EP. 08

How to Have Hard Conversations with Clients

November 29, 2022

Why building strong relationships with clients matter

You might know our no-code studio (8020) for designing and building websites with Webflow. But, we think of ourselves not as a web design business, but as a service business. We actively work to optimize and offer the best customer experience to all of our partners + clients. After all, our clients are the reason we (and any other business) exist in the first place.

We've actually found that customer experience is as important as talent, or even creative output itself. Our clients come back to work with 8020 because they value the people they work with. A satisfied customer is more likely to tell others about your company and the good experiences they got from working with you. For this reason alone, establishing a good relationship with your clients can help you increase the reputation of your company – and even your revenue and sales flow.

When talking about client relationships, a famous business philosophy is “The customer is always right.” This approach is quite one-sided to us. We see our client relationships as partnerships. It doesn't matter to us who is right or wrong when facing difficulties — what matters is how both parties approach the challenges as a team to achieve a successful outcome.

We strongly believe that customer relationships are parallel to normal human relationships. First, you need to earn one’s interest. That's the easiest part. Maybe you showed a cool presentation, outstanding case studies, and a convincing pitch. You probably offer great services, so your client is in. But then you need to win their trust. Accomplishing that, well, that's a different story. To maintain a committed relationship with your client, you will need to create a connection. Communicating constantly, valuing your client's points of view, and compromising when necessary.

In this episode of Insider, Nicole and Sebastian share a candid story of the time we almost got fired by a client – and the communication strategies we used to redeem the relationship with them.

Our firing scare: A story of miscommunication

Grab a cup of coffee. Get cozy. The storytime is about to begin.

The situation

Some time ago, we landed an amazing project. We were designing and building a website for a client, whom we will refer to as "Client X." from this point forward. For this project, we were also helping with the copywriting phase. But, since we were at capacity with our in-house team, we brought in an external copywriter to meet demand. We have worked with that copywriter successfully in past projects, and it seemed like a good match. The kickoff went perfectly, and both Client X and ourselves were thrilled to start working on the website.

During the copywriting phase, one of our copywriter's goals was to ensure that every single sentence displayed on the website would improve the public's perception of Client X's brand. They wanted to make sure that they were nailing the messaging. And so, this copywriter started making suggestions – some of which led to misinterpretations.

Without getting too specific, the problem started when the copywriter made a messaging recommendation on a culturally sensitive topic. Of course, the comment was made with the best intentions in mind. But some topics will naturally bring different responses in each individual. Nothing wrong with that. It's just human nature.

Client X was not happy, though. Nicole Burneo (one of our star PMs) immediately received a very discontent Slack DM. Oh boy! What's next?

Let's pause. This is the "make it or break it point" when an issue emerges with a client — your client has reacted to a situation, and now it's your move. The course that the issue will take is mostly up to you as an agency or freelancer now (no pressure).

Our first approach

Seek guidance. After receiving the client's message expressing distress, the first thing Nicole did was ask for internal advice. She reached out to Sebastian Murillo (our Head of Ops) and Matt Varughese (CEO). They both had never encountered a situation like this one before in 8020. Hence, they sought external advice to ensure we could resolve the issue as amicably as possible.

What happened next

We will spare you with the nitty-gritty details of the back and forth with the client. In summary, this is how the situation unfolded.

  1. The copywriter working with Client X is a very professional and kind person. They actually apologized immediately to them and were mortified to have provoked a bad reaction. The copywriter took complete accountability on their own.
  2. As an agency, we also apologized to Client X, reassuring them that the culturally sensitive comment made by the copywriter was an honest miscommunication.
  3. We decided to give Client X some time to think and process the situation while we kept working on their project.
  4. Client X requested a meeting. We stayed very calm while we listened to their feelings, thoughts, and requests. We gave them space to speak their minds and played a role in being active listeners to hear them out.
  5. Client X decided they wanted to keep working with 8020 — but not with the copywriter.
  6. We brought in another copywriter to work on the project for Client X.
  7. The project kept moving forward, and it ended up being a success. Phew!

Lessons from our miscommunication fumble

This experience taught us plenty of client relationship lessons. It's easy to be kind + have a good relationship with your clients when you are smooth sailing. But, it is our reactions to hardships that define us as humans and professionals.

After going down through memory lane and sharing our fire scare story with you, we are going to unfold one by one the valuable lessons we learned in the process.

1. Put yourself in your client's shoes

When encountering a problem with a client, your first instinct might be to react by defending yourself or your team. The classic ping-pong approach.

Instead, we recommend taking a step back to analyze the situation from your client's point of view. Your client is probably under a ton of pressure.

For example, with our Client X, we knew that their stakeholders were pushing them to fast-track the timeline. Plus, they had a big launch for their website coming up. Pressure is always on. It is only natural that emotions are afloat.

So, try to be empathetic if something said is misinterpreted. As we established previously, it doesn't matter who is wrong or right in a situation like this. It is not a battle between your client vs you. It's a battle between you and your client vs the problem.

2. In times of trouble, overcommunication is king

If you detect an issue during a project (whatever it might be), we suggest amping up the comms with the client 10 levels up. Reducing communication is what we've found is our worst enemy when facing hardships with clients.

In the story we shared with Client X, we kept the team updated at all times with every single step we took — even about things like our thought processes and how we were strategizing through solving the challenge for/with them.

Your client wants to know that you have the fire under control, and the best way to give that reassurance is to be present. Be clear and honest if there are even slight changes to timelines and deliverables, and inform them frequently of your progress.

3. Set a clear strategy with your team

Conflict is unavoidable. It will knock down your door when you least expect it. That doesn't mean the situation needs to be chaotic. We recommend having a strategy in place to deal with tricky situations (ideally before they occur, but during is great too).

Setting a plan in motion and involving your client in it will give them peace of mind. For Client X, we were very methodic. We collaborated to restructure timelines, deliverables, and due dates. Then, we documented the plan and shared it with the client. The key was that daily, we informed Client X of (a) what we were working on, (b) what they could expect from us, and (c) what we needed from them. In return, they felt understood and reassured that we would keep their timelines in line. With an aligned plan in motion, your project can get back on track.

4. Communicating an idea the right way is as important as the idea itself

Communication is not always as straightforward as we would want it to be. If you work remotely, like us, you will have to add another layer to comms. Consider that written messages can easily get lost in translation. People can read the exact same sentence in a completely different tone depending on their background — and even their current mood.

Clients come to us because we are experts in what we do, and they expect us to give recommendations and be their advisors. However, some clients will be more defensive than others when receiving feedback. We experienced something similar with Client X. The copywriter involved talked about a product that Client X had put a lot of effort into — it was their baby! It's normal and understandable that they felt their baby was being judged.

Your comments, feedback, or suggestions might be well-intentioned, but your client can take them differently. Be extra tactful, polite, and kind when providing feedback.

5. Keep your cool

The worst thing that can happen during times of trouble is one party resorting to offensive communication. Emotion-driven discussions will lead to emotional-driven responses.

Most personal, technical, and procedural problems have a solution. With a clear mind, it will be more likely to get to those rational conclusions. With Client X, for instance, we had a clear problem: a misinterpretation of a comment made by the copywriter. Once the client had the chance to vent and express their feelings, they themselves gave a clear solution (getting a fresh face involved). The fix to the problem was easy because, as an agency, we didn't react with our emotions; we acted objectively.

Keep in mind that when the pressure and stress are high, most of the time agencies and freelancers will get all the attention. When that happens, remember that your client is your partner. They also almost always respond to someone else internally and want to get the job done. If you can take some of the pressure off of them and be the peacekeeper under stress, your clients will thank you for it.

Acknowledge the problem that arose and thank your client for their patience as you solve it.

Key takeaways:
  • Even when you speak the same language as your client, you are not exempt from misinterpretation. Sooner or later, you might experience difficulties while working with a client. Your reactions to the problem will be more important than the problem itself.
  • Detach yourself from the situation. If you are unsure of how to react to a specific hardship, seek guidance from someone external that is not emotionally connected to the problem.
  • Soft skills are as important as hard skills to work efficiently.
  • Try to build a good connection with your client from the beginning. This will help you provide more personalized customer service through the regular peaks and valleys of the project.  
  • In times of trouble, nothing is worse than having your client in the dark. Communicate your plan and process every step of the way. Even when things are going sideways, keep your client in the loop.
  • Emotions can take over a conversation if you let them. The problem you will face will likely not be as big as you think. Take your time to breathe, circle back with your team, and then calmly get back to the situation you are going through.
  • Avoiding conflict is impossible. Don't get spooked if you get an unexpected reaction from a client. Don't judge their reactions. Instead, try to understand their emotions and work together as a team to resolve them.

Stay tuned! The next episode of Insider comes out in two weeks. In the meantime, we would love to know: What is the most tricky situation you've encountered with one of your clients? Share them with us here.

See you later, no-coder!