Observe and empathize to know your clients

By Michelle van Schouwen

As a longtime service business owner, mentor and occasional investor, I’ve learned – and must relearn by hard experience from time to time – that knowing your clients and business associates is as important as knowing your own professional offerings.

Through observation and empathy, and sometimes through steely appraisal, any service business owner can discover what makes specific clients tick. Doing so is valuable not only in dealing with current clients but also in gaining wisdom from past experiences and building future client relationships. The practice of understanding clients also gives you the confidence to say no to client relationships that don’t feel right.

Put yourself in your client’s shoes: Clients are not all the same, as you know. Some want phone calls, while others prefer to communicate by email. Some call you during Friday night dinner, while others are offended if you ask if there’s anything else you can do for them. Some care most about cost, others about partnership. These preferences can be rooted in issues of time management, desire for efficiency, or boundaries versus the desire for a close working relationship. Work on empathizing with your client by understanding not only that she or he has certain preferences and idiosyncrasies, but also why this may be the case.

Understand your client’s pressures: To whom does your client report? What day-to-day stresses (at work and outside) might your client face? Can you tell when you’re making your client’s life easier… or harder?

Identify whether your client is a giver, a taker or deal maker: You can reciprocate with givers, place gentle or firm limits on takers and negotiate with deal makers.

Beware the human black hole: This client recognizes the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He or she may require that you prove yourself repeatedly, work for little or nothing and compensate for his or her lack of planning. If you must work with one of these clients, be strong and in control. Nonetheless, the relationship will probably end badly, or at least prove very unfulfilling. Don’t hesitate to walk away from such a relationship at a time that is of your own choosing. Then use the experience to avoid the next black hole.

Be aware of what your client knows and doesn’t know: Some clients understand a good deal about your services, and some just want you to perform these services and “get it all done.” Either can be okay. What’s not okay is the client who does not understand and still thinks he or she knows better than you.

Understand the moody client: Our company used to have a client we dubbed “The Paper Tiger.” He would rant by email, but, when we called to straighten out whatever his concern was, would be sweet as a kitten, as if he’d never sent the furious email. By knowing our client’s pattern, we could manage the ongoing “crises” he envisioned. We worked with him successfully for many years, because we understood how best to keep him happy… or at least calm.

Recognize the truly great client: This client values your time; is fair in negotiations, scheduling and expectations; pays the bill; and recommends you to others. Where can you find more clients like this one?

Learn, record, remember, and employ your knowledge: It is worth keeping a list of pointers to help you understand and deal positively with your clients, and creating a checklist for what you’d like to see in future clients. It’s also a good idea, at the start of a new client relationship and periodically throughout, to ask your clients a few questions that will help you understand their needs: Do you prefer phone calls or emails? How often do you like to be updated? What were the best and worst aspects of your most recent relationship with a company like ours? How do you like to deliver feedback to us?

In your service business, your relationships with your clients play a critical role in determining the quality of your and your team’s work days and even your company’s long-term success.


Michelle van Schouwen is president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company based in Longmeadow, MA. vSA is known for vSALaunch, its proprietary, modular and scalable system for B2B marketing launches, vSAConsult, its executive-level strategic planning capability, and for its expertise in integrated marketing for B2B. 

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