Keep Your Sanity by Managing Client Expectations
Being a freelance web designer certainly has its perks. You get to make your own hours, set your own rates, and control your own professional destiny. I’d add that designing for the web, like any freelance field, is a craft that most of us are truly passionate about. There’s something about the merging of beautiful design and cutting edge technology that keeps our creative juices flowing and keeps us endlessly engaged in our work.
But as any freelancer or small business owner knows, sketching diagrams, arranging pixels and constructing code make up only a small part of this profession. At the beginning and the end of the day, it’s still a business, which brings it’s own inherent challenges. At the top of the list is something we all must deal with every day: managing client expectations.
In this article, I intend to cover several aspects of working with clients as a freelance web designer (but these tips apply to any freelance profession, really). These are all based on my own experiences and lessons learned the hard way.
The tips I offer here will benefit not only the health and stability of your business, but your own personal health and well-being as well. Stress is a killer. When you’re running your own business, stress often goes unnoticed to outsiders as and sometimes yourself. By effectively managing your client relationships, you’re also keeping your own stress level in check. When you’re feeling good, you do good work and prosper. It’s as simple as that. So let’s get into it.
The initial point of contact
A potential client’s first contact with me is usually via the contact form on one of my websites or a direct email. These initial email inquiries tend to fall all over the map in terms of how much info they provide, level of “seriousness,” urgency, etc. Everybody is different.
The first thing I try to control here is my response time. I want my first response to be in a timely manner in order to show that I’m a good communicator and readily available for consultation. However, I also want to be careful not to fire off my response minutes after their email lands in my inbox. First of all, that’s kind of creepy. But more importantly, I don’t want to set the wrong precedent. If I come back with a super-fast reply the first time, they may expect this level of responsiveness every time moving forward. That’s a recipe for trouble. If their email arrives in the morning, I try to answer it by end of the day. If it comes in around 5:00 pm or later, I’ll respond the next day. I rarely answer work emails during weekends as I try to set very clear boundaries on when my normal business hours are.
Another expectation to control during this initial contact phase is the client’s budget vs. my rates. The most common first question clients ask is “how much do you charge?” Of course, I can’t provide a quote until we fully discuss the project and determine the scope. However, sometimes it may be a good idea to provide a very rough ballpark range on what you charge. This helps to filter out those clients who’s budget are well below my rates. It doesn’t make sense to spend valuable time on consultation and proposal writing if we’re in two different ballparks.
The project proposal
The proposal might be the ultimate definition of expectations for a client’s project. My proposals serve to spell out three main components: The project scope and deliverables, the time estimate, and the price quote.
Defining the project scope and deliverables are extremely important. I take special care to include as much detail as possible here. It usually consists of several descriptive paragraphs and bullet lists covering everything from how many rounds of design revisions to which web browsers will be tested. I’m making sure that all potential disputes are avoided with a thoroughly documented project scope.
The time estimate is another important piece. I usually break the project down into several phases such as “planning and design,” “development,” and “content, testing, and launch.” Each gets an estimated number of weeks to complete. I often pad my estimates to account for extra hurdles in this project as well as managing my other ongoing projects simultaneously. Remember, just because you’re a super-fast developer doesn’t mean you should be quoting two-day turnaround times. Pad your estimates while keeping deadlines reasonable and you’ll save yourself loads of unnecessary stress and late-night work sessions!
Phone calls, emails, and IMs
Working as a freelance web designer takes great discipline in time management. You need to split your time between being available for client consultation and dedicating long stretches of uninterrupted, focused work time. For this reason, it’s very important to clearly define your communication policies.
I make a point to respond to all emails within one business day. I try to follow the advice of Tim Ferris by checking email only once in the morning and once in the afternoon. This way, I can dedicate solid work sessions in the middle portion of the day while staying on top of client communication at the beginning and end of the day. I admit, sometimes I break this routine and check email more often than twice, but I usually let new emails sit for a few extra hours before responding in order to keep response times in check.
Unexpected phone calls are often more disrupting than emails. They require you to fully break away from what you’re working on and engage in a consultation which may last anywhere from 10 minutes to over two hours (yes, I’ve experienced calls this long). I make a concerted effort to schedule phone calls with clients via email. Rather than respond an email inquiry with “Sure, call me anytime tomorrow” I prefer to say “Let’s discuss this over the phone. Does 3:00pm tomorrow work for you?” That way, I can plan tomorrow’s day around it and avoid stressful interruptions.
Instant messages from clients have proven disruptive as well. While I think it’s a good idea to be openly available for chatting over IM or Skype, I make a point of requesting that clients send me work requests via email and not over IM. This way I have their request filed in my inbox where I can easily reference it later. Instant messaging and Skype should be used for online meetings and consultation, which I also try to schedule in advance.
The client’s perspective
Some of my practices described above may come off as cold or off-putting to clients. In actuality, I find clients appreciate the way I conduct my business and manage their projects by setting reasonable expectations and consistently meet them. This is how I maintain a reputation as a reliable web design expert, which I believe is the key to building a strong freelance business.
By sticking to your policies in a respectful and professional way, you’re also maintaining your position as an expert in your craft. If you allow your clients to overstep the boundaries of your professional relationship, either by demanding a rushed deadline, working on a weekend or accepting a discounted price quote, you’re effectively devaluing your work, which can have many harmful impacts on your business.
Believe in your ability to deliver quality work, meet or exceed expectations, and you’ll keep your clients happy while keeping yourself sane!
Photo credit: milesdeelite on Flickr