I have an affinity for service businesses.
I love when people:
- Recognize that they possess specific skills that can help others
- Invest in training that will help them succeed
- Offer their expertise and problem-solving abilities in exchange for money
But I don’t love when these driven individuals make a certain mistake that invites unnecessary frustrations into their workdays and weakens their reputations.
“Sure! I can do that!”
I understand that it’s exciting when a work offer sounds good.
So, when a potential client proposes a project to Joe Service Business, he’ll immediately respond with, “Sure! I can do that!” (or another phrase with a similar sentiment) before he finds out everything he needs to know about the project.
For example, more information about the project may reveal that he’s not the best person for the job or it’s not actually an assignment he’d like to work on.
When you respond to an inquiry and move ahead with a project too quickly, you operate under the assumption that you’ll figure out the details later, as issues arise.
But your service business can only become respected in your industry and a long-term source of income if you abolish the casual approach to discussing work that runs rampant in freelance culture.
If you want to have an exceptional service business, you cannot casually respond to any form of business communication or informally agree to any business transaction.
To become exceptional, you must become a master of assessing, communicating, and managing expectations.
How to rise above the competition
Competition can be distracting and paralyzing.
It can be difficult to make progress with your business when you’re worried about all the other people who provide similar services and how they might charge less expensive rates than you do.
You may even feel pressure to lower your rates to look more “reasonable” or meet the “industry standard.”
Here’s a thought I had after reading Pamela Wilson’s article, Are You Cheap or Are You Exceptional? How to Price Your Services:
There are always going to be service providers who charge less than you do. The trick is realizing that those businesses do not provide the same quality — and they are not your competition.
Ignore “reasonable” and the “industry standard” and focus on creating an experience for your clients that they won’t find anywhere else — that is the winning difference that will make them choose to work with you.
The “service business as go-to collaborator” model
Being yourself in business is important. You don’t want to abandon your personality and become bland.
But to be seen as exceptional, you need to overcome the tendency I mentioned above where you impulsively respond to a prospective client as if he is your friend.
Instead, you want your prospective client to view you as a business peer.
In order to achieve that, you must:
- Demonstrate you’re dedicated to producing the best-possible final product
- Outline the details you consider when evaluating a new project
- Communicate that clients must agree to your terms of service
Those three actions allow plenty of room for passion and enthusiasm, but they also reveal that you:
- Take your business seriously
- Offer a premium service
- Enforce a clear contract or work agreement
This model attracts prospects who respect you. Over time, you’ll become your clients’ “go-to collaborator” when they have a problem they know your service business can solve.
Initiate a project assessment that communicates professionalism
While gathering information about a project helps you decide if it’s the right fit for your business, it also allows you to tailor your service — before a client has given you any money — in a way that justifies the premium you will charge in exchange for your ongoing exceptional work.
You’ll convey that you’re highly focused on your client’s business goals — and that you may have even given those goals more consideration than he has.
I’m going to give specific examples of factors a content marketer — let’s call her Penelope — might consider when assessing a potential writing project, but these questions can be adapted to any type of service offerings:
- Does the client have a budget for this project? If so, what is it?
- What’s the client’s business goal?
- How does this project fit into the client’s marketing strategy?
- Has the client produced or commissioned similar projects in the past? Did the projects meet his goals? If not, what does he wish would have happened instead?
- Does the client have examples he likes?
- Will the client supply any materials needed to complete the project?
- What’s the client’s desired length or word count? Does it matter for this project? If not, what aspects are more important?
- Does the client intend to make any alterations to the completed project (i.e., edits to the text)? Or, is there any subsequent work the client or other service providers will perform related to this project (i.e., formatting, graphic design)?
- Is this a project that could lead to regular work (daily, weekly, monthly), or is this a one-time task?
- When is the project due — what’s the client’s desired deadline?
A note about deadlines
A client may say he has no deadline preference and then get angry at you when you don’t complete your project by a certain day and time.
Even though that sounds nonsensical, it happens.
If your client is vague about a deadline, set a precise one yourself based on the information you gather about the project. Then tell your client when the project will be completed and meet (or beat) the deadline.
Present terms of service that tip the scales in your favor
Continuing with the example from above, when Penelope Content Marketer presents her project fee, she’ll give her client a terms of service agreement with:
- A detailed description of her goals for the project
- How her service will specifically meet each goal
- A word-count range or approximate length (i.e., an article that’s 1,000 to 1,500 words or a brochure that’s three-to-four pages)
- Her project deadline — the date and time she will return the completed project
- The number of revisions included in her price
- Payment method options and when payment is due
- The best way for the client to contact her if he has a question
- When and how the client will receive a payment transaction receipt
- What will happen if the client cancels the work requested after payment has been made but before the project has been completed
- The extra costs and consequences that will incur if the client has an additional request that goes beyond the terms outlined
Once your client agrees to your terms of service in writing, you have a work contract you can reference if confusion arises.
When you draft your first terms of service, you don’t have to cover every possible scenario that could develop.
Rather, think of your terms of service as a “living” document you can update with:
- Rules to prevent common problems
- Additional details that help your clients understand your offerings
- Processes that will make your workflows easier
Your business and future clients will both benefit from these revisions to your standard terms of service.
Examples from a digital service business
Before I was Rainmaker Digital’s Editor-in-Chief, I had my own writing and editing business that operated completely online — no in-person meetings, no phone calls.
When you focus on your needs as a service provider first, you help ensure that you can take care of your clients’ needs.
It’s like when an airplane is in distress and you’re instructed to first put on your own oxygen mask before you help others.
Part of my terms of service and payment policy for editing work included:
- My business hours: when I would reply to emails, send invoices, and return completed projects
- A 24-hour time frame when payment needed to be made after I sent an invoice, which allowed me to begin all my work with confidence, rather than wondering if a client forgot about my invoice or when he would pay me
- The financial penalty that would incur if a writer wanted me to review a different version of a document after payment was made and I had already started working
Clients were thoroughly informed about doing business with me, and I had stress-free systems in place that communicated my needs and boundaries as a service provider.
What’s next in our pricing series?
If you haven’t already read the first installment in our pricing series, check out Pamela Wilson’s article, Are You Cheap or Are You Exceptional? How to Price Your Services.
Beth Hayden will wrap up the series soon with a simple template for pricing your services.
What details do you need to know before you accept a project? How do you assess, communicate, and manage expectations when running your business?
Share in the comments below.
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