Letting the Client Tell Their Story

A new customer called this past week to explain his needs. He’s a friend, so the conversation occasionally drifted into personal items as expected. However, one thing I noticed after checking my clock was that the initial call about work took over an hour to get down to the basics. The important lesson for the freelancer: in most cases, that’s perfectly all right.

Listen first

The most important things you can do when you’re first interacting with a new client are:

  1. Listen.
  2. Ask questions designed to draw out details about the client’s needs.

Number one doesn’t require a lot of explanation, does it? You might take notes as you go along, of course, but notice what is not included:

  • Telling the customer their business.
  • Making assumptions about their needs.
  • Sharing your brilliance/credentials.

The first item will probably annoy the customer. The second action could get you in trouble, as the customer might think they need a large, detailed product when a simple postcard might have done the job. The third item is also unnecessary; if they’re calling you, they have some idea about your credentials or abilities already.

The more of the customer’s story you can get, the better you can meet their needs when it does come time to offer your suggestions. In the case of my friend, he summarized several years’ worth of effort to explain what he was doing and where he was going with his various projects. After all that, then he came to the point of explaining what he was doing now and why he needed my services.

Take the time

There are a few reasons why a new customer might take a while to get to the questions you want answered (what do you want me to do? when do you need it? how much are you willing to pay?). These reasons include:

  • The subject matter is complex
  • The reason(s) for needing help require additional explanation due to previous business or political challenges within an organization
  • The technical communication product(s) are complex
  • The customer isn’t entirely certain what s/he wants or needs

If the subject matter is complex, this is where you’ll start asking questions. If there’s some political background behind your new customer’s call for help, that might help you identify any “land mines” in the discussion before you take on the job. If they products required are complex–say, an entire website with multiple purposes or an electronic technical manual with illustrations and animations–you will undoubtedly be looking at multiple conversations in the future. And if the customer doesn’t know what they want, you can start asking questions about the customer’s audience, situation, and intended outcome.

Not every customer will (as a Tennessean friend of mine put it) take the long way around the barn before getting to the door. I have customers who text me out of the blue and ask me for a specific product and deadline with very little background. Granted, part of that informality comes from the fact that I already know them, they already know me, and we have developed a relationship shorthand that doesn’t require a lot of background explanation. When the client is new, however, for the sake of relationship building, it’s worth taking the time.

When being patient isn’t an option

I highly recommend taking the time to listen patiently and politely to your customer and to wait until they’re done to ask most of your burning questions. Again, this goes back to relationship building and ensuring that you win and keep the new customer’s business.

If for some reason you are working under a deadline with another customer when the new customer calls or emails, you might want to ask the new customer if they are willing to wait until you come out from under so that you have the time, patience, and bandwidth to give them the considerate attention they deserve.

If the new customer, too, is working under a deadline, you can start by apologizing for your abruptness and then asking them for the short description of what they want. Then you can at least determine if a) you have the time or b) you know another freelancer with comparable or better capabilities whom you can recommend to do the work instead (check with them before handing them off, of course). While some individuals might gasp in horror at the thought of handing off a potential client to another writer,* I’m taking Miracle on 34th Street approach of keeping the customer’s needs in mind first. Do they need the work done now or do they need it done by me? If I don’t have the bandwidth to give the customer the attention they need by the deadline they need and someone else (whose skills I trust) does, why not refer them?

(* Another note on referring customers to other writers (or other writers to jobs): this practice does your karma good. The better your network, the more individuals and businesses you can refer customers to, and the more likely those individuals or businesses will be to think well of you when it comes time to refer someone to you.)

In the end, your goal is to hear out a new customer, find out their story, ask the right questions, and then determine how you can contribute.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Letting the Client Tell Their Story

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Great post, Bart. Thanks. I especially like the Macy’s/Gimbel’s reference. I can’t prove it but I think the practice of handing off clients to a colleague/competitor is more prevalent in technical writing and editing than in other fields. To me that says something good about our profession.

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