How to talk to your clients in a time of crisis

Livelihoods and communities have been turned upside down after Cyclone Gabrielle. Business expert, Ben Paul says as professional consultants we need to know how to reach out to our clients in a meaningful way with great care, empathy, and sensitivity. Ben shares five practical tips when talking to clients in a time of crisis.

We’ve certainly had a few challenging times recently. The floods in Auckland and across the country, swiftly followed by Cyclone Gabrielle and its continued aftermath have left a lot of our country isolated and in a state of disrepair. In the business world, this truncated start to the year has brought even more uncertainty. For professional consultants, this has equated to increased delays or even the cancelling of planned projects. We all know that engineers, architects, and other specialist consultants will be called upon heavily when the debris is cleared and the rebuild starts in earnest. Here are my top tips when dealing with clients after a crisis. 

Empathy and kindness are key

It goes without saying that a lot of people will be highly stressed. These clients will be concerned about the future of their homes, their businesses, and their employees whose livelihoods depend on them.

More than ever, being kind to everyone you interact with will be appreciated. It will also create a platform where the person you’re conversing with will be more open to sharing with you.

Adjust your mindset to one that isn’t focused on securing a project or the next piece of work but is instead one of caring and checking in on individuals. This brings me to my next point.

Listen intently

Engineers who provide services to clients are essentially providing two services: expertise and consulting.

In the current climate, when having initial conversations with clients and potential clients, I’d recommend you put your technical expertise to the back of your mind. Instead, you need to think more like a consultant – and one that is focused on fully understanding the person you're talking to.

This means you may feel like a counsellor, listening to your client’s problems and worries. But like all good counsellors, seek to listen and empathise, but do not try to solve all of their problems. Your clients are looking to share their burdens, not get all the answers from you.

Where you can, offer help unconditionally

In the medium term, there is no doubt your clients and contacts will likely need your services - and I’m not suggesting that you give everything away for free. However, in the immediate aftermath, there are lots of ways you can offer your time or expertise to assist your clients in a meaningful way.

A quick answer to a question, maybe some advice around insurance claims, or what photo to take and how to take it (after all many engineers take photos on site), I’m sure would be appreciated.

Share your networks

In the months ahead, the clients you engage with will have a myriad of problems. Some, you will be able to help them with directly. However, with lots of these issues you will not be able to directly assist with this.  

Instead, you’ll need to refer them to someone who can. No doubt, within your or your colleague’s networks, you’ll know the right person to refer them to.

Think about how you can connect your clients, and who is best placed to help them, and spend time making those introductions. This will help your clients’ businesses recover, and in the long term they’ll appreciate you for this. No doubt, doing this selflessly will provide you with clients for life.

Be considerate and continue to listen

Once engaged on a project, in some cases with vital services needing to be rebuilt or things needing to be structurally supported ASAP, you might find the work commences quickly.

In these cases, it’s important to go beyond just doing a good job. If you can hold your client's hand through the process, keep them informed of what’s coming, and be transparent about all likely costs (those you control/invoice and any others they may incur), they’ll really appreciate it.

If you can continue to show empathy and understanding for their personal circumstances, it will significantly enhance your company’s brand and your own. As well as a delighted client, the upside is that they will be far more likely to recommend you to their contacts.

Reach out to your clients as early as possible

While checking in with clients as early as possible, just to see they are ok, is vitally important to maintain your relationships. I’m advocating that you do it, more because it’s the right thing to do. In times of crisis, it is the support we receive that helps to see us through.