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Think Like Your Client and Become a Better Consultant

Updated: Jul 5, 2019


Freelancers love to write about the woes of not getting paid, how they feel underappreciated, and dole out consulting advice like there’s no tomorrow. One topic we rarely explore, however, is the client point of view working with us. What do they wish we’d change? What annoys them? And what can we learn as consultants?

I know personally because I’ve been on both sides of the fence, both as a client and a freelancer. I’ve heard complaints. I’ve noted bad behaviors. I’ve been asked to change the way I operate occasionally (#trueconfessions). But to know your clients’ pet peeves is half the battle—doing something about it is quite another.

Here are some common complaints from the client trenches and ways to remedy them before they spiral out of control, or you flat out lose the work.

Don’t tell me about your other clients

The old adage “Always tell your clients you have other work” for fear of them thinking you’re desperate can also have a downside when you are actually really busy. Freelancers sometimes go too far and won’t shut up about other clients. This can take the form of blathering on about a job that is dominating your life, saying you’re strapped for time, having difficulty scheduling meetings, or worse yet, missing deadlines (more on this later). Here’s the reality: Clients don’t care much about your other jobs—they are interested in the projects you’re working on for them. Make their job your number one priority as if it were your only assignment, because in their eyes, it is. Prattling on about other non-issues also includes babysitter problems, a sinus infection, or bad dog behavior unless that’s your small talk of choice before you dig in to the work.

Do this instead: Minimize or eliminate client chatter and off-topics and focus on what’s in front of you. Mention other clients only if it’s relevant to the discussion or boosts your experience/knowledge.

Go by my communication style, not yours

In the days before “internet” was the standard lexicon, communication with clients was much easier. Fewer options meant less friction and decision making about getting your project done. Today’s technology cornucopia requires frenetic dexterity and multi-tasking: Email, text, web conference, or God forbid phone! Most clients, however, have a preferred method that will be revealed quickly. If they’re all over the map, take the initiative to ask how they want to communicate and cadence they prefer—even if you’re half-way through the project it will be worth it. I learned my lesson years ago when a client told me I was sending too many emails. That’s when we agreed to wrap up topics in one email every day. I still ask myself with every client email I write: do I send this email? Can I figure it out on my own or by asking someone else? Can it wait?

Do this instead: Make communication methods and work style a part of your project kick-off discussion with a client. Asking directly will show you are thoughtful about the work process, acknowledge their needs, and set a unified beginning to your relationship.

Meet your deadlines. Period.

I’m don’t consider myself to be a God fearin’ type but deadlines are my bible. When you don’t meet delivery dates, credibility is lost and the next job with that client could be in jeopardy. Next up, your work reputation could be at stake. Though it seems obvious that meeting deadlines would be part of a consultant’s ethos, making it top priority is what makes the difference. Sometimes milestones aren’t met due to client delays, external circumstances, or other issues beyond your control. That notwithstanding, the “Say what you mean and mean what you say” applies when it comes to deadlines.

Do this instead: Get a strong grip on deadlines with your client early on—are they loosy goosy or are they firm drop dead dates? Keep your client updated on project status so there are no surprises. Better to tell them red flags before they have to ask—by then it’s too late.

Keep payments professional

We all know step one is do the work, step two is  invoice and step three is receiving a check on your payment terms. But any consultant will tell you, that’s not always how this plays out. When working as a corporate client many moons ago, I still bristle when I think about the writer who called in advance of her invoice date and said she needed her check so she could pay her quarterly business taxes. This is not my problem as her client. Certainly companies need to pay on time (who doesn’t have stories about the late payment, including moi?). But as consultants, we also need to abide by our own terms and manage our finances properly—this is not the concern of our client.

Do this instead: Set your payment terms early on in the project and stick to them. Don’t ask to be paid early unless you have a darn good reason (i.e a portion of the project is delayed, canceled, or finishes early—this last one a rarity, of course.)

Just because I know you as a (friend, colleague, acquaintance) does not give you a work pass

Ever hire a friend for a job for it only to turn out to be a disaster? Me too. I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this one. The rule of thumb is the business relationship comes first when you’re working together, but never at the expense of the friendship. Sure you have a “short cut” to communication since you have an established relationship but that shouldn’t be an excuse for late work, overconfidence, or any other bad behavior you wouldn’t consider acceptable with a consultant you didn’t know personally. As a client years ago, I hired a friend and discovered she wasn’t up to snuff with deadlines, the quality of her work, and other aspects of the project. I was both surprised and disappointed. I kept the friendship but let go of the work relationship after that  job. I’ve also worked as a consultant for several friends and treat them like I would any other client. Mutual respect and professionalism is key.

Do this instead: Again, talk about the rules of engagement early on to head off potential issues. Talk about your work styles, expectations, and any concerns. Be honest to avoid conflict later that could put a crimp in your personal relationship. So not worth it.

Bonus for both sides: Follow your gut

Intuition is highly underrated, especially when a consultant is hungry for new work and a client is starving for help. Both can lead to unappetizing results under the right (or rather wrong) circumstances. I liken it to overlooking flaws when dating someone and later those same negative qualities seemingly come out of nowhere—they were there from the beginning, of course, you just didn’t want to see them. My personal work hell in my first years of consulting was a similar life lesson: ridiculously high expectations, a crazy schedule, and poor communication skills made for a very unhappy work scenario. I told the client why the job wasn’t a good fit and that I wanted to end the contract. He, in turn, was livid, tried to convince me to stay, and then decided he wouldn’t pay me for the work I had completed. Sadly, I didn’t have the fortitude to fight for my money in those early days of my business. It was an expensive lesson but worth it. Always look  for the answer inside, whether you’re hiring someone or being hired (and oh yeah, dating too). Pay attention to that little voice, it really is telling you something.

Do this instead: The first time or two you talk as a potential client or consultant, if you get a bad feeling or fumble over communication every sentence, try and talk about it (tricky considering the situation) or get out gracefully—often it’s best bow out early instead of trying to make something work that could be a nightmare assignment for both of you.

The fact is, I learn work lessons from my clients every day—some that inspire me to do things differently, others that surprise me with epiphanies, and a few choice ones  I’ll never work with again but are good article material. Win-Win!


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