5 Ways To Impress Clients If You’re Not a People Person
Sound engineers don’t have the best reputation for being pleasant, bubbly folk that just love to go out their way to do you a favor. We’re grumpy bastards. If you’ve ever been to a music gig you would have no doubt noticed the pasty-skinned, long haired, black T-shirt wearing (usually Metallica or Led Zeppelin), slightly sweaty guy behind the mixing desk furiously fiddling with knobs and buttons. I say ‘his’ because there is a serious lack of female presence in the sound engineering industry...but that’s for another blog post. You’ve seen this person and I challenge you to find me one smiling. This goes for the type of sound engineer that I am too, a dubbing mixer (re-recording mixer) or sound designer working on post production audio for TV ads and films. We are seen less by the public eye but are grumpy on a different level. Shut inside a windowless basement staring at a screen all day playing the same 2-second audio clip over and over for hours, and grumbling about why there’s 11 people from the agency sat behind us for a simple voice over recording.
Why are we so miserable? Perhaps we resent not making it as rock stars (I guarantee that every sound engineer in the world is or was a musician at some point) and settling for a spot at the back of the auditorium or behind a mixing desk in the recording studio has made us bitter. Perhaps it’s because we hate that feeling of a thousand eyes on us when the microphone stops working. Perhaps it’s the fact that we rarely get credit for anything we do.
The truth is, we are actually happy. Beneath our sour, beardy, craft-beer-consuming faces we LOVE what we do. We are nerds who have, for the most part, followed our passion and hobby, learned a trade and made some sort of career out of it. The reason why we don a grumpy facade is because we are generally introverts that have a somewhat client-facing job and frankly, we’re not good with people. Despite my nerdy interior, since starting my post production audio business and even before that when I was freelancing for top studios in London, I learned that in order to survive and get repeat business you need to have character and an interesting exterior (despite your technical skills). I’m here to discuss how to impress clients if you don’t particularly like dealing with other humans...
I’ve gone full circle with my effort-to-style fashion ratio since I started my sound engineering career. I remember showing up to my first day at my first job in a studio in Manhattan wearing smart trousers, shoes and a tucked-in button down shirt. I was cleanly shaved and even made an effort with my long hair. This soon changed. I felt like the odd one out because all the engineers donned hoodies, printed t-shirts, cargo shorts/pants and sneakers. I realized after a while that this was due to the fact that a) they considered themselves ‘crew’ and were therefore deemed as background staff not required to dress for clients and b) long, lonely careers in a studio can remove any energy you have to ‘dress up’ for work. Unlike a corporate gig, engineering, freelancing or behind-the-scenes roles in any industry don’t usually enforce a dress code or smart appearance so why would you dress up if you didn’t have to?
Well, my wife turned my dress code opinion on it's head when I was freelancing and reached for my go-to hoodie to wear. She said "if you’re dressed lazily, you portray a lazy impression to your clients of your attitude towards your work."
This isn’t about wearing the latest designer clothes and expensive haircuts. This is about showing self respect in order to project publicly the respect for the work you do that you love so much. I understand the work you output won’t change if you’re in your underpants or in a three-piece suit but dressed like you care may be the difference between repeat business and a series of indefinite one-off jobs. Putting any public facing dress code aside, you will feel better in yourself. Waking up in the morning having purpose and a reason to get dressed respectably will inject productivity and positivity into your work life.
I get it, doing the same thing day-in-day-out, no matter how cool your job is, will get you down from time-to-time. Gritting your teeth with awkward clients, suffering a packed train for up to an hour twice a day, or fake-laughing at your boss's jokes will take its toll on even the most tolerable of people. If you’re not good with people, this frustration can be multiplied and it’s more likely to get internalized adding to your roster of grump-tastic facial expressions. We’ve all snapped at people too, be it colleagues, clients or slow walking tourists. It’s not professional but it happens. How do you overcome these moments and maintain a calm, professional internal and external attitude? Positivity and allocating ‘me time’ is key.
I’m a huge advocate for positive energy. I know this seems a bit ‘hippy’ and you can look into this as much or little as you like but being positive makes you and others feel better. I don’t delve too deep into the details of the hidden forces of energy etc. but I see it this way; if you buy a coffee and greet the server with a smile, say please and thank you and so on, the chances are they will reciprocate perhaps even giving you a little buzz and warm feeling inside. You never know, that may have made their day (or vice-versa). If you are a miserable bastard, demand your coffee and give the server grief for things out of their control there’s a high chance they will be miserable back and it’s a negative experience all round. This has a knock-on effect. That server will now potentially be pissed off at the next customer and that person buying coffee now feels negative unknowingly because of your bad attitude 5 minutes before.
Being positive isn’t always easy though. If you don’t particularly like interacting with people, saying “morning” to a stranger will make you cringe. Having the confidence to speak to anyone publicly though will give them confidence in you as a person. I was told (rather brutally) by a studio facility when I started out freelancing that my technical abilities weren’t the best in the world but the reason they used me was because of my positive and confident attitude around their clients. Confidence is crucial kids!
I wasn’t always and I’m still not Mr. Positive by far, it’s taken considerable effort for me to be comfortable with clients and at networking events etc. If I’m feeling really low and I'm consciously aware of myself being a dick to people, I write a list of everything I’m grateful for followed by a list of everything I want in life. This can be as realistic or fantastical as you like. Listing what you’re grateful for puts perspective on what you are pissed off about (I'm grateful for a roof over my head etc.). Listing your dreams and goals keeps you focused on what you want to achieve and makes you realize (in writing) that you being a dick will not help you reach those goals.
As for ‘me time’, this can be whatever you desire but as long as you take a break from what it is that’s giving you a bad outlook. I walk to and from work every day which offers exercise, 45 minutes each way for my own thoughts and fresh air (well, as fresh as New York City gets). I’m grateful that I get to walk through Prospect Park for half my journey. Being in nature really helps me breathe and clear my head. I’m also not going to say no to a large Bourbon on the rocks and a beer to unwind sometimes. It’s whatever works for you but just try and clear that noggin and stay positive. Your work, clients, business, and most importantly you will benefit from it.
I know when I get nervous talking to people that I tend to overshare to compensate. This is not uncommon. Often I’m so deep into my ramblings I start hearing my own voice and I can’t shut up! This includes telling clients anecdotes I probably shouldn’t, being overly honest or getting way too technical. I’ve learned that unless appropriate and in the lines of friendly conversation, most people don’t care about your wife’s promotion or the details of your recent computer upgrade. Keep it friendly and conversational but professional. I wish I could practice what I preached for this tip but I still come away from meetings with clients thinking “did I really just talk about my cat’s litter scooping routine?”. Perhaps this is some of the ‘real’ charm that people seem to like about me but it definitely needs to be tamed a little. If you’re a talker when you’re nervous, keep it to yourself, at least until they start mentioning their preferred toilet roll brand, then you can dive in with the poop story you’ve been dying to tell.
Don't be Stubborn
If the term ‘the customer is always right’ causes your body to involentarily shudder and triggers a large eye roll, keep reading. I know, I know, clients aren’t always the easiest people to satisfy and fickle is often a huge understatement. BUT...big or small, whether you run your own business or are on a salary, clients pay your wages. Care about the product or service and who is buying it no matter what your role.
My role as a sound designer and mixer means that I get to make a substantial amount of creative decisions myself. Sometimes those decisions aren’t even that creative, just decisions that alter the way a project ultimately sounds. Despite the freedom I have on a majority of the spots I work on, I still have to get approval from my clients. If they decide they want the sound of someone farting in the middle of a Save The Children advert, although I would advise against it, it would have to be added. Even when clients are wrong, they’re paying you to be right.
Not being great with people means that it’s difficult to take other people's decisions into account. There’s nothing wrong with offering professional advice and steering people one way or another but at the end of the day, the actions you take have to be selfless ones. When you move in with someone you realize you have to start putting the toilet seat down and washing dishes. Nobody is forcing you to (or maybe they are) but for the sake of the relationship you do it. This is no different. Advise and direct but ultimately say yes to their needs (unless of course they ask for something morally wrong like adding a fart sound in a charity commercial).
I’ve had several meetings with prospective clients that are looking for a new post production audio studio or sound designer because they were ‘difficult’ to work with. To me this is insane, if I found out a client stopped using me because of my attitude I would seriously reevaluate my customer service values. Unfortunately I’ve seen this first hand where a sound designer is being stubborn about the sound of something. I’m stubborn too but sometimes you have to let it go and keep your opinion to yourself if you want repeat business.
This brings us nicely to our final tip which goes hand-in-hand with the section above. Set expectations with your clients from the start. Be transparent. For me, in the advertising and film industry, it is unlikely I could sound design and mix a feature length film in a day. If they expected that from me and it wasn’t clear from the start, when I give them an invoice for a week's work, they will likely dispute it. This has happened to me and trust me, I wish I had been clear with my rates and how long the project would take at the beginning of the project. Again, if dealing with people is not your cup of tea, you will probably want to run for the hills at the thought of talking about rates, deadlines, revisions and so on.
Communication is so important though. It adds to your product quality and even just emailing during a project to give a progress update will make the difference to your client. Corresponding with people is easier than ever these days which admittedly is not always a good thing (especially if your client is messaging every 5 minutes) but it offers professionality and transparency. The tracking app and texts from Seamless when you order your Chicken Pad Thai is basically pointless but it offers transparency and peace-of-mind for you, the customer. Sending an email or calling will offer your clients the same comfort as receiving that glorious text saying “your food is on its way”.
If you aren’t good with people, take a deep breath, follow at least one of these tips and let me know if it made a difference. I’d love to hear from you.