They Want What? Decoding Client Questions

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For those with client-facing jobs, a new email with a subject line that reads “urgent” often sends waves of dread through even the most seasoned professional. Not all client requests and questions hold equal weight or urgency. So, what does person on the other side of the email or phone really want, and when do they need it?

In my previous career as a manager at multiple PR and communications firms, the thing I noticed most from junior staff was the tendency to immediately say “yes” without asking further questions that could have cleared up misunderstandings. Often teams deliver reports, creative projects and other information without fully understanding what the client really wants or why.

“Clients want their agency [and business partners] to make their lives easier and to not make their lives harder,” notes Chantell Glenville, author of What Clients Really Want (And The S**t That Drives Them Crazy). To that end, she implores client service organizations to be direct in asking questions to help better understand the client’s problems, and ultimately better understand why they ask the questions they do.

Here are specific questions and actions to take as soon as you receive a confusing request.

What Does ASAP Mean?

It may seem simple, but when clients (or bosses for that matter) send a note that says they need something ASAP, is the deadline clear? Are they running into a meeting with a VP in 15 minutes where they need to present this information, or are they compiling a monthly report due in two weeks? Never assume. Ask when they need the deliverables. This will save you from upending your day if you are working on other urgent projects and they really don’t need it for a few days. Alternatively, it will save you a lot of tough conversations if they really did need it in 15 minutes and you waited until the end of the day to hit send.

Who is Actually Making the Ask?

After taking a job as an in-house communications manager for a tech company (previously I worked on the other side at PR firms) the first few months were full of revelations that I wish my former account manager self understood. The VP of marketing would often send me cryptic notes late at night about things we had previously discussed or issues that didn’t seem urgent enough to warrant midnight emails. Then I would forward her questions to our PR agency. After having many direct conversations with my boss, it became clear that she was passing along requests or questions from the CEO and others on the executive team. She was simply looking for clarification—there were no passive aggressive motivations.

Once you understand where the questions or concerns originate, it makes it easier to provide as much or little detail in a format that is appropriate to the intended audience.

How Are They Using the Information?

Can you resend the monthly numbers?
We need to discuss the budget for this project.
When will you deliver the latest items?

When questions like these end up in your inbox the first reaction is often to panic and go straight to the negative. Are they unhappy with the results? Do they want to fire us or lower our budget? Are they impatient and trying to passively ask us to deliver ahead of schedule? But often the real answer is far less nefarious. Sometimes they want to show off the work (and play up their own contributions) to impress bosses or board members, justify budgets, or even use it as a bargaining tool for a raise or promotion. Within corporate environments, the person who manages outside vendors is often associated with the work performed by the vendor. When you do a great job (or alternatively an awful one), your client contact often receives the praise or scorn from higher-ups.

To this end, managers and client relationship leads should always make it easy for a client to brag and show off all the hard work you and the team have accomplished. Sending over the results of a successful campaign? Always send good (and bad) news in a professional, well thought-out email that makes it easy for your client to forward to their boss or even their boss’s boss. Ask the client if they’d like you to prepare an executive summary they can share more formally with an internal team or slides they can insert into their next quarterly report.

Instead of stress eating all the chips in the breakroom the next time you can’t decipher a client request, take a step back, consider all the possibilities, and then ask them. It makes your job easier and will ultimately make you the work hero!