First-Class Service: How to Spot What Clients Really Need

Miscommunication is a peril that we have to work to avoid in our daily lives not just as freelancers, but as people. Often you may think you’ve successfully communicated with someone and understood what it is that they want or expect and it is not until much later on that you realize what they said and what they really want are not one and the same.

Maybe you have experienced this with a client while setting up plans for a project or service. It’s possible that at the time you felt the communication about what you are going to do and provide went well and that the communication was very open and successful.

Because of this you were even more frustrated and surprised later on while touching base about the progress of the plans to find the client unsatisfied. What went wrong?

Often it is a problem with the client’s expression of what they want, his or her visualization of their idea, the client’s understanding of the logistics of what is possible and of your field of work, or maybe a combination of all three.


To avoid the pitfalls of miscommunication that can later on lead to disappointment and disagreement making sure both sides fully express themselves openly and completely is a key. Don’t ever leave a meeting feeling that a topic has not been covered or that there are things that have been left unsaid.

Never assume that you understand what your client means by what they say. It is better to take a little longer and perhaps be slightly repetitive than to glide over topics leaving room for confusion and a less than complete understanding on both sides. This is true not just with clients, but with family and friends. People in general will often tell you what they want, but it is not always a complete picture of their desires and expectations.

Sometimes people are not good at accurately expressing their wants or needs and not only does that affect the ability to build a relationship where both sides understand one another, but as a freelancer it will directly impact your ability to successfully satisfy your client with your services. You should keep this in mind while talking to a client and use some or all of these tips to help keep the communication flowing:

  • Ask specific and pointed questions not just about what the client wants, but about what results he or she expects from the completion of the task or service.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat back to the client in your own words what you understood of his or her expectations to assure that you are both on the same page.
  • Some clients will feel uncomfortable talking about money and maybe will shy away from this topic being unspecific and vague. Feel confident expressing exactly what the project will cost to complete in the way the client wants and give him or her breakdowns and options to best meet the service and budget goals he or she hopes to meet.
  • Pay attention to body language and don’t be afraid to probe deeper asking him or her to elaborate or to be more specific on what they say.

This leads me to the next major component of the communication breakdown…


The canvas inside everyone’s head is unique and completely different. If you asked ten people to draw something simple like a tree or the sun or a house you would get ten, although similar in topic, completely different drawings. When it comes to your client and how he or she visualizes the finished product or service, the important word to remember is details. Here are some tips to make sure that you and your client are on the same page:

  • When asking the client in depth about what they expect out of the project try asking specifically what they expect it to look like or ask him or her to describe his or her visualization of the results of plan.
  • Your client’s visualization of the project is especially important when the service is one like design, photography, painting, catering or anything with a predominant visual aspect. Grab a pen and paper or a whiteboard and have your client roughly sketch out what he or she sees in his or her head.
  • Seize upon and investigate the details. Delve deeper beyond any vague, general or broad descriptions avoiding words like large, big, medium, small, fast, clean, sharp, soft, or any other non-specific descriptor. Use actual sizes, measurements, and scales whenever possible.
  • If applicable show the client a color palette or spread of several similar colors you are thinking of using and have him or her pick several favorites.

Sometimes you realize your client has in his or her mind something that is just not feasible for whatever reason. This leads us to our next big communication breakdown…

Comprehensive Understanding

You are good at what you do. You know more about what you do than the average person. These are facts that helped you get where you are as a professional freelancer.

Do not forget these facts when consulting with your clients. If you can execute the first two points successfully and gain a complete picture of what your client wants and expects, then you actually know better than your client what it takes to execute the plan. You alone have the comprehensive understanding of how to best accomplish the goal at hand.

Here are a few points to use when dealing with a client who is enthusiastic and wants to be deeply involved in the planning, but maybe is not familiar with your field or is unrealistic when it comes to the plan:

  • Sometimes clients are unrealistic or out of touch with what it actually takes to make the project come to life in the way that they had pictured in either a monetary or timeline sense. Keep in mind the logistics of executing the plan and your limitations, be honest about what you can accomplish within your time and budget parameters and what is just not feasible. Offer the client more than one option, maybe you can meet his or her budget limitations but not the time limitations or vice versa. Be honest and specific about what it will take to complete the project as closely as possible to the client’s specifications.
  • Your client does not have the in-depth understanding of your work that you do. Clients often get lost in the details while you can step back and see the big picture. Recommend alterations to the plan to more closely achieve the finished product you know your client will be happy with. Explain to your client why certain options would work better than others to achieve the overall goal. Be confident and remember that this is why the client came to you in the first place, for your expertise.
  • And finally, although this is something none of us likes to do, sometimes you may just have to say no. Sometimes for whatever reason a plan will just not work in the parameters the client wants and whether it is for budget reasons, timing reasons, or another unrealistic expectation it is best to just walk away from a project that is not going to work out best for either you, or the client.

So just to recap, whether it be due to a faulty expression of expectations, discrepancies in the visualizations of those expectations, or an overall lack of comprehensive understanding–there are many miscommunication pitfalls that can affect your interactions with your clients. Following several or all of the tips we went over will help to keep you and your client on the same page and will help to build good client relationships.

Share Your Thoughts…

How do you deal with a client that had unrealistic expectations either monetarily or otherwise? Did you ever turn down a job because of this type of unrealistic expectation? What are some pointers you use to help make sure you communicate well with your clients?

Image by Brett Jordan


  1. says

    I don’t know if its the economy, but it seems like many service professionals these days lack backbone; they are afraid to stand up to their clients for fear of losing the business. I ran into this recently with my graphic designer. She didn’t tell me my idea was awful, she just did what I asked. This is one way to run a business, but a better way is to understand that you are the expert in this situation and telling your customer they are making a bad decision is actually what they are paying you for! If you do it in the right way — without simply telling insulting them or their ideas — you can educate them about your industry and actually teach them how to be better clients in the future. Not standing up and sharing your opinion actually reduces your expert status in the eyes of your client. That’s what has happened to me.. I’m in the market for a new graphic designer because I no longer trust this one to offer me the advice I need to more my business forward.

  2. says

    Very often I come across clients who think that they deserve to get X,Y and Z done for them for free. Because they have hired a freelancer and thats what freelancers do! Offer a lot of free services to keep a client.
    On the other hand, I know many freelancers willing to stoop too low to keep a client, this is what has made it so difficult to get clients as they expect too much.
    I usually use a line when such issues come up and in most cases clients stay. I say “Quality comes with a price tag, if you are willing to pay for quality you are at the right place or you can come back later after experimenting”

  3. says

    One very common thing, especially in my field of web design, is clients who think they know a great deal about the topic. The ones who seem to be on the prowl to contradict you or assert their superior knowledge of web design. It’s really hard to deal with these types… Often they are the ones their company assigned to head the project, and they are highly opposed to even having you do anything. In this case it is often better to just say no to a project. It’s a lose lose situation

  4. says

    Brian I think its really important to do just what you said and no when its best to cut your loses. The same problem is what happened to Lesa above and its a shame. I know its hard and due to the economy and we obviously want all the work we can get but sometimes its best to explain to the client why what they want wont work or as you said Brian, to just say no. But I couldn’t put it better its just like you said if not its lose, lose and it hurts future freelancers who try to work with the same client. I always think about my hairdresser and how I go in and tell him what I want and how he uses his skill to give me that. If I get too specific about color or cut he lets me know what is possible and whats not and what will cost more. And I always leave happy!

  5. says

    The moment a client starts asking for a discount I stop communicating. If they come back I simply tell them that my rates are final and give them exact perimeters and an outline of that they will get for the price and in very clear words I tell them that my rates are final. some take it and some leave.

  6. says

    Our best friends are a pen, a notebook and a listening ear. Some companies have a strict set of questions to ask, our method is we prefer not to…and rather to make them up as the conversation with the client goes on.

    That way we’re able to better adapt ourselves to their train of thought as well as personalities. At the same time, while they are telling us their requirements, we will start thinking from the perceived end result and start our queries from there.


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