It might just be the way I work, but my excitement level for a project is usually directly proportional to how connected I feel to the client or team I am working with for the project. Yes, sometimes I can feel a little too close to a client (receiving 10pm phone calls???) and still not be in love with the project or the client, but that’s rare.
Building a strong relationship with the client is good for the project and the business
I’ve worked with hundreds of clients over the last 18 years as a web designer and developer, not even counting the ones I worked for as an employee of other agencies. Taking a project from being “just another task” to something you actually care about can make a big difference in your productivity and the success of the project.
Knowing the client will benefit from the work you are doing and how it will impact their business and their future brings an increased level of accountability, care, and drive to the work. In the service industry, this can be the difference between clients regretting hiring you or them telling all their friends how wonderful it was to work with you. It’s a great idea to offer your very best customer service to every client you work with and having a tight relationship with them can make it easier to reach that level of excellence.
What does a great relationship look like?
I think there are two things that stand out to me as indicators of a strong relationship: regular contact and focusing on more than just the task. John Locke has a great article on regular client communications that you should check out if you want to learn more about the frequency and methods of contact. Personally, I like to keep myself pretty available to my clients, and I think they appreciate that high level of availability to build trust and understand I am here to help. I am not great at intentionally digging into their lives outside of work (family, hobbies, etc). but that can help strengthen the relationship and build the connection. With most of my clients, I am more likely to chat about the industry, politics, regional differences, or make some jokes instead of asking them about how their kids are doing in school. Maybe that’s something I should work on.
Being a part of the team brings the same benefits
In many cases, being a part of a team working towards a shared goal can have that same performance boost that having a good relationship with a client provides. I’ve worked on projects where I was part of a team yet didn’t feel like I was part of the team because of physical distance or even differences in roles, personality, or communication style. Each of those potential issues doesn’t have to stop you from feeling like part of the team, but it may require extra effort to bridge some of the gaps. Keep regular communication and maybe open up a little to increase team trust.
I play ball hockey (for the fun of it, no one seems willing to pay me) at drop-in most weeks and even in a league and some tournaments. It’s a great feeling to work together as a team to try and win games or a championship. I find myself willing to drive distances, wait around hours between games, or brave the blizzards in December all for the team and love of the game. My point is that we go the extra mile when we are part of a team, so go deep with the teams you are part of, and it will help bring out your best work.
What about separating business and pleasure?
This is a great question and I may not be the best person to answer it. Clients may take advantage of your trust and your time. Teams may ask more of you than they are willing to pay for or give you back in return. Balancing the business relationships and the personal relationships takes practice, but is easier to do when the proper paperwork has been done and you have been picky about the clients you work with. Most of us have a general understanding that we want to make money and be profitable, but some clients (or potential clients) care more about themselves than about building relationships that benefit both parties. Curtis McHale has a blog post about being picky about which clients you work with, and part of that process is figuring out if the client actually cares about your business interests and long term goals. If they are just going to suck your company dry you should run away.
Please, please, please have a work agreement in place with your clients in order to establish boundaries and processes for communication, overtime, billing, etc. It will actually increase the trust in the relationship and protect both parties if things don’t go as planned. Sometimes that paperwork can keep a relationship intact even if a project goes sideways.
You can’t be best friends with all your clients and you may not fit into every team, but you can build strong communication lines, and that connection will benefit the project outcomes. Avoid feeling distant from the project and like it’s a chore so you can bring your best efforts.