client relations

Do/Don’t do this to make your clients/team value/undervalue you by Matthew Cook


I’ve discovered that I occasionally have lapses in aspects of my work life that passively communicate a great deal to the people around me. Whether that person is a client, partner, or even my wife, there are things that are much more apparent to those around me than they are to me.

I think this is a common problem. The things I fail to see in myself, I often see it in the people around me. I’m also quick to perceive an underlying cause. I can tell this is happening when thoughts start dawning on me like:

That last project was really taxing and we didn’t get to do anything fun, maybe that’s why everyone seems down.

Maybe he doesn’t care about this project/task anymore.

Something new would be better for all of us right now.

It struck me that while this is a great diagnostic habit between team members or in a relationship, this is really dangerous when it happens with a client. Where teams and spouses have a lot of motivation to come along side you, clients don’t necessarily. They may get scared. They may get dissatisfied. No client should ever feel like their project is overly taxing and un-fun. No client should feel like you don’t care. No client should start to feel like everyone on their project just needs something new. So here’s my list on how to avoid these feelings:


Make your value clear. Clients are very aware of your cost, stop talking about it. However, they will sometimes forget why you’re valuable and why you matter in the long run. Keep reminding them. Tell them with the quality of your work, but also tell them with your timeliness, interpersonal consideration, and how you structure your fees. Stop invoicing at random times when you aren’t clearly contributing to your project. Get crafty; show glimpses of your work when you invoice. Invoice a small initial payment then kill it in a kickoff meeting and follow up with an invoice for the first 50% of the project.

Over-communicate in times of uncertainty and crisis. This is well documented. Clients can tell when you go dark, and sometimes they aren’t the type to pipe up when something feels wrong.

Go to the problem and be honest. You may be able to get away with lying to your client once and you may be able to avoid a problem by simply ignoring it, but those are scorched ground tactics and won’t be forgotten. Running toward conflicts and dealing with them strategically (and with pace) sets the stage for a solid open relationship. It also lets you do cool things like documenting issues and having a back-log to learn from or prove your value to your client.

Complain. You read that correctly, go complain more. Don’t whine, but sit back, be strategic and complain. Bring up the problems, bring up the weaknesses, then be the first one to propose the best solution.

Over deliver. Over deliver. Over deliver. Don’t just do what you say you will (which is hard enough for some of us who like to bite a lot off), but do it well, and do it better. Then do a little more.

Embrace ambiguity. Colin Shaw has a great article about this. If anyone lives and breathes in an ambiguous world it’s those of us who design and build things online. Your clients already don’t understand most of what you do, but that’s a strength. Sometimes we create things in spaces others don’t even know exist. We delight where something is boring. We make money grow on trees.


Work in a black box. Make it clear what you’re doing and why it matters. Trust is extremely important, and you can’t gain it or keep it if you’re not communicating.

Forget to congratulate your team and occasionally yourself. There’s a lot of power to telling your team and your client that they’re doing a great job. Don’t pander, but celebrate small successes and your adaptability when you turn a challenge into a success.

Hold back your dreams and aspirations. The why is sometimes just as important as the what. Dreaming out loud can be intoxicating for a team. Even if you’re the most junior member, making your passions known and displaying why it makes you such a good fit can be a powerful exercise in pulling client and team together.

Assume problems will blow over. Again, be the person who runs to the issues. Avoiding them leaves them out of your control and creates ambiguity–the bad kind. By taking on the hard stuff, you show that you’re committed and professional. You sweat the small stuff and respect the big stuff.

Let your client get away with not putting everything on the table. The sneaky thing about unspoken expectations is that they’re unspoken. Make it known you expect forthrightness and clarity. Have thick skin and take criticism as graciously as you take praise. Force a vision for the future to be put on the table. Be honest about what you’re going to do and expect the same from your clients.

Be comfortable. Death by a thousand paper cuts looks a lot like business as normal until you can’t stop the bleeding. Even good relationships and happy feelings need support. Create a list of assumptions you’re making about a project or client and then try to remember the last time you talked about them. Preempt the “we’re just good roommates” conversation and start building relationships.