High-end clients, projects, and service—with Melissa Barker

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Business and marketing consultant Melissa Barker has something of a cult following, and for good reason. Her experience navigating large projects and optimizing digital strategy, growth, and visibility makes her a go-to consultant for business of all kinds—and that means she’s perpetually in demand.

In this discussion with Melissa, we learn how to balance multiple high-end clients, manage expectations effectively, and build trusting relationships that translate into revenue.

Read the interview.

Jill McKenna: Hi, everybody. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the brand marketing manager here at Ruby, and I’m so delighted to be speaking with my friend Melissa Barker today. Melissa is a digital marketing consultant. She’s also an author and a jack of all trades. Melissa, do you mind talking to us a little bit about what you do?

Melissa Barker:
Thank you so much for having me. My name is Melissa Barker, and I am a digital marketing consultant, as Jill mentioned, as well as the author of the first college textbook on social media marketing. Really, my specialty is working with tech companies with their digital marketing strategies, as well as small business owners—helping them with their marketing sales and scaling best practices and figuring out how to grow their business.

Jill McKenna:
We’ve had the joy to work with you in the past and have had just an incredible experience. And I’m so delighted that we’ve been able to do that and that I get to speak with you again.

Melissa Barker:
Wonderful. I so appreciate it, too.

Jill McKenna:
I know that business services clients often come with high expectations and sometimes high dollars attached to them. Can you speak a little bit about developing and managing those unique and special relationships?

Melissa Barker:
Absolutely. So the business service clients are absolutely my favorite in terms of those to work with. But like you said, they definitely come with different relationship dynamics, especially with larger organizations where you generally don’t have just one point of contact, but you need to be building relationships throughout the organization at large. So the biggest things that I recommend around this is really getting clear on how you are building credibility. So showing previous client examples, having those references, but then also building trust. And so when we’re thinking about really building and developing trust with bigger clients, it’s all about delivering high quality work, strategic recommendations, and then delivering those on time. So, yes, you need to deliver quickly, but you can’t let the quality of your work suffer.
 
In terms of actually managing the relationship, there are three things that I always recommend, especially when you start with a new client. First is to get a clear understanding of the expectations the client has in terms of how frequently you need to be communicating, because there’s a lot of variety in that, in my experience. Some clients want to talk to you every single day; others say, “Hey, here’s the project. I’ll talk to you when it’s done.”
 
[You also have to] understand their preferred methods of communication. For some of my bigger clients, they have me on Slack, so they have that really high-touch, frequent access to me. Other clients, on the other hand, are really happy with email. So, it’s not only understanding how frequently they want to be speaking with you, but also what is their preferred method of communication.
 
And then, finally making sure that you’re integrating within their team. Even if your point of contact does not necessarily say, “hey, set up meetings with everybody on the team,” if there are names that keep coming up in those initial conversations, or people whose work you know you’re going to have to learn more about, being proactive in having those conversations, setting up those meetings, and building those relationships from the beginning.

Jill McKenna:
It sounds like you attack it from the get-go, but mindfully, and respond to what it is that they need and they’re looking for.

Melissa Barker:
Yeah, absolutely. And really focusing on developing a relationship that has the potential to be a long-term relationship, so you become that trusted provider that they reach out to whenever they have a question. If you’re a little bit more relaxed about building that relationship at the beginning, they may or may not come back to you in the future.

Jill McKenna:
That makes sense. It makes a lot of sense. What type of client experience and service standards do your customers tend to expect? Because I’m sure that they’ve not only worked with you in the past as a consultant, but other folks as well.

Melissa Barker:
Yeah, absolutely. And there are the fundamentals of creating great service, which is that quick turnaround, really high quality work, delivering, developing against your timeline every single time. But in addition to that, there are five things that I always recommend for service providers, especially when it’s a high-dollar client or someone that you’re looking to build that long-term relationship with. First is getting comfortable using their tools and systems. Oftentimes I find that service providers don’t necessarily want to integrate or learn all those tools, but it is worth that time investment, especially for your high dollar clients. Because of that, I’ve learned things like Basecamp, Asana, monday.com. So getting really comfortable with all the different project management tools. And it will be really worth that time investment for you as a provider as well because inevitably there will be other clients who use them too.
 
Second: make sure that your recommendations in whatever type of service you’re providing really fits within what they’re capable of, their scope, the budget that the client has said they have, the people, the staff, the budget—because oftentimes what I see with a lot of my one-on-one business coaching clients that are also service providers is that they’ll make these really big complex recommendations, or they’ll make recommendations that are smaller than what the client wants. And both of those leave your client in a very strange position where they can’t really implement your recommendation. So, be mindful to fit within the scope that you get from the beginning.
 
Third is make sure you’re reporting on impact, or showing them how to report on the impact of what you’re providing. And not just telling them the quantitative story, but really getting into the qualitative side and giving some analysis around whatever metrics and numbers you pull, and telling that story. Creating the story for the client is super critical.
 
Fourth is make sure that when you’re delivering your recommendations, you leave your client feeling really empowered to follow through. Because I think it’s easy to come in and say, “Here’s everything you’re doing wrong,” versus coming in and saying, “Hey, here’s the baseline and here’s the opportunity.” So I think, again, not framing the recommendation, making sure that you can take it from that 50,000-foot view, and give the exact steps that they need to follow to be able to implement your recommendations.
 
And then last is treating their business like your own—really taking the time to understand the client, the history, the product or services that they offer can make you really valuable. Because when consultants come in, for any kind of business services, and they’re giving all these recommendations, but they don’t fully understand the history of your business or the nature of your products completely or your industry, it really makes it hard for the client to want to follow through on the recommendations. So again, that upfront time investment. Even if they’re not asking, even if it’s not billable hours, doing your homework and really thoroughly researching the business ahead of time, or asking those correct questions from the get-go can make you feel like a part of their team.

Jill McKenna:
That’s very thorough, and it is obvious that you’ve developed that over time in working closely with some of these people.

Melissa Barker:
Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a learning experience, too, because I think initially I maybe didn’t do all of those things, but as time went on, I’m learning the importance of yes, a little extra upfront time investment in learning their systems and being willing to integrate, make a big, big difference.

Jill McKenna:
And once you work with your clients over a period of time and over years, how do those relationships tend to change or more for what do they need later on?

Melissa Barker:
The biggest thing I’ve noticed over time is that I get brought into lots of different kinds of marketing projects, or things that even maybe sometimes fall a little outside of marketing because they want to work with the same people, right? Because there’s that foundational understanding of the business, they trust the quality of the work that they’re going to be getting. So sometimes I’m actually learning some things in the process as well, to be able to fully serve the client in the way that they’re asking for.
 
But I think the biggest changes over time are really that, there’s less negotiation actually in the proposals. They’ll sometimes even tell you the budget and say, “Hey, what can you do with this amount? How much can you fulfill of this?” And so it becomes less of a negotiation and really trying to prove credibility, but there’s that high degree of trust already. So it’s really about making sure that you understand what their needs are and you can deliver against it. And then I think the way that the needs change are really just that they sometimes actually end up meeting more tactical support. So once you’ve given them the strategy, they’re coming back to you and saying, “Hey, could you actually help us with certain parts of implementation?” And if there’s that element that you actually do offer, it’s a really wonderful, longer term relationship opportunity.

Jill McKenna:
I’m sure that that serves you both really well. That’s great. Great. Thank you so much for your time, Melissa. I appreciate you so much. And if people want to find more about your work, where should they go to?

Melissa Barker:
You can find me at melissabarker.com. You’re also welcome to add me on LinkedIn. I’m Melissa Barker there as well. Either is great, but I always love to connect with folks, especially those who come from Ruby, and these conversations are always wonderful to have.

Jill McKenna:
Great. Thank you so much, Melissa.

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