The art of empathy: how to win a client with a single consultation

Two people shaking hands in the office

Have you ever felt like you're sending off proposals into the darkness? You're kind of doing the right thing and following all the standards. It's not a cold sale — your potential client clearly has an immediate need. But for some reason you already know that you're not going to land this gig.

What's the problem?

Well, building a client relationship is a lot like building a family. It starts with an awkward date, and there's got to be some chemistry going on.

That first date is your initial consultation with a new client. That "chemistry" is the emotional bond that forms during this consultation.

I'll help you to rationalize it to win the heart of your client. You won't need any bloodsucking salesman techniques. Just pure empathy and modest professional behavior.

Don't try to sell your features

You're probably making the most common sales mistake. You're trying to sell your features. Typical rookie freelancers try to sell their skills. Some think they're being "advanced" and "client-focused" — they try to sell project details and other technical stuff. You think it can establish you as an authority.

The problem is, your client isn't looking for any of these fancy things. He's looking for a reliable person to understand and solve his aching problem. For someone he can trust.

How does that correlate with your technical jargon?

Mmm… It doesn't, right? If so, why not try and walk in a different direction — towards your client.

It's the experience you need to nail

After a few years a design client might not even remember what assignment he delegated to you. What remains is an emotional footprint. Was it comfortable working with you?

You don't need to speculate over multiple technical details. All you need is to give your client the feeling that you're absolutely going in the right direction. That you absolutely understand the goals of your client and are willing to achieve these goals together.

There's one key thing you can do to get that: listen.

Female boss explaining a project

Be a master of empathy

This technique can be found in all types of psychology books. Empathy is something we're all striving for. It's the essence of human nature. We get bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information regarding others. But what we need is just somebody sitting down quietly and focusing on our problems. Just for a little time.

But there's one more thing that's better than empathy. It's informed empathy. That's something you can't get from talking to your spouse. That's something each client dreams of.

So if you possess professional knowledge — don't go around bragging about it. Demonstrate it in immediate action. Show an informed understanding of your client's problems, and you'll be rolling in gold.

But what about implementation?

How do you demonstrate that you're capable of solving these problems?

Most times, it's enough to give a few hints on how you'll approach them. Outline the plan to finding a solution, instead of actually listing each detail.

If you do that professionally, it will spark up the desire to work with you. And you won't find yourself tied with any commitments or details either.

Details are rather tacky. For those who aren't experts in the industry, global vision might be hard to get, but small details serve as memorable hooks to attach undesirable strings. They serve as bottlenecks, limiting your freedom for dynamic professional decisions.

And please, remember! Actual work will only start three (!) steps down the road, after doing a proposal, sealing the deal, and receiving your advance payment. Fear early action as the devil fears holy water.

Your role for now is entirely informational. Behave as a consultant, even if you think you are an artisan!

Come prepared

So how should you engage with a client for the best results? First, you both should come prepared. Use a questionnaire as a preparation step. It's an awesome multi-purpose tool for any independent professional.

  • It demonstrates your professional approach. The very fact that you adhere to your own typical process works wonders.
  • It helps to weed out tire-kickers who are in fact too lazy to collaborate.
  • It prevents you from forgetting to ask important things.
  • It prepares a solid foundation for the conversation.
  • It allows you to ask otherwise awkward questions without feeling insecure.
  • It's a perfect way to show off your branding spirit.

You can use an online form builder (like Reform), or prepare your own PDF. There's something magical about old-fashioned PDF layouts, as I’ve found. They seem more interesting, printable and therefore actionable.

Make sure your questionnaire is meticulously designed, spell-checked and presented on your letterhead. Don't have one? It's the perfect time to design it. It will also come in handy for presenting invoices, contracts, etc.

Consulting techniques

  • Always schedule a meeting before sending over a proposal. Face-to-face conversations are, of course, irreplaceable, but a Skype call will work perfectly fine.
  • Video is better than audio because it allows for more personal engagement, and makes you a more attentive listener (you won't be able to put your legs on the table or yawn).
  • Warm up the situation by complimenting the client on their current achievements. It can be anything: professional wireframes, great content, large customer base, unique value proposition. It's not sleazy! Any person or company has something great, why not show your sincere appreciation? Just dig out that treasure and let it shine.
  • Allow the client to do the hard part. Barely drop a word, just listen carefully.
  • Show sincere empathy. The key word here is "sincere". You should nurture that emotion in yourself as a vital part of your profession.
  • Only start talking when you gather enough information. Make sure you mirror some of the client’s thoughts before introducing your own ideas.
  • Don't be afraid to wrap it up if you feel like it's going in a different direction (or the client is obviously not a good fit). Just do it in a transparent and professional manner.
  • Most important: your consultation should end with a few actionable steps. Define a few scenarios for your engagement, so that the question isn't whether to hire you or not, but what option to choose.
  • Allow the client a graceful way to quit so that he doesn't feel trapped in any commitments. Being trapped is not a positive emotion for any relationship.
  • Don't pigeonhole yourself into any commitments either. That relates to project scope, budget, timeframe or anything else. You'll be able to put more detailed thought into that later on, when putting together a proposal.
  • Be authentic and sincere. It all should come from your heart. Don't treat it as a mandatory exercise, let it come naturally. Be humble, earnest and willing to help.

Isn't that what client service is all about?

Are you ready to become a desirable pro?

Follow these easy steps and receive all the benefits of a successful initial consultation. It might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how many professionals skip on that and put themselves at a disadvantage.

Does it feel unnatural to you? Start small. Don't talk much about yourself — talk less in general. That alone can do wonders.

I've experienced different roles — I've been a freelancer, creative director, consultant, and product owner. Trust me, it's all about building a secure relationship, and the skills might even be secondary.

Try it and tell me what you think!

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