How to read between the lines of what clients say and still deliver great work

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One of the nicest things about getting older is that you wise up to people. And, in business, that can help enormously. You get better at analysing what clients say, for instance, and reading between the lines.

It's not something that you can learn overnight, this helpful intuition. But run a service-based business for long enough and you'll soon spot patterns on the things clients say and what they really mean. It helps you make informed decisions on whether they'll be a good client to work with or could be more trouble than they're worth.

But this isn't just about ditching clients at the first hurdle. It's about sticking with them and finding balance and common ground to deliver your best work. We asked Twitter for some of the classic things clients say to interpret them and offer advice on how to turn things in your favour and retain their business.

"We haven't got much budget right now, but next year will be different."

Translation: "We are currently skint but stick with us and it'll pay off."

Before you run for the hills, consider this – what is the client's long-term potential? Do they have a great product? Can you see them growing with your help? Because getting involved with an ambitious small business during those early days can really pay off.

Some of my best clients started out with tiny budgets and have since grown into lucrative retainer accounts (10 years and counting). You have to sometimes spot the potential of companies. Consider where they're heading and how you can become an essential part of that journey.

You won't always get it right. There will be timewasters. The important thing is to avoid becoming too cynical and treat every potential client as that "next big thing". Start small and grow with them. Come up with a plan that ensures you're fairly paid whilst offering good value for money. Aim to build a relationship based on mutual trust and respect and you'll soon be invoicing them for higher sums.

"Just whatever you think is best."

Translation: "We don't know what we need, feel a bit insecure about it and are hoping you'll do all the thinking for us."

Whilst a lack of a brief can be a red flag, it can also present a huge opportunity to apply your expertise and guide the client along a path that ultimately secures you lots more work and helps them to become a roaring success.

Being a consultant lets you flex your creative muscles and brings out the entrepreneur in you. It's fun. You roll your sleeves up and you get stuck in. You spot where money can be made.

What problems can you solve for your client? How will you help them first? Is there an obvious initial step that you can work on together? Sometimes, if there's too much to tackle, the best approach is to find something simple to focus on and then go from there.

"We'll know it when we see it."

Translation: "We don't know what we want."

Ok, so it's a tad frightening when a client utters these immortal words, but it simply means you have to work harder to understand what they want. As a good starting point, put together a brief. Your client might not even know what a "brief" is, let alone how to create one. Ask more questions. Ask some more. Keep going until you're satisfied.

Don't be afraid to highlight the importance of having more guidance before work begins. Spell out that time is money – the more you know before you get going, the better. As a precaution when quoting, always make clear how many iterations are involved before a final design is chosen, for example.

"We don't think people will like that particular element, we just want this..."

Translation: "We're going to ignore stats and common sense and make huge assumptions on what we think will work because we think we know best."

Whilst you obviously respect your client and acknowledge their expertise, you also have to be prepared to stand up for what you believe in and fight back to ultimately help them.

Many years ago, for example, a client didn't want any "scrolling" on their new website. After showing them some facts and figures on how people browse online, they accepted that scrolling was indeed necessary and they ended up with a great website. Don't be a "yes" person and go along with whatever people want. Be brave, be passionate and speak up if you don't think something is going to work.

"We have no budget for this one, but it's a great opportunity to gain exposure."

Translation: "We need to gauge how much you will do for free on future projects."

Yes, it's a worry when a potential client says something like this. But don't automatically dismiss them. Consider what happens if you point out that you don't work for free. Instead, turn things around and ask them how much their website is worth to them and how much more they could make from it if they redesigned it, for instance.

Highlighting the value of your skills and experience could be just the ticket. Use case studies of people you've helped. Throw some impressive stats around. Name-drop those big brands you've worked for. Make your client see that you don't need the work because you're in demand. Maybe then they'll see that you're definitely worth paying for and certainly don't need any "exposure" from them or anyone else.


Thanks to Kate Darby, Mirella Marie, Mike Wood and Todd Murphy for your help with writing this tips article. It's always reassuring to know that we're not alone!