When you become a freelancer and take on clients, you quickly realize what other roles you instantly take on: cheerleader, counselor and coach. And when something uncontrollable happens — bad press, a pandemic, a recession — you need to go straight into crisis communication mode.
Even if you’re worried for yourself and/or your client, communication specialist and founder of Wink PR, Elaine LaPersonerie, says it’s more important than ever to remain calm and in charge. As she warns, not only do clients need hand-holding more than ever but if they sense uneasiness from you, they will lose trust and confidence in your ability to perform, potentially resulting in short and long-term consequences.
So how can you ease client concerns, snap into action and preserve the relationship? Freelancing pros offer their expertise for this tricky situation.
Here, seven ways to deal with a panicked client:
1. Be proactive and listen carefully.
Rather than waiting for them to reach out to express their concern, stay on top of your client’s latest news and business operations. When you sense something may threaten their bottom line or their ability to conduct business, LaPersonerie recommends getting in touch ASAP. This illustrates how invested you are in their success, and presents the important opportunity to hear them out.
As LaPersonerie suggests:
“Spend more time listening so that you can address their concerns and they feel heard. Share possible scenarios and have tangible solutions and ideas ready about how you can help support them. Be empathetic so you can find a solution that works for both freelancers and clients.”
2. Anticipate questions and over-prepare.
Communication specialist and co-founder and managing partner of Greenbrier, Lane Kasselman, says when you’re navigating a crisis, being over-prepared will serve both your client and your ability to manage the situation. However, it can be difficult to know where to start, especially if you’re trying to dig your way out of unchartered territory.
One way to begin is to create a tracking document where you list questions you anticipate your client asking, along with solutions and answers you can share. And do your homework before the call: what is happening in their industry? What’s being discussed online and via social media channels? What is their personality like, and how can you help them as an individual?
At her company, Kasselman says they practice a few essential do’s and don’ts during crises:
- Do remain engaged and open with the client and be upfront about how a crisis is impacting their business.
- Don’t lie. Present a list of the facts as you know them.
- Do be careful how you present the facts so they do not appear defensive.
- Don’t use long words, formal language or industry jargon. Short, simple word choice — avoiding unnecessary adjectives — almost always works.
- Do emphasize sympathy, empathy and humanity without being too over the top.
- Don’t share facts if you don’t have any. Short, durable, and approachable client-facing communications that say we’re working on it are far more preferable than promising an outcome that later needs to be amended or walked back.
3. Be a counselor, not an order-taker.
Though it may not feel like it when you’re worried about your company staying afloat, it’s important to remember your purpose. Or as copywriter and communications strategist, Mary Tindall, puts it: they’re hiring you for your expertise — not to take orders.
While you should console them during a stressful period, listen to what they are asking for and recommend solutions, you should still require respect.
As Tindall advises:
“Be honest with your clients and don’t sugarcoat reality. Give them a realistic sense of what’s happening and advise them on the best next steps.”
And as you would talk to anyone, try to be patient. Don’t assume. And as much as you can, provide them with helpful, feedback, advice and updates as you have them. Your ability to remain calm, but still remain professional, will deepen their trust and potentially, lead to a longer-lasting contract.
4. Take a breath before responding.
Your visceral reaction during uncertain times is human — and varied. While some shout and scream, others cry and hide. Regardless of how your client responds to you, try your best to not return their message with anger, snark or insensitivity. As communications professional and publicist, Mercy Chikowore, reminds, we all say things we don’t mean — especially when we are stressed or scared.
That’s why Chikowore says taking a breath, going for a short walk and clearing your head can prevent miscommunication:
“Think about what they’re really trying to convey so you can help them solve the problem. Nothing worse than having to clear up a knee-jerk reaction to their panicked communication, along with the crisis they were panicking about in the first place.”
If it’s helpful, consider downloading a meditation app to run through short 5- to 10-minute sessions when you really need a dose of mindfulness during chaos.
5. Lean to data for support.
During a crisis, Kasselman says data is the truth serum we need. Not only can it alleviate client concerns but it can also sound an alarm when necessary. That’s why she recommends creating any and all reports you can — from readily available statistics surrounding the situation to the client’s internal numbers — to inject much-needed reality:
“Data is vital to inform our client recommendations and to justify them. Although the data does not always paint a rosy picture, we’ve found that clients appreciate transparency over guesswork and the feeling of flying blind.”
6. Hold more meetings.
When times are tougher than normal, it may be worthwhile to check in more frequently with your client. It’s up to you on how you decide to work these check-ins into their content budgets, but to maintain the relationship and reassure them you’re on top of everything, LaPersonerie says daily morning emails or brief chats can be hugely beneficial.
Just make sure you’re connecting with the right contact person — and not everyone else, advises LaPersonerie:
“Minimize communication to key team members: these are the people who are necessary for quick decisions, approvals and so on. This keeps things streamlined and moving forward in a timely fashion when you need to move quickly on your feet.”
7. Help them to see the big picture — with solutions.
Consider the last time you felt as if you were drowning and the surface felt completely out of reach. When a client is going through a crisis, they struggle to see any clear, blue-skied days ahead. Kasselman says while this is to be expected, it’s up to you to expand their vision.
As Kasselman suggests:
“A huge part of client panic is not being able to see beyond their current situation. We are all human, and during a crisis it is hard to think beyond what’s directly in front of us. It is important to be able to come to their table with solutions to help them see beyond their current state and find a path to the end of the tunnel”
And remember, it’s not going to instantly change overnight in some cases. Rather, it’s a process and one that will require more touchpoints and reassurance. When in doubt, over-communicate — and keep pushing forward. Not only for clients but for yourself, too.