Customer support is to client care as managing a classroom is to babysitting—you may have fewer people to look after, but each one requires far more of your attention.

Exceptional service isn’t just a win for big companies with widely used products. It’s also a must for small, service-based businesses and freelancers. High value clients will always want more than a mere commodity.

When customers love what you do, even as a one-person shop providing boutique services, you get the benefit of the best marketing channel around: word of mouth.

At least once a week I hear some version of this:

“The last web designer that I hired was awful to work with. He missed deadlines, he never got back to me when I emailed or called, and I felt like I was harassing him to do the work that I was paying him to do.”

In the 20 years I’ve worked for clients, the one constant has been listening to people complain about the lack of customer service they’ve received from supposed “professionals.” Right from the start of my business, I decided I wasn’t going to try to be the cheapest or even focus solely on technical skill; instead, I was going to be the most empathetic and communicative.

Think about the worst experience you’ve had with a freelancer—identifying the fact that they don’t have the expertise for a project is easy in comparison to feeling out their ability to clearly communicate with you and be dependable. Clients abhor shoddy service, and it’s obvious that concierge treatment is the way to land quality contracts.

The root of customer service is actually listening to the customer.

What are their frustrations? What is going right, or more importantly, what is going wrong? What are they trying to accomplish? How is what you do helping or hindering them from accomplishing it?

Often, if you run a small business, you don’t pay attention to patterns of questions from customers over time (since one-person shops don’t tend to hire data scientists). But by keeping track of commonalities in what customers need, want to accomplish, or want fixed, you can start to see where the service you provide needs to be explained better or broken down into smaller steps or even changed.

How do you provide good customer service if you’re a small set of creative mavericks working with a handful of customers at a time on boutique-style services like web design, programming, or content writing?

Do what you say you’re going to do.

Deadlines, deliverables, meetings—your word is a promise you have to keep. Never say yes to anything unless you’re sure you can keep that promise to your customer. This is why it’s important to say no to requests or tasks you know can’t be completed or are the wrong tasks to work on. It’s better to be up-front about your capabilities than to agree to a project and not be able to follow through.

At the world-class advertising agency of Ogilvy & Mather, David Ogilvy himself said that nothing kindled his ire like broken promises, as described in The Unpublished Ogilvy:

I see red when anybody at Ogilvy & Mather tells a client that we cannot produce an advertisement on the day we have promised it. In the best establishments, promises are always kept, whatever it may cost in agony and overtime.

Memorable service starts with honesty. Don’t let your enthusiasm to impress your clients and customers cause you to over-promise and under-deliver.

Both parties need to be clear before money is involved.

Take the time to get the deliverables right and don’t use jargon or tech-speak in quoting or explaining what you do. Spend the time necessary to be clear on the service you’re providing, what you do and don’t do, and what you need from the customer to make it all happen. The clearer you are before money is involved, the happier both parties will be at the end of a project.

Listen to the problems customers have, not what they tell you they want solved.

Customers are well-intentioned with what they ask for, but they are experts in their business, not yours. That’s why it’s important to take opportunities when the wrong requests are made to teach them why it’s misguided instead of just agreeing to do it. Use your expertise to teach best practices.

Be clear on your boundaries.

Customer service for a small business doesn’t need to be 24/7 attentiveness or sleeping with your cell phone beside your bed just in case there’s a content or web design emergency. Be candid about your availability and turn-around time for support requests. The clearer you are with boundaries, the better a customer will be in respecting them.

Own your mistakes quickly.

Too often, freelancers or small business owners go silent if something goes wrong with a customer. Instead, use the opportunity to figure out what went wrong, why it went wrong, and exactly what you’re going to do to fix it. You’re human, they’re human.

Check in regularly.

Few advice on client retention is easier to implement than simply sending an update on your progress without being asked to. That’s the key to good service on any project: communication. The more regularly you communicate with a customer, the faster you can diagnose problems and course correct. Checking-in on a set schedule (like weekly) means you can stay ahead of problems, keep things on track, and make sure the customer is pleased with the progress.

Don’t promise the moon.

Only agree to do things that you can control, otherwise expectations won’t be met and the customer won’t be happy with the results. It’s not the sexiest of sales pitches to only promise things you can control, but ultimately it leads to the highest rate of customer appreciation for the end product.

When you’re only working with a small group of clients at a time, your level of customer service has to be similar to a luxury hotel. They’re probably paying a premium for your services, and they want you to treat them accordingly. By giving them one-to-one attention, listening to their problems and goals, communicating with them regularly, and keeping your word, your clients can ultimately become your sales force by telling others how great it was to work with you.

As a freelancer or small business, trying to compete on price is really just a race to the bottom.

By differentiating yourself or your business as a listener and problem solver, you elevate yourself from just being a skilled laborer to an irreplaceable leader.

Take web design as an example: there are free places any customer can get a website. Or, they can pay a few dollars a month to have a slightly better site. But those places don’t have the level of customer service and problem solving skills that a professional web designer has.

By keeping promises, listening, and being clear in communication, you can easily set yourself apart, regardless of the industry you’re in. You’ve been hired by your customer because you’re an expert, so use that expertise to help the client succeed and teach them how to reach their business goals. This not only helps them, it will also help in customer appreciation, getting many more referrals and making a name for yourself in the work you do.

Paul Jarvis

About the author: Paul Jarvis is a best-selling author and web designer. He also writes for his newsletter, The Sunday Dispatches and teaches a course on freelancing.