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client relations: don't disappear

One of my rules for managing clients is: Don't disappear. 

It's quite simple: if a client calls you, call them back. If a client emails you, reply to their email. If they stop by your office, don't dodge them in the hall. Reply to your client within a reasonable amount of time, even if it's just to let them know you're out of the office, and will give them a better answer when you're back. Or to let them know you're still working on the thing they need from you, and when you'll be done by. 

It's not rocket surgery. And yet, many people you'll encounter in your professional life seem to have never learned this very basic rule. You'll call and get voicemail. Your emails will go unanswered. If you were dating these people, you'd consider yourself ghosted on, only when some girl never calls you back after coffee, your paycheck isn't affected. 

As an art director, I encounter a lot of these people. My job often requires that I get people I have absolutely no authority over, to do something for me, by a certain time. It can be frustrating in the extreme, when I have a deadline, and something I need for the deadline isn't up to me. Design is often close to last in the print production chain, and it's not always as far up in the web design workflow as it should be. If your organization doesn't have a strong commitment to making design an essential part of the process, odds are good that you'll be where the project manager decides all the slack can be cut. 

Here's how I handle people who disappear: 

  • First, I explain to the person I need something from why I need it in the first place. I try to tie my goals and needs into this person's own goals and needs. I give them their very own reason to help me, that doesn't rely on sheer altruism. Our payroll office wants for nothing, because everyone is very invested in making sure that the people who put money in our bank accounts have precisely what they need in order to make that happen. Try to be as important as payroll. 
  • I set very clear expectations when I need to hear back, and what I need from them. If you know how to delegate well, you've got this down. 'Hey, get back to me whenever you can' is doomed to fail, but 'I need this proof revised with the client's changes made, and back to me by 5 p.m. Thursday,' is much more likely to succeed. 
  • Ask if there's anything you can take off of their plate in return for their help. The reciprocity is key; that way, you're asking, but you're also offering to help them. You can also ask if there's anything they'd like from you to make their job easier, that they want. 
  • I build time into my project schedule that specifically allows for people to flake on me. Because they're human, and life happens. Even well-meaning, conscientious people, who usually get back to you right away with everything you need, can still be hit by a bus. 
  • I follow up the next business day, in the same medium as my original message.
  • If it's been two business days, and I've still not heard back, I'll follow up, but this time, I escalate mediums. If my email got no answer, I'll call; if my voicemail gets no answer, I'll stop by their office, if possible. If it's not possible for me to get there in person, I'll call their receptionist to see if they're in the office. (Always, always be polite to receptionists. Bring candy. I'm not above bribes.)
  • Ask if the person you need's out of the office, or has gone on vacation, and forgotten to set an out-of-office notification (it happens constantly).
  • Ask if there's a better person to help you; there may be someone who's got more bandwidth or resources, that isn't overwhelmed. 
  • Send another request, and cc their boss, your boss, and possibly your client, if the deadline's looming. It's rare that this will be ignored. Usually, this will be enough to get their attention. Now, don't be that jerk who always cc's everyone's boss, the very first time you ask. 
  • If none of those things work and another day goes by, I escalate again, directly to their boss — I ask for their boss' help resolving the problem, and getting me the thing I need. If I have to do this over email, I include the email thread of unanswered messages, complete with a timeline of my communication attempts. Use this sparingly, as it can really tank any future relationship with the person.   

People talk, and if you have a habit of flaking on emails and messages, it'll get around, fast. You'll be seen as unreliable, and slowly, people will stop coming to you for help, and leaving you out of important projects. That may seem great at first, if you're not a people person — but it won't be great when you're laid off for lack of work. If you vow never to be the person who ghosts on someone, you'll go a long way toward building a reputation as a solid professional.