Articles - 13th August 2020

How to convince a nervous client to work with you

Words by Tom May
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Dealing with a potential client who’s cocky and arrogant can be a real nightmare. But if you’re hoping for someone a little calmer, be careful what you wish for. Because the polar opposite – a client who’s so nervous that they struggle to make a decision – can be even more maddening.

This type of client is usually a decent enough person in general. But instead of firm commitments, you get a promise that they’ll “think about it”. Rather than a clear timeline, they say they’ll “get back to you sometime next month”. While they ask you for a lot of detail, and pump you for creative ideas, they give little feedback. And when you meet them in person, or on Zoom, they talk fast and say a lot, but there’s a lot of waffle and little of substance.

This can all be very frustrating, to say the least. But there are ways to overcome their nervousness and land them as a client. Here’s how to go about it.

 

1. Seek out the root causes

The first step is to step back and look at the big picture. If a client is nervous about committing, there must be an underlying cause. Are they just an anxious personality in general? Or is there a specific reason? Maybe they’re new to hiring freelancers, for instance, or have had bad experiences in the past.

It’s tricky to ask them these questions outright. But with a little bit of background research and some subtle probing, it’s usually possible to get some idea of what’s going on. And my general rule of thumb is that the more delay and prevarication I get from the potential client, the more direct I get in my enquiries. After all, it’s only by understanding the root causes of their nervousness that you can address them.

 

2. Acknowledge the client’s anxiety

Once you know why the client is nervous about committing, just acknowledging that fact and getting it out in the open can go a long way to setting them at ease.

For instance, you might simply say out loud, or write in an email that, “I understand you’ve had bad experiences with people missing deadlines in the past, and we don’t want that happening again.” This can be quick way to make them believe you’re on their side, and that you get what’s important to them.

 

3. Project confidence

The more confident you are, the more relaxed a nervous client will become. But of course, that can be easy to say and difficult to do. When your income is on the line, it’s natural for you to be stressed as well. So it’s worth following some strategies that make you appear like the proverbial duck; calm on the surface, even when you’re padding like heck underneath.

If you’re meeting your client in person, find an environment that’s likely to be relaxing for both of you, whether that’s a quiet coffee shop or a secure meeting room at a shared workspace. But even if you’re just doing a Zoom meeting, it’s well worth practising your basic pitch in the mirror beforehand, taking care of any body language or speech patterns that might betray anxiety.

For example, do you wave your hands around too much? Practise speaking with your hands by your side. Do you use qualifying words – “well, you know”, “sort of”, “kind of”, “like”? Keep rehearsing until these are down to a minimum. Do you speak too quickly when pressured? Force yourself to slow down and project more confidence.

Also, anticipate questions the potential client may want to ask, and practise these specifically, so you don’t stumble over your words when it really matters.

 

4. Be polite and professional

Being confident doesn’t, of course, mean being cocky: that can be just as off-putting to the nervous client. Conversely, behaving in a polite and professional manner shows respect and that you’re taking them seriously, which helps them feel they’re making the right decision by dealing with you.

In person, this means smiling: not in a fake way, but in a way that suggests you’re looking forward to working on the project. (If they sense you’re not, why would they want to work with you?). It also means finding ways to complement the client that sound genuine. Who wants to hire someone who’s only interested in the money, or themselves?

Emails, meanwhile, should be kept friendly, short, informative and never overtly causal. Try to follow the potential client’s lead on things like how they begin and sign off (“Dear Mrs X… Yours faithfully”). And using formal and respectful language, especially when asking them to make critical decisions (“Do I have your permission to move forward?”) will be very helpful to your cause.

 

5. Empathise

The more you understand the needs of both your client and their company as a whole, the more they’ll come to trust you. That means getting a sense of the pressures they’re under personally: how insecure their own job is, what their manager’s demanding of them, and so on.

As before, you don’t want to be too nosey. But by listening carefully to their words, paying attention to their body language, and asking suitable follow-up questions, you should start getting a sense of what they’re going through.

To make sure you’ve understood this correctly, convey your understanding to the client by rephrasing their concerns back at them. Use language like ““I can understand how frustrating it is when…”; “I realise how complicated it is to…”; “I know how confusing it must be when…” so they believe you’re on their side. But don’t just be negative; match everything with positive statements like “Okay, we can fix this…” to engender trust and optimism too.

 

6. Maximise your availability

The more nervous the client, the more often they’ll want you on hand to alleviate their concerns. So it’s helpful to make yourself as available to them as possible. However, it’s important to draw clear lines, and so communicate precisely when you will NOT be available. After all, overpromising and underdelivering is only ever going to end in tears.

 

7. Clarify everything in writing

Nervous clients are often so because they’re not sure what they want. In such cases, it’s important to put as much detail in writing as possible in a scope document, both to assure them and to cover your own back. This is something you should do with all clients, of course, but it’s especially important here, so you can be sure to avoid overruns, endless revisions and all the other potential dangers of a client who’s forever changing their mind.

But there are some benefits to nervous clients.

This may all sound like a lot of extra hassle, so is it really worth trying to land a nervous client?

We’d argue it is, particularly over the long term. Because if you stick to clients who are simpler to land – the proverbial “easy come” – they may turn out to be “easy go” as well; dumping you for another freelancer for their next project who charges less, offers more, or just offers variety.

In contrast, if you can convince a nervous client to sign up with you, then you’ll form a much stronger bond, based on the deeper emotional connection of having worked through their nervousness together. This means they’re much less likely to jump ship later on, and so you’ll have a client for life… or at least a very long time to come.

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