The art of freelance customer service

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July 12, 2012
The art of freelance customer serviceWhen you think of customer service, be it as a freelancer or a large corporation, you probably think about rectifying problems promptly and with great finesse, exceeding customer expectations, and delivering promises on time and on budget. But there is so much more to customer service. As a freelancer, when you bid for a job there are probably at least five, possibly ten other highly skilled people bidding for the same work. While it's very easy to imagine that your price and your portfolio are the most important factors in winning work, I'd like to propose that this isn't strictly true. In fact, I'd like you to consider that price isn't a large factor in most business decisions. What truly matters is 'perceived value'.

Perceived value

The idea of 'perceived value' was taught to me by my long-standing friend (and somewhat big headed) Australian author and web design agency founder, Brendon Sinclair. Brendon is the author of 'The Web Design Business Kit', a book many of you may be familiar with. He discusses 'perceived value' in depth, and how a quote for $7,000 may be much better value for money compared to a quote of $3,000. So what does this have to do with customer service? Over the past ten years of freelancing, I've found that the designers and the developers I compete against when bidding for a job generally have much better design or development skills than I do. That's not to say I'm not skilled myself. I just don't mind admitting I still have plenty to learn. But just because their design skills may be of a higher caliber than my own, that doesn't mean they're better at their overall job than I am. For your job as a freelancer is not only to provide a well groomed responsive design, but to also market your company, control your finances, manage work flow as you outsource, and most importantly, provide exceptional customer service. By providing exceptional customer service from the very moment a prospect contacts you you're able to stand out and gather work that would usually go to Joe down the street who draws in his sleep and dreams about color palettes. This is because, while Joe is a fantastic designer with a great price, he doesn't provide the customer service that you do. He doesn't provide those jaw-dropping 'Wow' moments like you do. Great customer service delivers a great working relationship, and it's relationships upon which quotes are accepted and invoices are paid. It's not your beautiful design work, but rather the relationships you build that put money in your bank account. Providing great customer service and using it to win work is easy: just do simple things in exceptional ways. Consider the down town American taxi driver whose story I heard some years ago: despite being dressed in creased shorts and sandals with scruffy hair, he provides all his customers with a cab at the perfect temperature (be it warm or freezing cold, depending upon the temperature outside), and he supplies two newspapers for the customer, a cool bottle of water during the summer and a small tray of sweets. In amongst the hustle and bustle of the city as a customer tries to make his way from A to B, he's presented with a mobile haven. Of course, the taxi driver still makes a healthy profit because every customer tips him exceptionally well, to match the simple yet exceptional service he provides. Let's apply this example to our business as freelance designers and developers. How can we do simple things in exceptional ways?

While you scope the project

Exceptional customer service starts before they're a customer. It starts from the first phone call, the first meeting, or the first request for a proposal.

You're the expert, make it known

It's far too easy to stroll in to your first meeting with a potential customer and do all the listening. Don't fall in to the trap of sitting back and letting them tell you what they want. It's your job as the expert to find out what they want before you meet them, and then present to them what they need when you meet. Asking them their budget, asking them what they want, and asking them how they feel their web site should look are all questions that, in many situations, are not as valuable as others. Instead, finding out their goals for their web site and then telling them exactly what they need and how much it will cost to meet (and exceed) their goals is the best way to achieve success, both for you and the client. If you can show you're more interested in achieving success for your client than you are about staying within budget and getting cash in your bank, you're standing out above all the others bidding for the work.

Buy their product

Does your prospect sell a tangible product? Walk into their store before your first meeting and buy it. When they ask you why, tell them you're conducting research to ensure you know their business inside out. Not only will this show a great degree of thoughtfulness, you'll stand out above every other freelancer bidding for the job. Just by purchasing their product, you know their service and their business far better than any other freelance web designer, and that instantly builds the foundations of a great working relationship.

Offer a thank you

I'm not referring to a shake of the hand after the first meeting. Nor am I referring to an email when you get back to the office. Write them a letter. A genuine, typed (or handwritten) letter on paper, and mail it. Thank them for their time, sum up any points that were agreed in the meeting, and tell them you're looking forward to meeting them again to walk through your proposal. Two days after your first meeting, they'll receive the letter in the post from you. A personal touch that no other freelancer will do. If you don't think this will make you stand out, think again. I've been using this technique for years. Whenever I have an initial meeting, be it with a prospect or a general associate, I always send them a thank you letter. It always provokes a response and a smile, and instantly forms a relationship with them.

When you present the quote

Customer service when you present the quote is vitally important. When a customer is on the verge of making a purchase decision, they need to feel confident they're being looked after. Which is why this first suggestion may seem strange...

Do not be the cheapest

Presenting a quote is about perceived value. Be confident enough to quote a price equal to the value of your work, not the price you think the customer can afford. Your proposal will show how you're going to help them succeed, and with the customer service you've already provided your prospect will feel comfortable knowing they're paying for the best service. You charge what you’re worth, and if you happen to be worth the most compared to other freelancers bidding for the work, then make sure your prospective customer knows why.

Present the proposal in person

I see it all the time, designers that email their proposal and spend the next 48 hours waiting for a reply, desperately hoping they'll be chosen. Stop, right now. The next proposal you write, arrange a meeting with the prospect and present it in person. Talk through your plan, show them how you're going to meet their goals, and then (and only then) tell them the price. It's at this point you go on to explain to them how you're not only going to meet their goals; in fact, you're going to exceed their goals. Explain to them how, and again tell them the price. Suddenly, the price you stated earlier seems much more valuable. Never be afraid to ask for the business. Walking away with the phrase "I'll give you a couple days to think" won't get you anywhere. "So would you like me help you achieve those goals we talked about?" shows confidence and a desire to work with the prospect. Ensure you have the contract ready to sign, and before you know it you'll be walking away with a down payment and a new customer.

While you work on the project

Complete your work ahead of schedule

In my early days as a freelancer, I'd often miss deadlines. Customers hate this, and I hated it too. It wasn't due to laziness or working slowly, it was always due to poor estimation when I provided the quote. Now, when I quote for a job, I consider how much time it'll take me then add 20%. A job that I estimate will take me ten days is given a 12 day time frame. Since I've done this, I've never missed a deadline, and 90% of the time I complete the work ahead of schedule. Customers love this, and I love it too.

When you complete the project

Ask for the customer's feedback

While asking for their feedback won't improve the customer service that particular customer receives for the project you just completed, it will certainly help ensure you provide fantastic service when working on future projects. Negative or positive, feedback is important to help you move forward and improve.

Keep in touch

Time and time again I see freelancers lose potential work from past clients because the client forgot about them. Do you remember the taxi driver mentioned at the start of this article? He sends a Christmas card, every year, to all his customers who gave him businesses cards. Great customer service isn't for the life of a project. It's for the life of the customer. Remember, great customer service is about doing simple things in exceptional ways. Do everything your competitors do, and then do more. Your job as a freelancer isn't to design something beautiful. Designing something beautiful is only one step in an effort to meet and far exceed the needs of your customers.

Jamie Harrop

Jamie Harrop is a Halifax, UK based front-end developer, designer and writer with 11 years e-commerce and freelance experience.

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