August 29, 2022
General
Libby Marks

8 Universal Client Management Skills That Go a Long Way

Discover the power skills in client management that make every relationship and project easier to manage - for better results, repeat custom, and revenue.

According to Deltek, clients now expect more value, a higher quality of work, and a faster delivery of solutions and services.

Needless to say, being able to meet these constantly growing requirements (while maintaining a professional demeanor) has become a brainteaser for many professional service providers. 

How can software shops, agencies, and consulting firms satisfy their clients without compromising project margins? 

The answer is easier than you might think. The best way to succeed in this environment is through leveling up a combination of skills in client-facing roles. 

Whether you’re a Project Manager who liaises directly with clients - or a designated Client Manager - here are the eight essential client management skills for building commercially rewarding relationships.  

What is client management?

Client management is the process of managing your organization’s relationship with clients. The purpose of client management is two-fold. 

On the client side, it provides a dedicated channel for clients to make their needs known, so that the business can satisfy them. On the business side, it protects the commercial interests of the organization - by managing expectations, negotiating outcomes, controlling costs, and delivering projects that result in happy (hopefully, repeat) customers.  

In project-based businesses, client management may be the responsibility of designated Client Managers or individual Project Managers. Regardless of who’s involved in client liaison, they must be equipped with the core client management skills they need for success.

Why are client management skills important? 

Client management skills are important because they can make-or-break relationships. And relationships mean revenue. Start a new client relationship on the wrong foot and this might be the only time they work with you. But build a strong relationship based on trust and transparency and they could return time and again. 

Good relationships deliver great results - Strong client management skills set projects up for success - by ensuring requirements are accurately captured, communication is clear, and expectations properly managed.

It’s cheaper to retain than recruit - It takes less time and money to retain an existing client than to find and onboard a new one - reducing your overall customer acquisition costs and boosting your bottom line. 

Return clients mean higher LTV - Happy repeat clients represent a higher lifetime value to your business than ‘one-and-gone’ customers who never work with you again - and they’re more likely to recommend you to others.

Client management isn’t always easy. Information can get lost in translation, assumptions can go unspoken, and requirements can slide under the radar. When that happens, your project is built on flimsy foundations and your relationship could suffer.  

Common challenges in client management

  • Making assumptions - As the old adage says ‘When we assume, we make an ass out of you and me’. Assumptions can undermine relationships before they even get off the ground. Clients can make assumptions about how you’ll deliver the project or what it might cost. And you might make assumptions about what the client needs or will be happy with. If these assumptions are inaccurate, it can result in disappointment. 
  • Managing expectations - Sometimes client expectations don’t match reality. Perhaps they want a champagne project on a lemonade budget. Or their timeframe is entirely unrealistic. When it falls to you to address the issue, that’s called managing client expectations. It’s about making sure the client is realistic about what can be achieved, whilst minimizing any negative fallout for your business (such as conflict or the client canceling the project). 
  • Miscommunicating - Miscommunication is when you THINK you’re both on the same page but you’re actually not. That can lead to client needs not being met - which risks results, repeat custom, and your reputation. 
  • Mistrust - Like any relationship, client relationships need to be built on mutual respect and trust. Clients need to trust that you’re acting in their best interests and respect the expertise that you bring to the table. Without that, you’ll struggle to reach a consensus on how projects should be delivered. It’s your responsibility to build that trust but it won’t happen overnight… [Our COO Nicole has some tips on how to build trust with your clients].

If you’ve experienced any of these client management issues, you’ll know they can be hard to recover from. But building your client management skills can stop them from happening again. 

Here are the 8 essential skills to develop in anyone involved in client management  - for positive project outcomes, robust relationships, and ongoing custom.  

1. Communication 

Great communication skills enable constructive conversations with clients. Like discussing project details, understanding their requirements, and expressing what is and isn’t possible. These form the foundations of a successful project.

But it isn’t just communication with clients that’s key. You also need to communicate effectively with your colleagues - such as your sales team. Because if you haven’t communicated effectively with them, your client relationship is already at risk.

You need great lines of communication with sales colleagues so they know what’s viable - in terms of deliverables and schedule - before they pitch anything to potential clients. [One way to help with this is providing sales colleagues with information on capacity and resource availability - so they don’t overcommit their colleagues].

And once the deal is done, you need to know exactly what the client is expecting BEFORE you meet with them. That way you can manage expectations and set realistic targets for the project.

You need to communicate effectively during projects too. Clients need to be kept informed of progress and forewarned of any challenges or delays. Our COO Nicole recommends telling clients about problems BEFORE they happen.

If you see even the slightest indication that your project is not going as planned, be proactive and let your client know. It may be difficult to deliver the bad news, but remember an expected loss is better than an unexpected one — so make sure to prepare your client as early as you can.

Communication tips 

  • Talk to sales regularly so they understand what’s possible
  • Talk to sales BEFORE your first client meeting to understand what the client is expecting
  • Use your first meeting with the client to understand and manage expectations
  • Communicate regularly with clients to keep them informed
  • Be proactive if a project is going off plan - don’t bury your head in the sand   

2. Honesty/transparency

One of the best ways to build trust with a client is to be honest and transparent from the get-go. Trust is about believing what another person says. And we humans are a notoriously cynical bunch! If you only ever talk about the good stuff - and promise the moon on a stick - your client might leave your meetings feeling skeptical. And you risk disappointing the client later in the process if you underdeliver. 

You never want a client to leave a conversation thinking ‘This sounds too good to be true…’ or ‘We’ll see…’ as that can undermine their faith in you. It’s much better for them to have a realistic opinion of a project - and confidence in your ability to deliver what’s agreed, when agreed.

That means being honest - from the outset - about what’s possible. And being transparent about the reasons why. They need to understand that if you push back on a request, you have a good reason for doing so. Preferably a reason that means better outcomes for them!

When it comes to being honest, think diplomacy and tact, not blistering, brutal truth! You’d never say that you can’t start a client project yet because you’re working on a more important client account.

But you could say that it will be a month before your best software engineer is available - and you’d like to wait until then to start the job, so they have the right people working on their project. 

Transparency and trust are the foundations for long-term client relationships - relationships that start strong and grow stronger over time. 

Transparency tips

  • Be transparent to build trust and lasting relationships 
  • Use honesty to manage expectations and keep expectations realistic
  • Think ‘diplomacy’ not ‘brutal truth’ 

3. Active listening

Active listening is essential if you want to deliver project outcomes that delight your clients - and hope to achieve the 4Rs of repeat custom, reputation, referrals, and revenue.

Active listening is where you don’t just hear what someone is saying, you make a conscious effort to really UNDERSTAND it. It involves various techniques to truly get to the bottom of what someone is asking for. For example:

  • Looking for non-verbal cues - a shrug can suggest a client isn’t sure, a frown can suggest you’ve got something wrong but they’re too polite to say!
  • Using questions to dig deeper - looking for the WHY behind the WHAT so you can understand the real reason they have particular requirements, and maybe suggest other ideas and options 
  • Restating what you THINK they’re saying - so they have an opportunity to confirm or correct you 

Active listening techniques mean you’re more likely to understand client requirements and achieve a consensus about the next steps. And that’s a good thing for your relationship - because you’re more likely to meet client expectations if those expectations are crystal clear. 

This skill incorporates two other essential competencies: curiosity and clarity. 

Genuine curiosity about client motivation and goals helps you see the bigger picture of what they want and why. Whilst clarity ensures you’re all on the same page before you start work - and you can communicate needs effectively to the project team.

Active listening tips

  • Don’t passively absorb information, actively seek it out
  • Look for non-verbal cues as well as spoken instructions
  • Use questions to surface more insights 
  • Restate your understanding to reach an agreement

4. Leadership/ Authority

The relationship between professional service firms and their clients is a delicate one. The client holds the cards in terms of awarding the work and paying the fees. But they’re relying on your firm to deliver their business objectives. So it’s appropriate to approach the relationship as equal partners. 

The client knows everything about their business but little about your specialism. So it’s appropriate - essential, in fact - that you assert your expertise, act as a thought leader, and respectfully challenge ideas that won’t work. 

Unless they’re especially ego-led (we’ve all had one client like that!), your insights and ideas should instill them with more confidence in your ability to deliver. 

That said, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to something. It’s better to be honest than to bluff. Simply state that you can’t answer that question now but will have an answer for them by a specific date. Then make sure you follow up as promised.

Leadership tips

  • Assert yourself as an equal partner
  • Use your knowledge to add value and build trust
  • Lead conversations to demonstrate competence 
  • Listen actively and respond thoughtfully 

5. Analytical/ Detail-orientated

An important client management skill is accurately capturing the details of a job and communicating these to the project delivery team. Being detail-oriented and analytical means listening to what a client asks and knowing when you need to get more specific. For example, if a software client says ‘We’re looking for ease of use and an intuitive interface’, you need more information.

Everyone wants ease of use but is there a specific reason here? Have they had issues in the past with poor user adoption due to poor UX? Is the team particularly time-poor or do they have below-average technical abilities? This could guide how you approach the project. 

What does ‘intuitive’ mean to them? Have they seen examples of other software that they consider particularly intuitive? How will they judge whether the product is ‘easy to use’ and at what stage of development should you factor in testing? How many users need to be involved and for how long?

By capturing this information early, you can create a more accurate project plan, assign the right resources at the right time, and be more likely to meet project milestones 

Analytical tips

  • Don’t take anything at face value
  • Ask more questions than you feel comfortable with
  • Use ‘what, when, why, where, how, and who’ to capture essential information 
  • Use data to model different scenarios and select the best

6. Creativity/ Problem-solving 

Creativity might seem at odds with the analytical skills described above - but they go hand in hand. First, you analyze what clients REALLY need. Then you use your creativity and problem-solving skills to find solutions. 

This might be in consultation with the client - ‘Have you ever thought about doing it THIS way instead…?’ You have the potential to add real value to projects and products by bringing your unique expertise and ideas to bear. Exciting!

Or it could be behind the scenes, as you work out how to balance client expectations with commercial needs. For example, planning the optimum resources required to deliver great work without blowing the budget. Or doing some scenario planning to work out the best way to integrate a new project into your portfolio.  

Problem-solving skills

  • Really get to know your business and what’s possible
  • Immerse yourself in past projects for inspiration
  • Try techniques like reverse brainstorming to get your creative juices flowing
  • Use resource and project planning software to solve problems faster 

7. Negotiation 

Negotiation is about managing expectations and - as such - it is a key client management skill. As a client manager, you need to balance your client’s needs with your organization’s commercial interests. And whilst they will broadly overlap, they don’t always. 

For example, a client might be pushing for:

  • Faster turnaround times than are reasonable (or desirable in terms of quality and results)
  • Lower costs than are viable for your bottom line
  • More functionality than their budget allows for 

In these situations, you don’t want to lose the client - but you don’t want to give in to requests that make the project unprofitable. 

Remember, the client may simply have these expectations due to a lack of knowledge, not because they’re trying to be unreasonable. So your first approach should always be honesty and authority, explaining why their requests aren’t possible. 

However, if that doesn’t work, you need to engage your negotiation skills. Negotiation is just about working out what both parties are willing to be flexible on, to achieve a solution you can both agree to. It might not always be possible to reach an agreement on the day - or you might reach the limit of your authority. If this happens, let the client know how you plan to escalate/resolve the issue. 

Negotiation tips

  • Be transparent about why you’re pushing back
  • Remind polite and professional - negotiation is nothing personal!
  • Be willing to compromise - but expect the same in return
  • Know your non-negotiables (when a project will become unviable)

8. Patience and empathy

In the business world, soft skills are often undervalued. But when it comes to building long-term client relationships, they’re very important. We’re all just human beings trying our best - and that means our interactions aren’t always perfect.

Sometimes clients:

  • Won’t actually know what they want 
  • Won’t be able to articulate it properly
  • Will struggle to make decisions 
  • Will change their mind 

And that’s ok! Your job as a client manager is to help them through this. They might never have engaged a professional services firm before. Or they may be under pressure from competing demands and office politics on their side of the project. Or maybe they’re an introvert or neuro-divergent and find meetings more challenging.

Whatever the reason, you’re more likely to achieve a positive outcome if you approach the relationship with patience and empathy. Use your leadership skills to help coax out information and support clients on their journey to a successful project outcome.

Empathy isn’t just applicable to client relationships either. If you’re a project manager, extending empathy to your project team is just as important. 

‘Empathy is often underestimated. It’s switching to asking ‘how are you doing?’ rather than ‘what are you doing?’ — creating a more open conversation. You will uncover so much more as a project manager with an empathetic approach.’ says Geetha Gopal, Head of Infrastructure Projects Delivery and Digital Transformation, Panasonic Asia Pacific, quoted in Narrowing the Talent Gap by the PMI.

Patience and empathy tips

  • Remember people are icebergs - be mindful of what might be happening under the surface 
  • Approach every interaction with empathy and an open mind
  • Guide clients as you would a friend or family member
  • Find joy in your role as a trusted guide 

And there you have it. Master these eight essential client management skills and you’ll be setting yourself - and your business - up for success. But don’t stop there. Did you spot how resource planning software can support client management too? 

Software like Runn lets you see - at a glance - when projects are viable, who’s available, and what they’ll cost. With this powerful knowledge at your fingertips, you can manage expectations, negotiate terms, and solve problems easier than ever before. 

Explore what Runn can do for you and your Client Managers - like:

  • Easy drag-and-drop project planning - for timelines and milestones in minutes
  • At a glance resource availability - to see who’s free to start new projects
  • Fast scenario planning - to work out the best time to onboard new clients

Start your free 14-day trial today.

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