Let’s face it: not everyone communicates well.
While that can be mildly frustrating in day-to-day life, it can have serious financial and professional consequences when it comes to your business consulting work. To find out how to prevent a misunderstanding from turning into a lost client (or worse – a terrible online review), we spoke to two top business consultants who have been in the trenches.
Their six tips are worth digging into, but if you don’t have time, here’s the summary:
- Manage client expectations.
- Set clear deadlines.
- Frequently update clients on progress.
- Arm yourself with consultant insurance.
1. Communicate clearly.
Before any work starts, learn what a client hopes to gain by hiring you. In return, clearly outline your services so there are no surprises for either party.
Suzanne Yada (@SuzanneYada), a marketing and social medial consultant and owner of yadaCreative, says that many clients come with a different expectation of time and workload. "Some clients come to me and say, 'I only have money for an hour of your time,' then have a laundry list that will take eight hours to complete," she says.
Yada says consultants should be responsible for establishing a reasonable time estimate in the beginning and leave room for flexibility, but the burden of communication falls on both sides.
Pro tip: Miscommunication can also occur when clients aren't open about what they don't know. Yada suggests that consultants encourage their clients to use honesty about their knowledge level, but also to exercise empathy.
"It's a vulnerable act to say, 'I need help' and bring somebody in," Yada says. "Be considerate of your client's pride."
2. Use contracts with everyone – even your mom.
When it comes to work partnerships, verbal agreements won't cut it. Use contracts for every project – no matter the client.
"Use a contract with everybody – your mom, your dad, your best friend, your dog," Yada advises. "It may seem stodgy by putting a legal barrier between you and a client instead of real trust, but it helps communication issues before [they start]."
Yada also reminds us that a contract is a two-way agreement and there should be flexibility to adjust it as needed for clients.
Pro tip: Not sure where to start? Check out Insureon's Sample Contracts for free business contract templates. Consult with an attorney to ensure client contracts meet industry standards and match your project.
3. Keep records of all communication.
No matter the type of conversation, document it. Methods of communication with clients may include…
- Phone calls.
- In-person discussions.
If you had a phone call or talked over coffee with a client, take notes and follow up with an email detailing everything that was discussed. Keep hard copies and digital ones for backup. These documents can serve as a paper trail for your work if there are any disagreements down the road.
Pro tip: Yada prefers keeping email records. "Emails have timestamps and they're searchable," she says. I'm able to show the client and myself a record of our communication."
4. "Take 5 and backtrack" when miscommunication occurs.
Sandy Spadaro (@SandySpadaro), a human resources and communications consultant and author, advocates that when communication misfires, consultants should "Take five and backtrack" to seek clarification, calm, and consistency.
For example, Spadaro shared her experience with a client who decided to drop a project before the deadline – but the client was paying by the hour.
"They'd already racked up a small bill for the time I'd invested to that point, but they assumed that dropping the job would negate the bill," Spadaro says. "After several deep breaths and an infusion of patience, I chose my words carefully."
Spadaro worked with her client to ensure she was paid a fair amount while leaving the door open for future projects.
Pro tip: Any disputes with clients should be settled with a cool head. Spadaro says your bottom line should be about creating a win-win for both parties without burning professional bridges.
5. Admit when you've made a mistake and learn from it.
Everybody makes mistakes – newbies and veterans alike. It's important to approach your consulting services with humility and transparency, Yada says. It builds trust.
"You're not going to get everything perfect. It's very much a learning-by-doing process," Yada says. "People appreciate the fact that I'm honest and will own up to my mistakes. I expect that from my clients, too."
Spadaro recommends viewing every experience – good or bad – as lesson to teach you something.
"Your lesson may be about polishing delivery, how to market your services, or how to handle rejection," Spadaro says, "but the goal is to gain knowledge from each circumstance."
Pro tip: To avoid future mistakes, brush up on your skills and practice.
"Use your friends, partners, or existing clients to hone your skill sets and never be too proud to ask for help or feedback in order to improve," Spadaro says.
When your budget allows, Spadaro also suggests investing time and resources into learning more about your craft, such as taking seminars or webinars to increase your depth of knowledge.
6. Carry Professional Liability Insurance.
Insurance for consultants is an advisable investment in case miscommunications become lawsuit claims.
Even if you assume it's a small client and small claims court, Yada says, "I've made mistakes, but sometimes those mistakes cost more than either of you expected. If things go awry, you can never assume just how much [a client] might want to take you for."
Spadaro points to the unpredictability of others. "Unfortunately, no one can control or always foresee what others will think, say, or do," she says. "Every measure one can take to protect their products, supplies, and reputation is an investment worth taking."
Pro tip: Professional Liability Insurance can help safeguard against the risk of lawsuits challenging the professional delivery of your consulting work, including claims that you…
- Were professionally negligent.
- Provided shoddy, incomplete, or incorrect work.
- Made mistakes or oversights.