I had a couple of client calls last week that had me feeling somewhat uneasy beforehand. Not because we did anything wrong, not because the client was unhappy, but because I had no idea what to expect.
Before the calls, I gathered as much context as possible to remove any uneasiness. Confidence comes from knowing. While I didn't know where the conversation might go, I found confidence in the facts and my relationship with the client, but most of all, my willingness to guide the conversation toward a resolution, whatever form that might take.
Without getting into detail, both clients shared that their business was going through a shaky period. In both scenarios, we agreed to scale down hours for the rest of the year and revisit our collaboration in January. Thankfully, one contract had an end date, but the other was on-going, so our projections didn't suffer as much as they could have.
On Friday, I looked back on the week and thought about how similar calls may have stressed me out in the past. This time, it felt nice to find calm. One helpful tool has been a mental checklist for how I show up in client conversations, no matter the situation.
I've never formally listed this checklist, but I thought it would be a good exercise. Below is a brief breakdown.
1) Listen with curiosity: Rather than reacting to the client, I try to respond with questions that surface more context. I aim to understand where the client is coming from and uncover what other pressures they are managing. There's always more below the surface, and often, that information is the missing puzzle pieces. Seeing the situation from the client's point of view can change everything.
2) Find the feedback: One of our Barrel maxims is "All feedback is information." In that way, there's always feedback ripe for the taking. When I chat with clients, I ask questions to get insight into how they view our collaboration. If our goal is continuous improvement, all feedback is invaluable. Feedback may also be the key to turning around a challenging situation.
3) Be honest, not defensive: I can remember times in the past where a client expressed dissatisfaction with how we handled a project, and I thought to myself, "I'd be unhappy, too." Rather than try to defend what we did, I've found that recognizing the situation for what it is has been much more productive. The client feels heard, and we can start looking ahead, not dwell in the past.
4) Be willing to accept any outcome: Given my role on projects, I rarely chat with the same client on a daily basis. When I meet with them, there's always a chance that I'll learn something new, and the conversation will take a new form. While I always prepare for my calls and know where I hope to guide them, I've learned to come to them with an open mind vs. push any specific agenda. The outcome may not be in our favor, and that's okay. I appreciate surfacing it with the client rather than coming out of nowhere and potentially ending on bad terms.
5) Focus on what they want: One of the calls this week went one hour over the allotted time. The other lasted 15 minutes. The latter client knew what they were looking for from us, while the former used our time to discover that path. In either case, I see it as my job to center the conversation on what the client wants. When I deal with a challenge as a customer, I've learned how powerful it is to lead with what I want. When their vision is unclear, I do my best to help them find clarity so we can help them be successful. Every time, my goal is to confirm any next steps are in the right direction.