Humility, Confidence, and Empathy: Secrets of the Winning Self

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In your dealings with clients, one thing is constant: you. Who you are as a person and your interpersonal skills shape interactions and outcomes. This is what I’ve learned about the importance of humility, confidence, and empathy in the world of freelancing, agencies and consulting.

I have to admit, the thoughts shared in this article weren’t always so obvious to me. In fact, in my early days as an agency owner, I didn’t think too hard on how my and my colleagues’ personalities and interpersonal skills influenced the results of our work.

While I’ve learned a thing or two since I consider this an ongoing journey. I’ve got a long way to go. But I hope sharing some of my experiences so far will be of value to others.

Face It, You Are Your Business

In our line of work, we are our businesses. A freelance professional is themselves the product they market. Similarly, an agency owner’s personality infuses the culture of the company. It’s something larger corporations would die for, struggling to build a cohesive and attractive culture. This implicit personality is an asset that smaller businesses should take more advantage of.

A way to leverage your interpersonal skills and infuse personality in your work is by how you write proposals. As we all know, proposals are frequently what determines whether there will be any work for the agency or freelancer at all.

Back in my early agency days, the proposals we sent screamed “anonymous corporate.” They all had serial numbers and ran at least 30 pages, even for the smallest projects. Structurally, they looked more like academic dissertations than something meant to create excitement and interest. These documents were technical, legal and precise. Hardly something people would look forward to reading.

In other words, they were everything that a proposal shouldn’t be according to Robert Solomon, a long-time account executive and author of The Art of Client Service:

“Write the way you speak. You are not trying to replicate ‘party of the first part’ legal language. Write conversationally.”

Using Your Interpersonal Skills to Be a Better Communicator and Writer

In hindsight, I can now recognize that a pinch more empathy with the client would in many cases have led us to produce something different. Something written with the recipient in mind. Less formulaic and stiff. A document that would build excitement and show possibilities.

I believe that many of our proposals were missed opportunities to stand out, make an emotional imprint and be memorable.

Interpersonal skills, such as empathy, affect everything, from the format of your proposals to how you design your meetings.

By building your interpersonal skills, you increase your chances of winning work, and raising your prices and retaining clients.

What I’ve Learned From Putting Humility, Confidence, and Empathy in Practice

Building interpersonal skills isn’t something you do overnight. It requires reflection, introspection and an initial measure of humility. I’ve made my share of mistakes over the years but also learned a lot in my interactions with buyers and clients. These are some of my experiences as well as my thoughts regarding the roles the interpersonal skills humility, confidence, and empathy played in each case.

The Interpersonal Skill of Humility: Being Honest About Your Abilities and the True Value You Provide

Learning: Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t hesitate to be honest and transparent. Admit it when your service isn’t a good fit or that you do not have experience with a particular product. But be smart about it.

I’ve tried to practice humility, and its cousin honesty, in as many sales situations as possible. But it didn’t always work out the way I hoped.

I recall a client interaction many years ago when I, in an attempt to be honest, talked about the limitations of our platform. They were limitations the client wouldn’t face for many years given the current plan. The client needed a proof-of-concept (or MVP in Lean Startup lingo). We had the capabilities to build one quickly and at good value-for-money.

Wishing to be fully transparent, I told the client that such a proof-of-concept solution wouldn’t scale over time. I said what we learned now from deploying this system needed to translate to a new system later on. This is normal in systems development and integration. What’s important isn’t to do things right from the very beginning but to learn and turning that knowledge into changes fast.

The client wasn’t aware of this iterative and lean approach. They seemingly overestimated their technology insights and assumed the classic “waterfall” method. After hearing this, the client then made a long argument to us about scalability and questioned whether we understood the concept of scalability at all. We eventually managed to bring the person back and confirm that we did indeed understand technical and business scalability. But it took a good half an hour as I recall.

Recognize What Your Client Knows, Educate and Coach When Necessary

One of my takeaways from this conversation was the importance of being tactical about what information I reveal. Not in the purpose of deceit but to ensure the buyer can benefit from it. If you decide to go the humble-and-honest path, temper your honesty with empathy to make sure you’re helping the client with your transparency. Ensure that they have the knowledge to fully understand what you’re saying to avoid misunderstandings. Otherwise, your well-intentioned helping, driven by your interpersonal skills and humility, might have the opposite effect.

The Interpersonal Skill of Confidence: Recognizing the Potential Impact and Value of Your Work and Contributions

Learning: Be confident in the value you provide and the standards you hold yourself to. This is especially important when buyers are using negotiating tactics that attempt to undermine your worth and make unfair comparisons.

Having a strong sense of confidence influences a variety of situations. It ranges from having a solid handshake to what words you use to describe your successes. But few situations are as influenced by confidence as pricing. Your price is a measure of your self-confidence.

Indeed, what is holding many back from adopting value-based pricing is a lack of confidence. They just cannot convince themselves that they produce the kind of value that pricing consultants encourage them to charge for. Confidence is an interpersonal skill that drives revenue.

Conversely, others totally inflate their prices without commensurate efforts to communicate and establish a sense of value. On our paths to become better pricers, many of us have been guilty of doing both.

If confidence is one of the interpersonal skills behind the ability to set a value-based price, empathy is the other. Your empathy can be a source of confidence in your ability to provide value. By focusing on the client pains you address or resolve, the value of what you do becomes clearer. See our 3 step guide to value-based pricing and our guide to tiered pricing for ways you can do this.

The Crafty Moonlighting Agency Financial Analyst

This kind of confident value-analysis isn’t only useful for estimating the value you create for clients. It’s also an effective antidote to the bold, verging on immoral, negotiation tactics that some clients resort to.

One example of this stands out extra well in my memory. I was told of this by my colleagues at the time who attended the meeting and I didn’t get all the details. But the general brush strokes of what went down are clear.

My colleagues were in discussions with a potential client. The “getting to know each other” phase was over. The project goals and details had been covered and the scope was taking shape. They knew the potential client and that the buyers were talking to several potential agencies to find a match. Eventually, they reached the matter of price.

At some point during the discussions, a person on the buyer’s side opened his notebook to a new page. He took out his pen and then asked: “What are you paying in rent for this office?”. My colleagues were naturally surprised and I assume gave him a rough number.

He proceeded to loudly and visibly attempting to estimate every cost our agency had. Ranging from the level of education of our staff to the average salary to overhead costs. Using this “back of the napkin” budget he then argued what our hourly rate should be, given an “acceptable” profit margin.

I bet you’d be surprised and perhaps even crestfallen if someone resorted to such tactics in a meeting. The presumptive client made it abundantly clear how they saw us: a highly fungible means to an end.

As a debate technique to argue for a price as a number, it’s effective. As a way to start a successful relationship, it’s worse than idiotic.

I don’t recall how my colleagues handled the situation while at the meeting. They didn’t walk away feeling excited about the opportunity as I remember it. After all, their worth in the client’s eyes was written on the wall.

Using Your Interpersonal Skills to Turn the Tables on Devaluation Tactics

Without having an idea of why the client needs what you’re providing, it’s hard to counter such insidious tactics. Many would try and win at the same game, arguing from the view of costs and making the case that there’s something intangible and valuable that motivates our asked rate (which was actually rather modest). This type of argument has a long history and many now-defunct advertising agencies used to refer to “creativity” as a price argument.

A better counter argument would be to stand your ground, back straight and turn the tables. Do the very same inventory, but make it about the potential gain and impact of the project and its worth to the client. Displaying strong confidence along with presenting references and cases would make such an argument winnable, if not a downright success. Show a strong belief in what you say, commitment to the results and make abundantly clear that you won’t accept any price. Show that you are prepared to walk. Such a display of confidence will most likely bolster their appreciation of your worth and estimation of the value you can deliver.

The challenge when making such a case is that costs are usually known in advance whereas potential gain is a projection. I wouldn’t recommend it as a method for value-based pricing unless you can make a solid and unassailable argument for each expected gain.

The Interpersonal Skill of Empathy: Understanding How the Client Sees You

Learning: Be able to listen to the buyer’s problems and truly hear them. A sensitive buyer will understand they’re dealing with an empathetic seller and will feel validated and confirmed.

The work we do hinges on communication. When relationships with clients break down, it’s usually about miscommunication. When something excites us and makes us rush to work or turning on the laptop, it’s usually thanks to great communication.

Effective and successful communication depends on empathy. It makes sense if you think about it. Communication goes both ways. You’re not broadcasting your message to clients. No. You’re engaging in dialog. For that conversation to work, you need to understand the other party’s perspective. You must walk in their shoes to be able to shape a message that makes sense to them.

A major part of this interaction is about how you’re being perceived by the other party. Your communication goes beyond what you say or write. It involves how you act. Your manners and choice of clothes send messages. These messages are interpreted by the client which in turn shapes their behavior.

Never Forget That This Isn’t About What You Like

This isn’t about what you like. Imagine that you think that suits are stupid garments. You might even make jokes about how those people in finance look like penguins in their ice-like glass towers. That’s fine. But if you intend to be successful working with someone who views a suit the way you view a t-shirt, you need to adapt. Adapting doesn’t mean you start sharing their sense of taste, you simply say “I respect you and your choices” and dress accordingly. Attuning to the needs of others, no matter how small, will send signals that say “I care.”

The same applies to all the things you do. From how you greet someone, to answering the phone to conflict resolution.

Validating Someone’s Perspective Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You Agree With Them

Some years ago I was working on a project together with another consultant. Some things didn’t go according to plan, there was miscommunication and the client was naturally upset. The client’s view was that promises had been made and broken. What was worse, my colleague hadn’t recognized the problems he’d caused. The situation caused my colleague to feel distressed and he asked me to meet the client to sort things out.

So the client and I sat down. We looked over what had been done, what had not been done and what wasn’t done with the quality expected. We discussed the expectations. The vast number of the client’s concerns were valid and I had no problems recognizing them. The ones I didn’t agree with were still valid. They had caused the client stress after all.

To address the concerns, we agreed on a communication plan to ensure he’d be kept in the loop regarding progress. We also created an action plan consisting of concrete deliverables and dates.

We did eventually re-establish trust. I do believe that an important reason was the heart-to-heart conversation during which I focused on the client’s pain. I didn’t necessarily agree about everything he said but I validated his worldview, his experience and him as a person.

Conclusion: Invest in Your Interpersonal Skills as Much as You Invest in Other Skills

Working on who you are as a person is equally, if not more important, than working on your technical skills. Whether you identify as a developer, designer, illustrator, project manager, account manager or executive, who you are is the foundation your professional abilities rest on.

A way to grow your interpersonal skills is to make time for reflection and surrounding yourself with people who are honest. View feedback as a gift and cherish it. Take time to reflect on your actions and role in the situations you face every day.

Don’t be too harsh on yourself either. When you’re disappointed in yourself, give yourself some slack. We all screw up from time to time. The important thing is to try and learn from every experience.

Photo Credits


Author: Jakob Persson

Jakob is the founder and CEO of Zingsight, the company behind Bondsai. He's been involved with the web for over twenty years and has previously co-founded and grown a web agency from 4 to 70 people. Jakob holds degrees in media technology and cognitive science. He consults in product design and management, and business development. Jakob is an experienced skier and a learning scuba diver.