When we make mistakes as freelancers, consultants, and service providers, the consequences can be harsh. One simple mistake can cost you the business of a client – which could be months or years of revenue. An area that I think many of us could get better at is what I call the “soft skill” of being a consultant. Let me illustrate what I mean by this with a quick story.
After having played poker home games with friends throughout high school, I couldn’t wait to turn 18 and test my skills for real. I read a few books and then eagerly deposited $100 on my 18th birthday. Things went well almost immediately – mostly due to the lack of skill of other players rather than my own prowess! Regardless, my bankroll kept growing month after month and year after year. The result? A 4 year career playing, coaching, and investing in online poker.
Here’s the catch: I was far from the best poker player at my stakes.
What did I have that my opponents didn’t? The soft skills. What I lacked in talent, I made up for in other areas. I put in more time at the tables. I was able to control my emotions better than others, so I didn’t bleed stacks of chips when I was feeling frustrated. I ate well, exercised, and practiced proper posture when playing. The combination of all of these (and more) skills that seem so unrelated to poker actually gave me a significant edge over my competition…even if they were significantly better than me on a raw technical skill basis.
The Soft Skills of Providing Services
These same lessons apply to all of us in the consulting business. You can drastically improve your relationship with your clients not with your technical skills, but by taking care of all of the little things that don’t really matter much to you, but your clients LOVE.
Reliability and Responsiveness
I’ve worked with many clients over the last two years and every single one of them agree that reliability and responsiveness are the two qualities they use to judge the quality of a consultant. As technically minded people, we can often get caught up in the little details of our jobs. While these are crucial to the success of your engagement, they’re not what the client cares about.
Clients want results. They want people who are going to deliver results reliably, but also make sure to have open lines of communication as the project progresses.
By improving your abilities in these two skills, you’ll not only keep your existing clients longer, but also develop massive amounts of goodwill with them that lead to referrals and more clients down the line. The truth is that most people are average at best here, so simply by putting in a little effort you can outshine them fairly easily. There is no better illustration of this than the Craigslist Penis Effect, first mentioned by Ramit Sethi. It says:
The Craigslist Penis Effect describes situations where everyone else is so horrible that, by being even half-decent, you can dominate everyone else and win.
Action: Write “reliability” and “responsiveness” down on a sheet of paper. Take five minutes to brainstorm where you have failed at reliability and responsiveness. Then, commit to changing one area this week.
Don’t Make Them Think
Clients aren’t experts at what we do. That’s why they hire us! Too often I see consultants fail on epic proportions when it comes to clarity in communication. I’m talking emails, questions, phone calls, or text messages that only serve to open up a long chain of messages rather than get something done. It’s important to realize that our clients are busy with THEIR day-to-day operations and all the plethora of other tasks that they have on their plates. They’ve hired us to eliminate the need for them to think about this aspect of their business.
Here’s an example of a common email that clients will get from consultants:
Hi Client, very excited to get started on this project. When can we meet this week to talk about the first month’s work?
That’s a terrible email. We should ask ourselves, “How can I make this as easy as possible for my client? How can I save them from having to think too much about my communications?” when we speak with our clients. A few tips:
- Give them a maximum of two decisions to make in any email (preferably one)
- Spell out exactly what you need them to do
- If you’re scheduling a meeting, then throw out 2 times: one preferred and one backup.
Let’s rewrite that email:
Hi Client, very excited to get started on this project with you. I would prefer to meet this week and speak about the project on Tuesday at 1pm, but am also free Wednesday at the same time. Could you let me know which of those times work for you? If neither work, throw a few times back and we’ll figure this out. Thanks!
In that email we’ve taken away the need for them to think. They can just send back “Tuesday 1pm” and you’ve cut the discussion to one message from each of you, instead of a back and forth that could span hours or days.
I’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making it easy for your clients. There are hundreds of other applications of this principle…find them!
Action: Take a look at your emails with past and current clients. Read them with clarity and the “make it easy” mantra in mind. Note the sentences and emails where you were extremely unclear and made it difficult for your client.
Become a Soft Skill Samurai
I’ve lost more clients because of a lack of good soft skills than I ever have because of a simple failure to achieve results. It’s the number one problem for a lot of us service providers, so follow the action steps and work to improve! As you get better, you will see results spill over into every area of your life.