Clients are the lifeblood of your freelance business. Without them, you wouldn’t have a business, and you don't have who to send invoice templates to and get paid!
The ability to interpret client needs is a necessary skill for any business owner. In the freelance business, it’s particularly important as you are constantly developing proposals, pitching clients and meeting their expectations with regular work. You can’t assume client needs or you’ll be missing the mark.
Being a freelancer is similar to many other small businesses. There are many different facets of the operation, from job searches, to sales, to closing deals, to delivering on the work, and to actually getting your freelance invoices paid.
If you don’t understand the needs of potential customers, you’ll never close the sale to make them a customer. Once you have a customer, you must continue to understand and meet ongoing needs, or you won’t retain the business. You need to know how to identify client needs.
But how do you ensure you address client needs in a way that advances your business? Let’s look at five key tactics for understanding client needs and therefore meeting their expectations.
1. Know their business
It’s vital that you know your client and their business before meeting with them, preparing a freelance proposal, or doing a sales pitch. You can do this in a variety of ways, including Internet research.
You could also ask a potential client to complete a discovery document, or if you're in web design business, use a creative brief. The document can answer the most relevant questions you need answered prior to an in-person meeting. It allows you to be prepared to discuss the challenges faced by the client and what you can do to support them. It also sets a tone that you are a good listener, and you’re prepared to maximize your time with the client.
It’s also important to build rapport with your clients. You and your customers are not just about work. You’re also people too, so it doesn’t hurt to get to know your clients and build a relationship beyond work. That doesn’t mean you have to be friends; it means you can know a little bit about them as people, and share a little bit about yourself.
2. Listen (really listen)
This seems like the most straightforward advice, but as humans, it’s often the most difficult. We are all guilty of being poor listeners at various times, for various reasons. Really listening to your client will help you understand and retain information you’re already receiving, even if it isn’t a formal meeting.
Being a good listener takes focus and work. Here are some ways you can become a better listener:
Listen to understand. Too many of us prepare responses when we are listening to other people. Our minds jump to what we want to say next, rather than focusing on what’s being said to us. This is true in sales and business environments as well. Don’t be formulating your pitch while the client is talking. Wait until you have all the information you need before responding.
Maintain eye contact.This simple gesture builds trust but also helps you to focus on what’s being said.
Minimize distractions. Particularly if you know you get distracted easily, minimize any distraction during a client meeting. If it’s on the phone, sit in a quiet space with nothing but a note-taking device. If it’s in person, don’t sit facing an outside window or the office hallway. It’s too easy to take your attention away from the client, and even a moment diverted is a moment too long.
Listen for every opportunity. Perhaps you will hear something from the client that isn’t just an opportunity to make a sale. Maybe you can provide advice or guidance as a trusted authority in your field. This can pay dividends immediately, or down the road.
3. Ask questions and paraphrase for understanding
Another important aspect of listening is asking questions to identify customer needs and paraphrasing what they say. This helps with clarification and to enhance your understanding of their needs.
To do this, ask open-ended questions, rather than yes-or-no questions and, if this is a branding project, consider using a branding questionnaire to get in-depth insights in writing. One of the biggest things any client wants is to be understood.
Depending on your client, you may have to adapt your communication style. As Annette Young points out, “To build rapport and to increase ease of communication, it may pay to adapt your communication style. If your client is very direct and talks fast rather than having a conversational style, adapt your own communications and mirror their style.”
Paraphrasing is another tool to ensure you understand your client’s needs. It will also show the client that you were listening and that you understand what they were telling you.
The additional power of paraphrasing lies in the response of the client. They will either correct you or more fully explain what they were saying, or both. They will also likely provide additional information which will also support your work.
Effective paraphrasing will show your client that you actually were listening, and you understand and can meet their needs.
4. Bring new ideas to the table
Whether you’re at the proposal stage or already doing work for a client, bring solutions to your customer. Don’t be afraid to propose something other than what the client had in mind. Your customer will appreciate that you are suggesting new ideas and perhaps even identifying a need they didn’t know they had.
You may have a better service in mind, and if nothing else, this again shows you’re listening and attempting to understand your client’s needs.
5. Continue to circle back with the client
Just because you have a happy client at the present doesn’t mean your work understanding client needs is over. It’s important to check in regularly with customers, to ensure you’re meeting expectations, and to see if there is additional work you can provide. After all, having a loyal client base is important to any business, in any industry. This can also help you secure retainer agreements from your clients.
Here are a few examples of ways you can circle back with a client:
Conduct a post-project session with the client, if it’s a specific piece of work you have completed. Ask for feedback on the work, and be prepared to suggest further work that you can do for the client.
Conduct periodic reviews on a schedule. For instance, if you’re working on a retainer basis, it’s worthwhile to do semi-annual or annual reviews to see if the relationship is benefiting both sides. It will also point to new work or things that need to change.
Call clients regularly. You can also choose a less formal way to communicate with clients, like a periodical call to update them and ask how they are feeling about your work. You can ask them to rate your services from 1-10; if they don’t give you a 10, you can ask what you can improve. If you get a 10, ask what has made them so happy.
Understanding client needs is one of the biggest challenges of any freelance business, but also one of the most important and rewarding tasks. Acquiring and maintaining a loyal client base will ensure your business remains successful.
These five tactics on how to identify client needs will serve your freelance business in every step of the process, from pitching the client to developing proposals to actually doing the work.
If you want to spend more time meeting client needs and less time on administrative tasks, Bonsai has a suite of products and resources that will support your business. Sign up for a free trial today.