Ask and Tell Clients

Don’t work for Tell clients if you can possibly avoid it.

What’s a Tell client?

Good question.

Two basic client types

I love it when clients ask a lot of questions. It shows that they value my perspective and want to find creative ways to engage with me to create win-win engagements.

These are the Ask clients. They don’t presume to know all the answers. After all, they hire people like you and me because they understand they need a different perspective to help them grow their business. As one once said to me, “Matt, I know what I don’t know.”

The other type of client is a Tell client. As you might imagine, a Tell client is quite content to tell you what to do. They have the answers in mind before they even call you. Your job is to carry out their orders, plain and simple. Any discussions you have will be about how quickly you can do what they ask, and at what price.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with doing things to make the client happy. In fact, it’s essential. But if the client isn’t willing to have a discussion about the value you can provide to their business, then you’re in grave danger of becoming a carpenter and not an architect. Even worse, you’re in danger of building them a split-level ranch when they really need a Colonial.

Adding some nuance

There are some wrinkles here.

First, an Ask client might first appear to be a Tell client. In the discovery phase of the engagement, they might articulate some strongly worded opinions on what needs to be done. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a Tell client during the engagement.

Gently redirect them with some open-ended questions about their desired outcomes and help them see the gap between what they say needs to be done and what really needs to be done to get there. Gauge their body language. Do they push back by repeating what they think needs to be done? If not, then you’ve just allowed an Ask client to reveal himself or herself to you.

Second, a Tell client might appear to be an Ask client. This is less common, in my experience, but it does happen. In this case, the Tell client asks some questions in the discovery phase that give you the impression he or she is open to new ideas and perspectives, but the questions are really rhetorical in nature.

How do you tell the difference in types of questions? Simply follow up their questions by assuming them not to be rhetorical and follow the reasoning through. A Tell client will quickly retract their question and tell you what they really think needs to be done. If you go through this exercise with several of their questions, a true Tell client will reveal his or her true colors soon enough.

Why does this matter?

It’s not a law of nature, but Tell clients tend to micromanage more and pay less. You end up in a client relationship that’s really the worst of both worlds: you can’t add the value you desire, and you get paid accordingly.

Ask clients, because they appreciate and understand the value you can and do provide to their business, are much more collaborative, challenging you to be better and think harder, and the result is a much better result. They understand that providing lots of added value — guidance leading to a very successful product launch, helping them differentiate and thrive in a commoditized industry, and so on — is, well, extremely valuable, and the compensation follows suit.

In the end, it’s well worth your while to seek out Ask clients. When you do, you’re not only putting yourself in a position to provide the kind of added value that makes you spring out of bed in the morning, but you’re very possibly helping the client go above and beyond anything he or she dreamed was possible for their business.

And that’s the very definition of a win-win scenario.

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