If your business model is based on offering a service, chances are that you have found yourself in this situation - or something like it. Your client signed up for a service at a set fee, and now you are receiving requests for a little bit extra here and a little bit extra there asking you to quickly add something or change this or do that. Now, as frustrated as you might be at your client’s endless requests, there’s a high probability that you put yourself in this situation. It really is a subconscious mistake that we make in our endeavour to retain our clients and to keep them happy.
So, what is it that we are doing wrong and how do we stop the barrage of endless requests once our clients have signed on for our services? Let’s begin!
I promise you are not doing it on purpose.
Literature is rife with studies that have shown, year in and year out, that retaining a client is not only easier but also less expensive than it is to acquire a new one. The debate about client retention vs client acquisition and where to dedicate the largest portion of your marketing budget has been going on for decades. What’s more, as a small business, each client that you have (or lose) could mean the difference between covering your overheads that month or not. So, it is understandable that businesses would bend over backwards to keep a client happy. A quick change to a logo design, an extra article here, or added website feature there isn’t that much work when you consider that it’s done in the name of client retention. But this is a rather dangerous and slippery slope for you to venture down, no matter what your motivation is.
The pure nature of a service-based business is that of offering a service at a set amount that takes a certain duration to perform. And therein lies your problem! Your earning potential is effectively limited by the number of hours that you have available and when you agree to your client’s little requests, you are ultimately not only doing work for free, but losing out on the possible income you could have earned had you spent that time on a paying client. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much in favour of striving for client satisfaction and doing what you can to retain your clients, but here’s the kicker; those extra little bits of work that you are doing is not what will keep your client coming back. The quality of your work does far more for your client’s satisfaction than any freebee ever could.
How to handle client requests.
It is natural and understandable that consumers would want to get the biggest bang for their buck. In the current economic climate, we all get very excited at a special, but this does not mean that you should devaluate your expertise and do as much as possible for as little as possible to keep your clients happy. Not only does this make your profit margin smaller resulting in you needing to put in more hours to make up the difference, but it also affects the perceived quality of your service. (And let's not even begin to talk about the damage it does to other businesses in your industry). So, how do we handle this conundrum? By managing expectations.
Firstly, clients come to you because you have the skills, knowledge and expertise to give them something that they need. Whether it’s a website, a logo, a renovated bathroom, a manicured lawn, or a well maintained digital presence for their business; they make use of your services because they cannot do it themselves. Along with this inability to do it themselves comes the fact that clients generally aren’t aware of what it actually takes to get it done. It is your responsibility as the service provider to stipulate (and explain in layman’s terms if you offer a very technical service) what you are going to do. This will not only manage their expectations when it comes to outcomes and duration, but it will also help them understand the value of your service. A client who, for example, comes to you for a new business logo, does not generally understand the process that is followed in designing a new business logo, nor do they have a full grasp of the hours that you put into honing your craft.
Secondly, you need to manage expectations by setting clear boundaries in the form of expected outcomes that are agreed upon. It is generally easier to manage client expectations when it comes to the sales of goods. Because your client knows what they are paying for and what they are paying for it, they don’t expect more from the item once they’ve received it. As a service provider, managing expectations means that you need to create that level of certainty when it comes to signing up for your services. The best way to explain this is with an example in the digital space. A web developer building a new e-commerce site for a client needs to set boundaries in terms of the loading products and store maintenance, will they connect the site to a payment method or does that responsibility lie with the client, are they setting up the email communication that accompanies the checkout process as well, etc. Clear boundaries in the form of expected outcomes that are agreed upon will mitigate possible communication issues and helps the client to understand exactly what they will be getting. Simply saying that you’ll build them an e-commerce website at a cost of X isn’t good enough and will only result in extra requests as your client tries to get the end result to resemble what they were expecting.
Lastly, you need to offer your client clear (and priced) options for other services. At this point, you would have already explained to the client what it is that you are going to do and you would have agreed on certain outcomes for your services. Now, you need to manage your client’s expectations of what their options are after the service has been rendered. After the agreed outcomes have been achieved, what can they do if they want to make changes or add to it and how much will it cost them? Being clear on the prices of services that fall outside the initial agreed-upon expected outcomes helps your client to understand where the boundaries are and also makes the uncomfortable conversation where you have to say no to those quick changes here and there easier. The client knows that if they want to try the design in blue, or add an extra flower bed to the left corner of the driveway, it comes at an extra fee which will be added to the final invoice.
We teach others how to treat us by what we allow.
So, what to do if you’ve done all three steps and your client makes a request that is not within your contract?
I reached out to a friend and colleague of mine from The Grammar Goblin, Kelly Naude, to ask her how she approaches a situation where job specifications have been agreed to in writing, but the client then asks her to basically perform another, full-time job in addition to what had been agreed upon.
“If ever I find myself in a situation where I am having a bit of a problem finding the right words to say no, in a respectful way, I remind myself that it comes down to dignity. Just like in personal relationships, we teach others how to treat us by what we allow, the same goes in business. In the end, by reminding your client of the contract that was agreed to, my areas of expertise and the prices of additional work I am able to do for them, I create an environment of dignity. Clients are brought back to a sense of clarity about their business, and are, therefore, able to make decisions with dignity. I also reclaim my dignity as a service provider by reminding myself of my worth, my areas of expertise and the value of my time.”
Clients come to you for a service that they cannot do themselves. Herein lies the key to understanding why customers tend to request more than what they initially signed up for. While you have a clear understanding of the industry that you are in, the service that you offer, and the outcomes that you are going to achieve, your client, more often than not, does not. Take the example of our client who asked for a new company logo. While you know, as a designer, that different versions of a logo is required in different file formats for different purposes, they do not. So, when the time comes for them to have t-shirts printed, they will most likely bug you for a single colour open PDF after you sent the final artwork as a full-colour PNG. While it might be tempting for you to send the logo through in a new file format for free, your earning potential is limited to the number of hours that you have available and you should make sure that those hours count.
While it is true that a quick change, addition, or alteration here or there at no extra charge will keep your client happy, instead of sacrificing your time in the name of client retention, rather endeavour to properly manage client expectations from the beginning of the relationship. By clearly defining and explaining the process involved in rendering the service, setting clear boundaries in the form of expected and agreed-upon outcomes, and offering your client clear (and priced) options for other services, you can keep your client happy whilst still earning what you are worth.
How can I help?
This piece was written in a very general manner with the idea of appealing to as many service businesses as possible. If you would like to discuss how to apply the steps discussed above to your business specifically, please do not hesitate to get in touch.