system.

“Next business day” is a typical response time for agencies, but this will depend on how responsive you want to be. In my case, my official response time is “within 2 business days” for coaching clients, but I always respond faster when clients have an emergency.

Try this: Keep track of your calls for one week. How many calls did you get? How many were urgent and how many could have been handled via email or PM software? How many calls could you have avoided entirely by sending a proactive update?

If you’re being overrun by phone calls and client requests, it’s time to delegate those client relationships to another team member. As an agency owner, your time is too important to let everyone else dictate how you use it.

Budget for meetings in your scope

One agency that I work with has a client that insists on in-person meetings when a call or email would suffice. This wastes budget, and even creates unbilled work if you don’t bill for travel time.

To avoid this, set expectations upfront in your proposal. State how many meetings you assume, including the split between in-person and remote.

Decide on a meeting policy and let clients know about it. Here’s a sample policy:

  1. Kickoff meetings are in-person, when possible (or else via video).
  2. Milestone meetings are in-person, when possible (or else via video).
  3. Other meetings are best handled by phone or video. If client requests upgrading to an in-person meeting, they need to pay for travel expenses and a minimum travel fee of $X.
  4. No charge for sales-oriented meetings.

In my case, I don’t charge for travel time or mileage when a client is less than 60 minutes away, round-trip. However, those no-charge meetings are infrequent since 95% of my clients aren’t local to Raleigh.

I reduce calls by providing no-charge email support to coaching clients—but adding an extra call (beyond our long monthly call) costs extra. If a client requests a call or meeting (outside the monthly call), that time is billable. However, I make an exception if a client requests email help but I believe a call is a better way to resolve things—in that case, I do a call at no charge.

Have a plan if clients keep rescheduling

When a client constantly reschedules meetings, it interrupts your day, hurts productivity, and costs your team time. Cancellations are disruptive, especially when they’re last-minute. Position yourself and your agency with empathy; your clients are often in tough situations, and you’re there to help them out.

Once you see multiple reschedules, switch to a phone call instead—and use the magic phrase, “How can I support you?”

For instance: “I know your schedule has been crazy lately, and I’m sorry you’re going through all the issues. Our meetings help keep your project work on track, and cancelling a meeting—especially at the last minute—tends to throw things off track. How can I support you right now?”

This will help you get back on track without losing time and money trying to chase down another meeting time.

However, if the client insists on having a meeting, no matter how many times you have to reschedule, you should have a contingency plan for what will happen after a client has rescheduled more than twice. This could include a cancelled-meeting fee or another penalty. When it’s free to cancel, clients don’t have an incentive to plan ahead.

Question: How do you handle when a client wants to meet too often, or they keep rescheduling?

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