What you learn from your first client

That first client – every one of us starts somewhere. Many of us think of our first client as a chance to get our foot in the door. But Client One does more than that. They provide an opportunity to learn and grow and shape your business policies.

Consulting fees certainly strike the fancy of many consultants (our article is the most popular post on this site). Many consultants struggle in the early days with estimating project-based fees and opt to bill by the hour, feeling some assurances that they won’t end up eating their quotes. It may make sense instead to work through your estimates carefully and to track your real time when you do the project. Your contract should be very specific about timelines, access to clients and deliverables from the client’s end. However, if you’re not at the point where you feel comfortable going with a flat fee, you can bill by the hour. But it still makes sense to give a range and to collect a deposit, so that both you and the client have an idea of what to expect.

Learning to manage client interactions takes some consideration. Many new and even veteran consultants struggle with what to do when a client calls or emails asking for advice. If you’re billing by the hour, make sure the client knows calls and emails are part of the fee and that you’ll be billing. However, if you think of the upset many people have with lawyers, who bill in six-minute increments, you have a sense of how feeling like the meter is running can affect your work with a client. If the client’s questions are critical, whether to the project or the relationship, they’re worth answering. No one wants to feel like they have to get out a checkbook every time they have a question and constantly noting the length and time of calls can really get in the way of a good business relationship. That’s why going with a project fee or Solution-Based Fee pricing contract may work better, since you can focus on the solution and delivering value to the client. If you find the client’s questions stray from the project and that they need ongoing service and support, consider moving to a retainer model, which, again can be under the fold of Solution-Based Fee pricing. Whatever the case, figure out a plan and be sure to communicate it to clients upfront, so that no one gets upset about a future invoice.

When I think back to my first client, I remember feelings of excitement and validation. My very first client was a major newspaper. I’d pitched them on an article and their editor decided to expand my proposal and create a special project for me. I was going to be published on the editorial pages of one of my country’s biggest newspapers. I was thrilled. I sweated over the project, had a friend go over it with me and I put way more effort into the project than warranted. And the paper accepted it without any changes. I was elated.

And I had a similar experience with my second client. But my third client – oh, my third client! What a stressful project that was! I was new to the consulting game and the client asked if I would first do three short test projects to see how I handled their project. They assured me that they would not use the work, but they asked me to work for a much lower fee as a result. It turned out they were also having two or three other consultants do the same thing. But I made the cut. And then they asked me to do a little bit more for a slightly higher rate – this time while they actually used my work and evaluated how I was handling it. Being just out of university, I wasn’t quite sure about this, but it was a higher rate than my peers were getting at their jobs. So I signed on. After a couple of weeks of this, I realized I was being strung along. They had no intention of ever contracting with me at a decent rate and this was just a game to get me working for a low rate. So I balked and left. I’ve never discounted my rate again. In fact, funny enough, it was only a few months later that I was making $500 an hour doing consulting for a Fortune 500 firm.

So, you could say I learned a lot from those early clients. I learned to a href=”http://consultantjournal.com/consulting-fees”>estimate my time, negotiate fees, put contracts in place and stick to my guns. I don’t regret any of it – the experiences were valuable and my ability to learn from it all allowed me to build the career I have today.

Moreover, those early clients took a chance on me. We built relationships and I’m still in contact with many of the people with whom I first worked. In fact, some of them are close friends. So remember you’re building relationships and connecting with people. Genuine, trusting relationships can just as easily be borne of your consulting work as any other endeavour.

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