The key to any successful design project isn’t the quality of your work—it’s how well you communicate with your client.
Think about this scenario: you’ve just designed a website for a client. The work draws on your impressive skills, expertise, knowledge, learning, and passions.
But when you show it to your client, they hate it.
They say it isn’t even close to what they wanted. They want to have a call in 3 minutes to discuss the problem, which shouldn’t take more than a few hours.
“The key to any successful design project is how well you communicate with your client.”
Regardless of how amazing your work might be, unless you can communicate effectively with your clients, understand their needs, and express why your work will help to accomplish their goals, you’ll end up transforming that amazing work into something awful—or, worse, making misguided changes that go against your expertise and best practices.
Do these 9 things to make sure you communicate effectively with clients:
Set expectations before work starts
Before there’s any money on the table, both parties need to be clear—in writing—about the deliverables, process, timeline, and shared responsibilities.
While it might seem smart to quickly accept money for a new project—especially when you’ve got an eager, paying client—it’s in your best interest to set clear expectations before work begins so there aren’t any surprises later on.
“It’s in your best interest to set clear expectations before work begins so there aren’t any surprises later on.”
Establish your expertise
It’s not enough to tell a client you can do the work. Clearly explain why you’re the right person for the job, how you’ll solve their problems, and how you’ll help them reach a tax bracket typically reserved for rappers and Richard Branson.
Do this as early as possible so they start to think of you as an expert instead of just a hired gun.
Clearly define goals and successes
What are the project goals? How will success be measured? Regardless of what kind of services you provide, the answers to these 2 questions serve as the project’s North Star.
An example: if a client wants to make the logo bigger, you can steer the discussion back to the agreed-upon goals and use them as a litmus test. Does the logo being bigger get them closer to their project goals? Doubtful.
Set weekly check-ins
If your project will take longer than a week, check in at least once a week until it’s done. Use each check-in to establish where things are, what’s finished, what’s still outstanding, and what’s required of the client right now or next week.
“If your project will take longer than a week, check in at least once a week until it’s done.”
It can be as simple as quick email or as involved as a standing call at a certain time each week.
Stick to the scope
If a task isn’t listed in the project deliverables, then it’s not a task/deliverable you should do for free.
Be nice but firm if a client asks for something outside of the project scope. Whether it’s because a client doesn’t know any better or they’re just trying to score some extra value, it’s up to you to set them straight.
“If a task isn’t in the project deliverables, it’s not something you should do for free.”
Most of the time, if you say, “I’m happy to do that work, but since it’s out of scope, it’s going to cost $X and take Y days longer,” the client will either happily agree or change their mind to keep the budget and timeline intact.
If the project requires a lot of instant communication or quick decision-making, let the client know when you’re typically available and when you’re not working. For example, maybe that’s 10am–5pm PST, Monday through Thursday.
If people email or contact you outside of that timeframe, you’ve already established that you’re not available. If you answer emails or calls at 4am, you’re demonstrating that you don’t respect your own boundaries, so they don’t need to respect them either.
“If you answer emails or calls at 4am, you’re demonstrating that you don’t respect your own boundaries.”
Re-iterate their requests or ideas in your own words
When a client asks for something that’s within the project scope, confirm that it’s exactly what they want—in your own words. This gives everyone a second chance to ensure it’s the right step or the right request.
It also prevents misunderstanding and flakey, spur-of-the-moment asks since clients get the chance to change their minds.
Speak up for your expertise
You don’t have to be confrontational, but if a client asks for something that you know isn’t right or won’t accomplish their goals, speak your mind. They’re paying you to share and implement your expert opinions. They hired you because they want access to your skill and knowledge, so don’t sell them short by only giving them your skill.
“If a client asks for something that you know isn’t right or won’t accomplish their goals, speak your mind.”
What’s the most effective way to meet and exceed client expectations? Listen closely.
They’ll tell you if you listen.
You also need to listen to what’s happening under the surface, because they might not have the language to precisely describe their needs. For example, if a client says they want to design a 572-page PDF to use as a newsletter signup bonus, they’re really trying to attract more subscribers which, in turn, will funnel into product sales. Ask ‘why’ to uncover the essence of what your client needs and wants. What they need is probably closer to a 5-page PDF.
“Ask ‘why’ to uncover the essence of what your client needs and wants.”
Too many talented designers fall short in their client interactions. They pay close attention to their creative skills at the expense of communication, which ends up ruining what could be an amazing project.
Unless you can understand your client’s needs and explain what you’re doing to help them, you’ll end up biting your nails down to the cuticle and submitting 3am emails to clientsfromhell.net.
by Paul Jarvis
Paul Jarvis is a best-selling author and founder of the Creative Class. He teaches freelance designers how to make their freelancing design business work.