6 Things You Should Never Say to a Client

By MBO Partners | June 7, 2022

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Key Points

As an independent, you are out there on the front lines and want to make a great impression.

Very close client interactions can lead to a breakdown in professional decorum

Listen to the client's needs, wants, and concerns, and if they seem to be heading down the wrong path work with them to suggest a better way or procedure.

As an independent, you are out there on the front lines—especially when it comes to dealing with a client. Often there is no buffer between you and the person offering you the opportunity for a project. No manager, no HR, no accounting department—just two parties hashing out the details.

Such close quarters can present many opportunities—opportunities to discuss future work, and past experiences or delve deeper into the execution of a project. Although this often seems like a mostly beneficial perk of being independent, such close client interactions can lead to a breakdown in professional decorum. To avoid possible deal breaks, social faux pas, and the dreaded “foot in mouth” disease we’d recommend avoiding the following five things:

1. “Your current [blank] is terrible”

Your current vendor is terrible, your current software is terrible, the suit you are currently wearing is terrible – okay the last one is a little much, but regardless such phrases should be avoided. Not only should this particular group of words be barred from any type of interview or proposal but the idea of bashing someone else, especially a competitor is extremely ill-advised. Chances are very high that if you are independent you didn’t just land there – you got there by being skilled at what it is you do, and you get to the top by being the best. Rather than cutting down others, highlight the positives and unique skills, assets, or expertise that you and your company represent. Don’t leave your client with a sour taste in their mouth.

2. “You don’t want that, you want this”

Even if you are the foremost expert in your field with a thousand great referrals, a million research footnotes, and accolades by the hundreds you should never forcibly tell a client what they want. It’s rude, it’s blunt and it is abrasive – traits that describe chefs at fancy restaurants, not businessmen. Listen to the client’s needs, wants, and concerns, and if they seem to be heading down the wrong path work with them to suggest a better way or procedure.

3. “Well, I heard Bill Brasky is back off the wagon”

Gossip has no place in a business setting. If anything, this tip is a combination of number one and number two. You should avoid negative contributions or spreading rumors, hold yourself to a high standard of conversation. So what if you heard the new vice president has night terrors and can’t write in cursive – that has nothing to do with you, your business, your project or your ability to get it done. The focus should be on the task at hand, the client’s needs, and not gossip.

4. “That’ll cost exactly [blank]”

Giving an exact cost is a very dangerous game. As an independent you set your rates, are responsible for your own hours and delivery plan. Many ICs feel this gives them a better grasp on just how long various assignments might take but it may also contribute to unexpected obstructions or delays. Give yourself wiggle room to come in above or below where the project should land. Always estimate – never assign a total value if you don’t have to.

5. “You won’t believe the night I had last night”

This is a rather extreme example but within the business, there is a very firm line where personal life and professional life are separated. Often times as an independent you might build a very casual, maybe even mildly personal, relationship with your client – but at the end of the day, it is still a client. Even with your closest clients, many subjects are off-limits. Make mature, sensible, and professional decisions before you bring up or elaborate on a subject.

6. “Are you sure?”

No, the customer isn’t always right. Making them feel incorrect or stupid, however, will never improve the situation. Doubting someone will just make them feel worse about themselves or their remarks. What to say instead: If you’re confident that they are at fault, get more information by asking inquiries. To make sure you can fix what went wrong, try saying something like: “Can you walk me through that again so I can make sure I understand it?” Make an effort to keep the conversation from becoming too problem-centered.


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