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Work Advice: Answering client questions without giving away your job

Have confidence that a client can’t easily duplicate the value you bring to your services

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4 min

Reader: I am part of a digital marketing team providing services including building, managing and optimizing paid media campaigns.

What advice would you give for answering questions from a client that could ultimately help the client learn how to do your job? How do you recommend framing the answer so it is vague enough that they still are reliant on your services, but specific enough that they continue to trust your expertise?

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Karla: Two equal and opposite approaches come to mind, based on the two parameters you’ve provided:

  • Vague: Lard your explanations with jargon and buzzwords and esoteric references. Answer only the questions you’re asked without adding any context that would help them understand those answers. Create a fog of mystery around your methods, tools and processes that only the deepest gnostics of your profession can penetrate.
  • Specific: Give details. Lots of details. All the details about the tedious, wonky nuts and bolts that go into doing your job based on your accumulated years of experience. Don’t let up until your client’s eyes glaze over and they offer to pay you extra just to stop explaining.

Or you can simply cultivate some confidence, on your part and the client’s, that your services are worth paying for because you bring something extra to the work that can’t be conveyed in a Q&A session. Knowing how the work is done is entirely different from being able to do it expertly. Wanting to obfuscate the details of how you do what you do suggests you lack faith in the value of what you have to offer.

Even if you believe your job is not that specialized, think about how often we pay other people to provide services most of us know how to do ourselves, such as cleaning our homes or making sandwiches. We are willing to pay someone else to do that work even though we know precisely what it involves.

Asking questions doesn’t necessarily mean the client is trying to figure out how to do your job. Maybe the client wants to understand well enough to be able to ask more intelligent and productive questions, or to find new uses for your services.

If you’re worried about protecting confidential details such as client lists and proprietary processes, you can still explain generic concepts. A chef whose signature dish relies on an unexpected ingredient can let curious or allergic diners know what the ingredient is without going into detail about whether it’s powdered, fresh, sourced from a particular vendor, or when or how much of it is added to the recipe.

Here’s another example: I’m a fan of saving money with do-it-yourself home projects. On YouTube, you can learn how to do anything from replacing a toilet to installing a ceiling fan using tools you’d find at any hardware store.

I’ve often had home repair workers show me how to do simple maintenance tasks and repairs to keep fixtures and appliances in good condition. Yes, they’re giving away knowledge that could have translated into paid work. But they know that there are riskier, more lucrative projects, such as major plumbing repairs and breaker panel rewiring, that novice DIYers like me won’t want to tackle.

In those cases, I want to outsource the liability and hire an expert. And I’m most likely to hire an expert who has taken the time to answer my questions and demystify the process. When a professional who has already shared information on how to handle basic projects tells me a project requires more expertise, I’m more likely to believe and hire that professional for the new project.

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Sure, some clients looking to cut budget items may be thinking, “that doesn’t sound so hard. Why am I paying you so much to do it?” No matter how carefully you word your responses, you won’t be able to convince them that you provide value. They’ll always look for a cheaper vendor or a way to obtain those services in-house. They may realize your experience and expertise count for something only after they’ve lost hours and opportunities and possibly staff trying to duplicate your work on the cheap.

And if they come back asking to reinstate their contract with you, they’ll have only themselves to blame when you hand them an updated list of your increased rates.

Pro tip: If a client asks you to spend significant time above and beyond your contracted services explaining your work in such detail that they can learn to do it, that’s called a consultation, and it should come with a separate fee.

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