You know that old joke about assuming: Don’t assume, because it can make an ASS out of U and ME? Nothing is more true when it comes to client service, especially as a small business or sole proprietor. Many client issues are created when one or both parties assumes things about the other person. The client may think you aren’t doing a very good job handling their account, and you may think they aren’t doing a very good job acting like a client.

What do I mean by that statement? Here’s an example: I used to write for a client who would call me out of the blue with a new assignment that consisted of scant instructions, a name, and a phone number. More often than not, I wouldn’t even be clear on why exactly I was calling this person. My lack of clarity sometimes resulted in a finished product that was off the mark, and my client would be very upset that I didn’t “get it.” The end result? We’re both upset and left with the feeling that we shouldn’t be working together.

What I didn’t know at the time is that I wasn’t included in strategy meetings and conference calls that outlined how that writing assignment fit into the larger marketing strategy. What looked to me like an out-of-the-blue request was really a spoke on a really big PR wheel that client execs had spent hours talking about. My client contact assumed that I, as an outside contractor, would find these meetings boring and irrelevant, yet also assumed that I somehow knew what was happening with the strategy.

My solution was that I had to “manage up.” I had to somehow teach my client to behave like the client I wanted. In the ideal world, the client would just know how to behave like a client. They would know to tell you what you don’t know, right? But we don’t work in an ideal world, so here are some insights into managing up:

Outline your rules of engagement… in writing
No one likes surprises. So from the onset, I make it clear that I like to be involved as possible, especially if my writing assignments are a large part of the PR or marketing strategy. This is one of the first things I mention during the negotiation process. If a client doesn’t think that’s a good idea, that sends up a red flag.

In addition to whatever verbal communication exists about my involvement, I also put it in writing as a clause in my standard contract. That way, both parties understand what is expected.

It’s never too late to talk about expectations
The above tip works well if you’re engaging a new client, but what about an existing client? I’ve been there, too, when a client has behaved a certain way for so long that it seems odd to bring up this issue now. But guess what? It’s never too late to talk about expectations. If there is an issue that is bothering you, then it’s affecting your work and your ability to service your client.

It may take a few tries for your client to get what you mean. I found success with the aforementioned client by asking about meetings/phone conferences on a regular basis. After a while, it became a habit for me to ask, and a habit for him to answer. Over time, I would get an email letting me know there was a conference call and it’d be up to me if I felt the need to call in.

Create the feedback loop
I’ve worked with clients that I never hear from, unless I royally screw up. Otherwise, they leave me with a to-do list and set me loose to do my thing. This arrangement works 99% of the time because I create a feedback loop, even if the client never asks for one. What does that mean? I send updates when things are taking longer than usual; for example: “Joe Smith has missed two scheduled interview times and I’m chasing him down to reschedule for a third time. It looks like I’ll need a few more days past deadline to get this done.”

Your client will appreciate knowing the current status of a project without having to ask.

And, by the way….
Managing up is a concept I learned when I worked at a large PR agency in Boston, and it’s a skill that has helped me immensely as my career went from agency to in-house PR to writing and consulting. Creating the structure by which you engage anyone – bosses, clients, co-workers, vendors – means that you never again have to say “Why is this happening to me – AGAIN?!?”