You’ve completed a project you’re super proud of and expect a “great job!” from the client, when instead you receive an angry (read: hurtful) response telling you that what you produced wasn’t good enough.
Sound familiar? It’s difficult to argue with a client who says the work isn’t what they were expecting—or, even worse, just doesn’t feel right. This is usually when you realize that you don’t actually know exactly what the client was expecting.
No matter how much research you do before beginning a project, it all amounts to nothing if you don’t know how the client will be judging your final output.
So how can you avoid this situation?
Having the answers to some specific questions will ensure you achieve better results—for the client and for yourself.
How to get answers from your clients
It’s not easy to get new clients to answer heaps of questions when they just want to get on with the project, but trust me that after enough sticky situations, you’ll realize it’s worth the extra effort.
So how do you actually get clients to give you the answers you need?
Every client is different: there are those who think they trust you enough to produce something better than what they could come up with… which translates to “there’s no use to me answering your questions.” There’s those who seem to have forgotten about the project as soon as they’ve hired you, and the opposite—those who are so involved that you can’t get started without them coming in with new ideas or more information.
Then, there are email-friendly clients, and clients who don’t answer emails at all. Those who don’t correspond much may not get back to you, so you’d be better off running through the questions with them in a face-to-face or a phone call.
To decide what’s appropriate, consider how responsive the client has been in your interactions so far. Are they better over the phone or via email? If you’re not sure, ask what they prefer. Either way, always send your questions to the client upfront, so that they know what they’re getting into and can take their time to consider their responses.
Even if clients don’t enjoy filling out your questionnaire, they’ll appreciate the fact that you’re organized and thoughtful enough to have considered what you need to know to ensure the project is a success in everyone’s eyes.
Questions about the project
Here’s a few questions I’ve put together to help you get started. There are a few things you’ll need to know that are specific to each project, and you can add those into your questionnaire freely. It’s your client, after all.
1. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?
Start with finding out why this project is being worked on at all. Is it a refresh of something that currently exists? If so, what’s wrong with the current version? If it’s a brand new project, why has it been created? Discuss problems within the client’s business that they are trying to solve (eg. we need to get more leads quickly), as well as any market problems they are aiming to address (eg. we identified that this resource was desired by our audience and no one else has created it yet).
2. Has your team been involved with a project like this in the past?
Knowing the history of work on similar projects can help you get insight into challenges to avoid and ideal ways to make the project run smoothly. The more you can learn about what works for their particular organization, the better prepared you will be.
3. What will success look like to you?
No matter how creative your ideas are, you can’t achieve a client’s goals unless you know what they are. Get a good understanding of the metrics your client will use to measure the success of the project.
Say you’re designing an ad: knowing whether the client will measure its success based on how many people click through to buy a product or by how many people talk about the ad may change how you approach the project. If you can be thinking about the very end result of the project rather than just getting sign off, you’ll end up with a happier client (who’s also more likely to return or refer you).
“No matter how creative your ideas are, you can’t achieve a client’s goals unless you know what they are.”
Try to get a full understanding of the client’s expectations for the project, including results but also timelines and processes for working together. Be realistic about how much can be achieved within a certain time frame and make sure you communicate this clearly to the client.
4. Are there any challenges that would prevent the project from being successful?
Explicitly asking the client what they perceive to be the challenges in their organization is a great way to get a heads up on any potential threats to the smooth running of your project. There may be specific industry regulations that make it tough to get things approved, or they may have particularly stringent brand guidelines. Knowing these kinds of things in advance could save you hours of wasted time.
5. Is there an example you’ve seen that you like?
Clients don’t want to feel like they’re copying competitors or even brands in other industries, but often they’ll have something specific in mind that they’re comparing your work to—which you can’t possibly know unless they tell you. Remind them to share what’s on their mind by asking them this question.
It’ll also give you a great starting point for the kind of style they are looking for, and you can improve upon it from there.
6. How will you share feedback and who will be involved?
Find out early on which stakeholders are involved in the feedback process. Knowing this could help you tailor your end result to the right people, and will also allow you to wait for all feedback to be collated before you go off and start making changes, only to receive additional feedback that you didn’t know was coming. Try to find out things like whether there’s a person who’s going to be a bottleneck when it comes to providing feedback, and who is going to have the final say; this will help you keep stakeholders in line and in agreement.
7. How quickly can you provide feedback?
There’s no use working toward a deadline of Tuesday morning and providing the client with the first draft on Monday if they can’t provide feedback straight away. Set expectations for your own benefit—so you’re not left waiting impatiently with no end in sight.
8. How collaboratively would you like to work?
Some clients prefer to leave you to work alone and be wowed with the end result. Others want to be involved every step of the way. Make sure you’re tailoring your way of working to the client by asking this question upfront.
9. What do you value most in your relationship with freelancers?
Maybe the client is looking for someone who offers out-of-the-box solutions, or for someone who keeps them abreast of where things are up to. Maybe it’s more important to them that things are delivered when (or before) they say they will be. Knowing this before you get started can help you ensure you’re meeting expectations.
“Make sure you are tailoring your way of working to the client.”
Questions about the client
You may like to keep these questions about the client’s organization separate so you can take them out of the questionnaire if—and hopefully when—they engage you to work on another project.
10. What does your target audience want?
You may be thinking about the project as having two key stakeholders, yourself and the client, but there’s also someone else involved: your users. You’ll have already considered them in the research phase, but the client may have more information about the nuances of these particular customers. Consider the goals the audience is trying to achieve, why they would choose the client’s brand over another, and what cause they might have to not purchase from the client. Being able to speak to the audiences’ goals and objections will make your project much more successful in terms of its end result.
11. What does your business want to be known for?
Likely you’ve already got a clear understanding of the client’s unique selling propositions, but try to get deeper into the “why” of the organization. Why do they exist and how do they want their audience to perceive this? It’s amazing how often people don’t actually know the answer to this question, but if they do, you’ll have a much clearer idea of the underlying message you need to get across, and be much better aligned with the client in general.
12. What assets already exist that you can share?
There’s no point reinventing the assets a client already has. Before you get started, it’s worth asking for specific data, texts, visuals, or whatever else that will help you along the way; being armed with as much as possible in your arsenal allows you to spend more time on the creative parts of the process that really matter.
Ensure your project runs smoothly
It’s not always easy to present a client with a huge list of questions when they’ve just offered you a job. Sure, you want to appear like you know everything, but the sooner you get comfortable with the fact that you don’t have all the answers, the sooner you’ll get your project off on the right foot.
Remember, having the answers to these questions is just the beginning. It’s a good idea to double check that you’re on the right track by asking for feedback early on in the project, and at several milestones along the way.
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Since joining Moment in 2003, Shannon has consistently guided design teams toward purposeful ideation with key clients like American Express, Philips, and ESPN. In addition to building client relationships, Shannon leads Moment’s recruiting and people-first processes, which include highly-regarded career management and mentorship programs, as well as volunteer and parental leave policies.