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Client Management (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Answering Enquiries[edit | edit source]

Your marketing and promotional efforts worked. Letters, emails and phone calls begin to arrive. Each enquiry you receive represents a potential client. The tone and manner of your initial answer is all-important and has much to do with whether you inspire their confidence. Many clients are savvy enough to query more than one researcher in order to compare the replies.

  • At this point they may know nothing about you except your name—they may have seen your advertising, or they may have been referred by someone else. You will want to know how they obtained your name, so you can judge the effectiveness of your marketing. If this is an important factor in your business, and they did not indicate such in their letter, be sure to ask them the question in your reply.
  • Did the enquiry come by telephone or personal contact or postal mail or fax or email? The latter three give you more time to compose an answer.

An optional suggestion: A prepared information sheet or rate sheet of your services and fees is an idea some researchers like to adopt for replies, besides—of course—addressing the question or problem du jour in a cover letter.

  • A separate sheet (not necessarily the same as on your brochure or website) describes your fees and services and saves time, avoiding repeating yourself over and over again. Some enquirers may not have seen your brochure or website or business information. As a word processing file, it can be kept current about your fees and charges which you might not display on your website or a print brochure.
  • It could include some details about the sources you use, locally or otherwise.
  • For people who seem to have no experience with genealogy, it could also give a general educational outline of genealogical procedure that would apply to most client situations. It does not hurt to emphasize that a good researcher can save so much time that an inexperienced amateur would waste, by knowing exactly where to find sources and retrieve them.
  • However the original enquiry came to you (by phone, snail mail, email, etc), do offer to send such information out by snail mail or email attachment.

In the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly Vol. VII, Nos. 2 and 3 (June and September 1992), Paula Warren gives a detailed description of what you might like to include, “... to give the same basics to all prospective clients.”

  • your background, experience, qualifications, related volunteerism and/or references
  • fees, expenses, retainer
  • basic business information about your charges, which could include some or all of: reviewing client information, research planning, research hours, travel time, chart preparation, analysis, report writing
  • the repositories where you habitually work, your specialty areas or limitations
  • extra services such as preparing lineage papers or compiling/editing family histories
  • necessary feedback from a client: written authorization, agreement or contract; full information about the requested problem or family and citation of sources for their information

Responses[edit | edit source]

Timely and appropriate responses are a hallmark of the professional.

  • Telephone and personal contacts demand immediate response when you are probably busy doing other things. You may be deep into research at a library when someone approaches you for a business talk. Use your best judgment about whether to interrupt yourself, or to postpone the discussion.
  • You can expect to have telephone enquiries at odd hours and weekends and during family time. People forget that there are many time zones across the continent and the world!
  • Answering a query in writing gives more leeway to think about what you can do for the particular question or problem being posed—if it is a detailed query.

Types of Enquiries[edit | edit source]

What kind of enquiry did you receive?

  • Is this a general enquiry (“Can you find my family tree?”) or a specific enquiry (“Who are the parents of Jacob Fletcher? and here is my family group sheet”)?
  • The general query is easier to respond to with your standard statement. But it then begs a second round of conversation or correspondence with more details for you to consider.
  • The specific query needs your standard reply plus an answer tailored to a certain question or problem.

Either way, how much time will you spend gratis on answering this initial query? As a courteous professional you will set aside time each day or each week to answer such queries, but timeliness is a factor when you know there is competition.

  • It is up to you to decide how much time and detail you will expend in being professionally courteous and hopefully convincing the enquirer that you are the right person for the job.
  • In essence, a specific query needs a research proposal, which forms the basis for your initial research plan.
  • Experienced professionals will allot a precise amount of time to answer each enquiry, usually from personal knowledge of the problem type or the necessary resources, often with hands-on reference to their home library or Internet finding aids.

Does the enquiry or request entail some work (or all of it) outside your purview? Be honest about this, with yourself first of all. Do you know who your colleagues are? Someone who can handle the request? By all means be prepared to recommend a colleague or two, but only if you have checked with them first. Most will appreciate and remember the favour, but most will not want their names and contact information given out without their permission. Who Is This Potential Client?

While the client needs to feel confident that you are a good person to hire, new professionals might overlook the nuances of what a potential client is (or is not) saying or writing. It’s important to get a feel for the client’s knowledge level about genealogy in general, how much she or he seems to know about sources and procedures. Some candidates:

  • There is the fellow professional who wants a specific problem addressed, but does not know the sources you know, or have access to them.
  • There is the experienced client who has done his own research and wants you to give informed advice about sources and resources he can’t access.
  • There is the total neophyte who wants “all my ancestors” without a clue how it is done.
  • Many new or potential clients lie somewhere between the last two.

A sense of the client’s level of knowledge or experience is important for your own time management planning, from the outset. The “neophyte” client may need or expect more educational explanation from you about why you proceeded from one source to another, or why you omitted a source in your research plan because a previous source took you into a new direction. This is why we suggested a standard, prepared-in-advance statement.

Educating a client about methodology takes time, and the potential extra cost when you come to reporting, must be considered even at the point of any estimate or proposal you give to a query.

The enquirer who sends a hand-written letter with grammar or spelling errors deserves as much consideration as the one who writes competently via more modern technology, or one who has trouble expressing his goals verbally on the telephone. How do you get a feel for the person’s knowledge level in genealogy as well as general education? In most cases, it is clear from their own words how much or how little they know about

  • genealogy,
  • your area of expertise, and
  • how receptive they will be to a professional report.

In a few cases, sometimes a little application of “psychology 101” will give you the necessary hints regarding your impending case work time. Whether on the phone or writing, you must convey your confidence and professionalism without being impatient or patronizing.

Be wary of the potential client who complains about previous professional work he hired. There may or may not be good reason why he was unhappy. Unreasonable dissatisfaction may extend to your efforts as well.

Never take on work that you do not have the knowledge or time to handle, but refer it elsewhere. Your reputation can be damaged by a single piece of poor work, as bad news really does travel fast.

Before engaging with any prospective client, once again we caution that you must be very clear in your initial reply that no promises or expectations of extensive family trees or problem-solving are possible. They are paying for your time and expertise, not for smoothly unfolding one generation after another!

Responses and Proposals[edit | edit source]

Answering an enquiry with a brief research proposal is something we want to differentiate from a research plan. Naturally, neither a research proposal nor a research plan apply to a brief, specific request for one or two copies of a record. Nor will it apply to package options.

Generally, sources will come to your mind as the potential client writes or discusses his/her family outline and expectations. Your immediate knowledge, and your estimate of the time needed to investigate them, is what clients respond to and how most agreements are reached.

A research proposal in response to a query, like the more detailed research plan, includes an estimate of the time you will spend on a the problem under discussion. If you work by the hour, it is convenient at this point if you have set a minimum number of hours for a preliminary investigation and/or advance deposit. When you give a time-estimate in your initial response, you must allow for post-research time when you reach your office to assemble a report, with all the analysis that involves. All the time you expend on a client’s behalf is normally billable.

You can only respond to the information you have been given. Did they tell you everything? Some enquirers will give you so little detail that many questions arise in your own mind. It is up to you to draw out all the information the person possesses, so you will not be proposing or duplicating a search for sources that have already been done. Conversely, others may inundate you with notes, papers and photocopies in no particular order, and you must make sense of them to respond appropriately.

Making a Research Proposal[edit | edit source]

Suggested steps for making a research proposal:

  • Identify the potential client’s problem or goals. You may have to help them define this.
  • Review the information s/he gave you and the quality of the sources that provided them.
  • Think of sources that could supply the answer(s) for the wanted or missing information.
  • Feel comfortable that you have been given complete information (all that the enquirer really knows). In your reply, ask questions if you don’t know the sources of their information. They may have glossed over how they “knew” certain pieces of information
  • Emphasize that this is a preliminary proposal dependent on full disclosure. A more complete research plan—more intensive study of the information and sources and particularly answers to any questions you may have had—can be done after a contract or agreement is reached.
  • However you may charge for your services, the bottom line is that potential clients want to know how much will this all cost me? You must answer this—even knowing that some queries are expecting goals impossible to answer precisely because every ancestor, every family, every situation is individually customized. Proposing a minimum number of hours for a preliminary case, or suggesting sequential research-and-report steps, can usually take care of this, especially if you have that boiler-plate format to explain some background of the necessary records.
  • Put your response thoughts in writing, even if you are returning a telephone message. You will have those notes for reference.

Naturally, the complete response must include an explanation of your expected retainer.

The proposal is only part of your courtesy response, of course, but it is the part that takes the most time to think through. This is what gains you a new client, or not. Needless to say, some replies may take five minutes to formulate and more complex enquiries will take more time than you expected to spend. But all are a test of your professional attitude.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.