For those of us who’ve been using the internet for most of our adult lives, phone calls can seem almost too personal, and live conversations can make us feel downright vulnerable. The disembodied voices, the worry about saying the wrong thing, the inability to see facial expressions of the person on the other end, the awkward pauses… Why do we even bother with such an antiquated way of communicating when there’s Slack or Facebook Messenger??
But if you’re a consultant or a freelancer, even if your day-to-day project work doesn’t involve interacting with human beings, your income and business growth relies on gaining the trust of prospective clients so you can win more contracts.
That means, whether you like it or not, you must get better at interacting both on the phone and face-to-face if you want to be a successful consultant or freelancer (or really, pretty much any role in business).
How to Improve Your Communication Skills
Suffer From Telephobia? You’re Not Alone
Do not fear. We are here to teach you how to improve your business communication skills, be more likeable, and become a good conversationalist and make this easy and possibly even enjoyable. Take my hand and venture out with me, IRL.
The good news? The freelancing and consulting world is full of people who have overcome their social awkwardness to become high-converting entrepreneurial rockstars.
Take Sophia Dagnon. She’s a copywriter who works with tech companies to help them increase conversions. When she first started out, the phone was her arch-nemesis.
“My biggest was waiting for a mythical time when I’d suddenly feel comfortable getting on the phone,” Sophia says. “Yup. For some reason a part of my brain believed that over time I’d somehow get better at phone calls by not doing phone calls.”
Once Sophia started forcing herself to *gasp* pick up the phone and talk with human beings, she got more confident in her conversation skills. Now clients are paying $2,000 per day to work with her.
We’ve asked folks like Sophia––high-paid professional freelancers and consultants who are more comfortable writing than talking––how they got over their telephobia (the reluctance or fear of telephone calls) and learned to master the art of the client conversation.
They were happy to share some of their communication secrets––via email, of course.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. Ditch the Sales Mindset and Adopt a Consultative Mindset
First things first: This isn’t Glengarry Glen Ross, and you’re not Alec Baldwin.
When conversion copywriter and funnel expert Jenn Robbins was still wobbly on her phone skills, the thought of talking with clients sent her into a panic.
Once she flipped to a consultative mindset, her confidence level shot through the roof. Now she’s writing high-converting sales funnels for badass women coaches, and her rates have more than doubled over the past year.
Jenn had a common misconception about client calls—that she needed to win their approval to get the work.
“I would get incredibly nervous,” she says. “Mostly, I went into the calls like it was a job interview and I wanted them to hire me, instead of going in like an expert who they need.”
So let’s clear up some of the misconceptions that can make client calls an anxiety-producing ordeal:
When you’re on the phone with a prospect, forget about selling them on your services.
You’re not a telemarketer, and this is not a sales call. It’s a conversation in which someone is seeking expertise, and wanting to know if you’re the right person to work with.
Your clients are not, I repeat, not your employers.
You are an expert whose skills and knowledge are in demand. You are there to diagnose their problems and offer a solution that you and only you can provide.
“A customer call is not a job interview,” says retention marketing strategist Dana Sayers. “The customer has a serious problem. You are the person they are coming to for help. Either you have the solution they need and you can over deliver for them, or you don’t. Simple. Let that take the pressure off some and treat the customer like the same person who stood in line next to you waiting for their coffee order.”
Start focusing on the value of the client to your business growth.
Instead of worrying if you’re good enough for the client to hire,” ask: Is this client worth a spot on my busy calendar? That’s right: your consultation is about you interviewing your client.
The purpose of your call is to evaluate the following:
- Are the client’s needs a good match for your expertise and what services you have to offer?
- Do you have the time available to work on their project, based on the timeline they’re anticipating?
- Is their project something you’d enjoy working on?
- Do they have enough budget to hire you?
- Do they seem like they’d be good to work with?
Believe it or not, it’s okay to turn business away if it isn’t a good fit.
Think about it this way: When you take on a bad-fit client whose project is boring or who expects unrealistic turnaround times on deliverables or who’s always late to pay invoices, that person is taking up valuable time on your project calendar that could be devoted to a dream client.
2. Don’t Wing It—Go in Armed with Information
If you’re worried that you’re not going to say the right things on a call, chances are you’re under the assumption that a good phone consultation is improvised. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The best consultants know that the most important part of a conversation is what happens before the call.
“Research. Research. Research,” says copywriter and Marketer of Fun Karine Bengualid. “I write all my questions down so I don’t forget. And I try to anticipate everything they need, and I come up with ballpark pricing and timelines so I can share with them at the end of the call.”
Be sure to set aside time on your schedule for doing pre-call prep.
“Even just taking 5-10 minutes to review a potential client’s website goes a long way to showing them you’re serious,” says freelance content marketer Kristen Hicks. “Have a set of questions in front of you going into the call so you ask everything important.”
When Kristen was a newbie, she’d feel unprepared and often found herself quoting prices on the phone without knowing much about the scope of projects.
“I’d inevitably underprice myself any time I named a number when put on the spot,” she says.
Kristen eventually adopted a system for preparing for every client call.
“I spend a few minutes going through the client’s website and blog to learn what they do, the general topics they cover, and who their main audience is,” Kristen says. “And I pull up the list of typical questions I ask and tailor it based on the information I have, so I know exactly what to ask during the call.”
Now Kristen works with leading inbound marketing agencies to create B2B content.
Create an agenda before the call.
Want to come across as a true expert and not just a hired hand? Set the stage before you even get on the phone by letting them know exactly what to expect.
“Prepare a meeting agenda in advance that includes how you’ll set expectations, how you’ll resolve common objections, and how you’ll know if you’re successful,” says Amy Hebdon, founder of Paid Search Magic.
In my own content strategy service for early-stage SaaS startups, I take it a step further by having prospective clients fill out a quick discovery form when they set the appointment and sending a short agenda document prior to our call––that way they know what we’ll be talking about and will be prepared with answers.
Find an interruption-free zone for the call.
Don’t have a “BBC Dad moment.”
Make sure you’re somewhere quiet and comfortable and without distractions for your call.
“It’s hard to feel prepared to speak in a busy coffee shop or in front of other people, so I take calls at home with headphones to block out other noise,” says Sarah Wild, founder of media agency Nimble Hippo.
Want to set yourself up for success? Here are some tools you can use:
- Calendly – No more “what time would work for you?” back and forth scheduling drama. Take control of your calendar using a link that offers prospective clients the times you’re available for a call. You can also pre-qualify prospects with a few questions when they schedule the call using your Calendly link.
- MixMax – MixMax is an automated email assistant that helps you keep track of your client communications and reminds you to follow up on emails that you haven’t replied to (or are still waiting on a reply from). You can also use MixMax to create and send email templates (like, say, a client meeting agenda).
- LinkedIn – Take a peek at your prospective client’s profile to learn more about their background—good conversation fodder.
3. Master the Art of Ice-Breaking
Look—despite some of our tendencies toward introversion, there’s no fighting humanity’s evolutionary need to socialize. When two strangers meet with the possibility of working together, we need to get a feel for one another’s personality and discover common ground.
Hence, small talk. Here’s how to master this dark art.
Opening a call is notoriously awkward but necessary.
Now, you can forgo small talk and dive right into the consultation. Some clients may even be relieved to just get on with it.
“If small talk makes you feel like you are dancing with two left feet, stick to the two step,” says retention strategist Dana Sayers. “You can say something like, ‘I want to maximize the time we have so let’s dig in.’”
But, if your aim is to be a skilled communicator, you can optimize your conversation style for your client’s personality type.
Mirroring your client’s communication style earns more trust and more sales.
Remember, no two clients are alike. Each one of them has a different depth of experience and viewpoint on the world. The better you adapt your message to those things, the more likely you’ll be to win their trust and close the deal.
“I used to think my prospects and clients only cared about data, results, and outcomes,” says Amy Hebdon. “I spoke in acronyms and assumed that they understood the value I was contributing by looking at my charts and tables. It didn’t occur to me that I needed to meet them at their level, and that I wasn’t doing that.”
Client personality types, and how to communicate with them:
This information-driven person is the type of prospect who has done their research ahead of time. They’re probably armed with numbers, KPIs, and have a folder of material to share with you.
Communication style: Brass tacks. The more data-backed, proven results you have to offer, the better. Ask questions about their current stats and goals in terms of metrics. Show them through hard data how it will benefit them to work with you.
This client is looking for a strong relationship. They’re driven by establishing common values and building trust and rapport with other professionals and prefer a collaborative working relationship.
Communication style: Sociable. Ask questions about their values, passions and aspirations. Show them that you care and you’re invested in their success.
This client likes to be in the spotlight. They tend to have emotion-driven opinions about how things should be. Like amiable personality types, they’re looking for strong relationships, but while amiable types like a more collaborative style, expressive types tend to run the show and like to hire people who will be attentive and nurturing.
Communication style: Emotional. They want to feel understood. Ask questions about how they feel about things and demonstrate that you “get” where they’re coming from.
This client is most likely to see this consultation as a job interview. They want to know what you can do for them, and want immediate answers and solutions.
Communication style: Authoritative, direct, no-frills. Ask about their current situation, what they want to accomplish, and what they’re willing to pay to achieve it. Be prepared to ask for the sale on the call. Drivers are quick decision makers.
4. Ask Conversational Questions
Other than preparing for your call, the quality of questions you ask will make or break your ability to close the deal. As we mentioned earlier, having a list of questions on hand will help you keep your conversation on track and will give you the insights you need to create an irresistible proposal.
BUT. Mechanically reading off a list of questions doesn’t exactly make for an enthralling client call. You could just as easily send them a questionnaire if that were the case.
Let questions surface naturally throughout your conversation.
Show that you’re truly listening to your customer by asking follow-up questions to what they’ve just said.
“First, write down all your questions while you’re preparing for your call,” says Karine Bengualid. “But second, and most importantly, be prepared to throw those questions out the window if the conversation takes an unexpected turn. Follow it and listen to their underlying message.”
Remember, the purpose is to help you build a strong case for a recommendation (aka your proposal).
For example, a past client of mine originally wanted to hire me to write an ebook lead magnet for her coaching business. But after asking her more about who her target customers were, where they were in the decision-making process, and the ultimate purpose of the lead magnet, I realized that an ebook wasn’t the best way to engage her customers. Instead, I proposed creating a personality quiz and an email series customized to each personality type. The client enthusiastically agreed to the project.
Here are some ways to ask follow-up questions to help your client focus on what they want to accomplish:
- “What was happening in your life/business when you realized you needed ?”
- “What will a successful outcome look like to you?”
- “How close are you now to getting ?”
- “How do you plan to get ?”
- “What are the major obstacles standing in your way of achieving ?”
5. Shut Up and Listen
So you’ve gathered your courage and picked up the phone. You’ve just asked the customer a question. Now, while your customer is giving you an answer, you may be tempted to glance at your notes to see what the next question is. Don’t do it.
“I try to digest and think about what they’re saying, without trying too hard to anticipate what I might say in response,” says Kim Cashwell, marketing manager for affiliate marketing service FMTC.
Not only does truly listening help you tune into your customer’s needs, it helps you empathize with their pain so you can make a relevant recommendation.
“We have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth, and we should use them in that order,” advises messaging strategist Sabine Harnau of From Scratch Communications. “Be present. Be interested in what the client has to say. Listen to them and strive to really understand their point of view and their goals.”
Listening isn’t just about hearing what your client is saying––it’s about empathizing with their needs.
“It’s important to give the client time to understand what you said and think of any questions or input they may have,” says Kelly Martinson, SEO manager at Prove. “I also want to note that if a client is frustrated or confused, giving them affirmation goes a long way. You can say, ‘I hear you’ or ‘I understand’ or ‘I see where you’re coming from.’ Often times, when a client expresses disdain or something else, they just want to feel heard and want to feel like you’re on the same team. Always remember that your client is your partner!”
Here are some easy ways to keep focused on what your client is saying:
- Record the conversation – You can use video conference software like Zoom or Demio to record your call so you can go back later to review. Just be sure to ask permission first, a legal requirement depending on where the participants live.
- Practice active listening – Active listening is a communication technique you can practice not only in client calls, but in personal relationships. It helps you focus on what a speaker is saying and give feedback to demonstrate that you understand.
6. Restate the Problem
After your customer has described their problem and you’ve fully investigated what they’ve been doing and how they are hoping to solve it, you’re ready to transition from the diagnostic portion of the conversation to the recommendation.
Describing their problem in your own words is a great way to achieve that transitional moment. It will show that you were listening and that you understand, and it will also bring attention to any issues you may have misunderstood.
“It’s helpful to repeat their pain points and desires back to them,” says Jenn Robbins.
A quick script:
“OK, I think I’m getting the picture here, but I want to make sure we’re on the same page before I make any recommendations. So, if I understand you correctly, you want to , but . And this means . Is that right?”
7. Pitch Your Process
Up to this point in the conversation, you haven’t said a word about your services, pricing, availability or anything else having to do with hiring you. If you’ve restated the problem correctly, it’s time to shift to talking about how you work and why your process is a good match for their needs (or not).
Your process is your unique value proposition.
Notice that the pitch isn’t about your services. Let’s face it—there are probably hundreds if not thousands of other freelancers or consultants that do what you do, but no one does it quite the way you do it.
Your pitch is an opportunity to discuss what you do differently than anyone else your client might be talking to.
What to talk about in your pitch:
- Your background – Clients are interested in hearing how you’ve gained your expertise.
- Who you usually work with – If the prospect is in a field that you have lots of experience working in, that’s important for them to know.
- Why you do what you do – What are you seeking to change about your industry or what inspires you? Your client will feel good to see that you share values and will understand the motivation behind your methodology.
- Your methodology – This is where you discuss the essential components that go into every client project, no matter what the deliverable. For example, if you’re a copywriter you might conduct customer interviews for every campaign you work on, whether it’s a landing page or a blog launch. That way your clients understand that when they hire you, that’s part of the deal.
8. Recommend Your Services
Now that you’ve taken a couple minutes to talk about yourself, it’s time to focus on the client’s needs and the services you offer to help them reach the goals they told you about.
If you were a doctor, this would be the moment when you make a diagnosis and treatment plan.
“By the time you get to the pitch point, you should have built up a little rapport,” says Dana Sayers. “Rehash an overview of what they need, reassure them you are the one with the highest midichlorian count in all the galaxy and tell them what you prepared to offer.”
9. The Close
Here it is. The part you’ve been dreading. Asking for the sale.
Even though I’ve been doing sales calls and client consultations for over a decade, my skin prickles a little when it’s time to ask for a “YES” from the customer. It’s a vulnerable moment. You’re pretty much daring someone to reject you after you’ve spent time getting to know one another.
The thing is, your client knows what the deal is. They’ve probably made up their minds as to whether or not they want to work with you within the first moments of the call.
Now it’s just time to ask what they think.
Here are some closing techniques with mini-scripts you can work into your repertoire:
The Package Option: Don’t overwhelm your customer with too many choices. Offer three different levels of service and ask them which one they want to get started with.
Mini-script: “I offer X different levels of support for this kind of work. <Describe packages>. Which one do you want to start with?”
The Price Range: While you might not feel comfortable giving a quote on the phone for a project, you should still be transparent about what kind of budget a client would need to work with you. Have a rate sheet ready for you to glance at so you aren’t caught off guard.
Mini-script: “This kind of service usually runs between $7,000 and $10,000. Is that in line with what you have budgeted for this project?”
The Proposal With Follow-Up: If the project you’re discussing involves several phases, get an idea of their budget and schedule a follow-up call in which you can go over a proposal and answer questions/concerns.
Mini-script: “Okay. Now that I know all the pieces that need to go into this, I’m going to put together a proposal. First: what’s the budget range I need to stick to? <get dollar amount> Next: I’m available for a follow up to review the proposal with you on <date>. Would that work for you?”
If you embrace a mindset that takes away the need to perform like a dancing, extroverted sales monkey and allow your competent, professional side to shine through, you may just start looking forward to talking with prospective clients and persuading them that you are exactly who they need to get the job done.
Do you have any tips on how to improve communication skills or become a persuasive conversationalist? Let us know in the comments!