Working as a freelancer in the creative space is rife with obstacles. Some we can see coming, others we can’t.
One of the challenges that many freelance web designers face in their first few years is managing client relationships. We’ve all heard about — and experienced — the horrors of clients running amok on our work, turning a piece of thoughtfully-considered design into a playground of questionable ideas that often run against best practice.
When these situations are not managed delicately, the client-designer relationship can break down, invoices may go unpaid, and as a result, websites go unlaunched. This is a scenario that no designer — or indeed no client — wants to be a part of.
In this article, I’m going to teach some strategies for managing client communication and processes that have helped me to run less stressful projects and achieve better results, as well as draw upon some best practices to help you manage the business side of your work.
My False Start
When I started freelancing in 2009, I had very little experience in dealing with clients. I’d only graduated from university two years prior and had been in a steady job ever since. And that job was in-house at an office supplies company, which means that the closest I came to having a client was my boss, which is nothing like the client-designer relationship at all.
Thus, once I started my own practice, I was not equipped with strategies for managing clients and expectations. As you might imagine, things didn’t go very well.
As a result, working with a diverse range of clients, from small to large and with varying technical requirements was a challenge. My business acumen left a lot to be desired, and I knew it. I was not confident in my sales skills and this mindset shook the very foundation of my service. It led to me producing lesser-quality, lower-paid work for clients who had little understanding of the design process.
At the time, I blamed the clients. But, in hindsight, I see that the problem was being caused by the way that I was doing business. I would wonder how other designers — those well-known faces in the industry — managed to produce much better, more profitable work and seem happy about it. This was truly an enigma to me at the time, and as I said: it was easier to blame others than to look inward and resolve the problem at its core.
What Was The Problem?
The main issue was one of mindset. When I dug down, I realized that I didn’t consider myself worthy of their business. This manifested in a lack of confidence in my work and some eye-wateringly low prices.
“We need a homepage design with unlimited revisions — how much?”
Frankly, it doesn’t matter if you’re reading this as a new freelancer, an experienced business owner or an in-house designer; if your mindset is not geared toward building confidence and rapport in your professional relationships, you’ll constantly face challenges in dealing with other people.
I realized over time that the way I was looking at my business was upside down. I focused too much on the output (the website design, the money) and not the input (building a relationship with the client).
So I switched it around.
Developing Relationships (Not Just Websites)
In business, at least a part of your motivation must be to develop relationships with clients. It’s important to recognize that clients work with you to solve their business problems. They’re not buying a website: they’re buying a tool to reach some business goal. It took me years to fully appreciate that clients care very little about your tech skills or design flair. They care much more deeply about your ability to help them reach their goals and, less-apparently, how you make them feel during that process.
To earn respect from your clients and to establish yourself as an authority in your area of work, you need to look beyond your core skill-set. You need to put processes in place, backed by a growth mindset that will see you handle tough situations. Here are some top tips for doing that:
1. Get Your Formal Processes In Place, And Follow Them
When starting out as a freelancer it is tempting to work without a contract and without taking a deposit payment. This is a problem because according to a private survey conducted by creative freelancer platform YunoJuno, 55% of its UK members have not been paid for work at some point in their career.
Putting procedures in place isn’t a silver bullet, but it can mitigate the risk. If you’re operating without contracts and deposit payments, you face two very real problems:
- You have less security.
- You’ll be taken less seriously.
Your client could cancel the project or make unreasonable requests of you. It is vital to establish the goalposts in a written contract, and take at least some of the payment upfront. This gives you security and leverage if things start to go wrong.
“I’ve been stiffed by clients, experienced scope creep like you couldn’t imagine, spent months on a ‘rush job’, and on occasion, completely lost track of half-completed projects.”
— Jenny Knizner, VP of marketing at job portal Moon-lighting
When you take the time to put processes in place, those formalities that you once considered inconvenient can really become a saving grace.
But perhaps most importantly of all, following these basic rules helps to establish you as a professional. It sends out a message that you take your work and your time seriously. And if a prospective client is reluctant to make any contractual commitments, that’s a pretty good sign for what working with them might be like.
The foundation for leveling-up your web design business starts by tackling the basics.
2. Don’t Hide Behind Your Email
To establish rapport with your client, you’re going to have to talk to them. Face-to-face meetings in person are great, but so are video calls. And there is really no excuse to not do at least do the latter, especially since we’re all familiar with video conferencing now.
As industry veteran Paul Boag explains in his book Digital Adaptation:
“Digital does not work well in a world of departmental divisions. People need to sit together, work together, and solve problems together.”
This means you need to spend real time with your clients, doing real work, and not skirt around big topics over email or any lesser medium.
Distance creates disconnect, and email sure creates some distance. It has its uses, but when it comes to discussing big ideas, it can be very limiting. If you want to be seen as a project leader, somebody who knows their stuff and can be trusted, it means showing your face once in a while. It means giving your client (and the project) the time and space it deserves to grow and evolve.
Web design is a service-led industry, and good service is built on clear communication.
3. Get To Know Your Clients
Clients are people. People have motivations, dreams, fears and problems just like you. It’s so easy, especially if you hold them at arm’s length, to see clients simply as projects. You’ll have a significantly easier time if you earn their trust by getting to know them. They will be more likely to pay you on time and respect your design decisions. Trust is not earned through emails where you only talk about work. Trust is built by taking the time to speak, face to face, about things other than work. Don’t be afraid to make small talk about weekend plans or current affairs, and observe how your relationship matures to a point of mutual respect.
“It’s in small talk, in conversations unrelated to work, where we explore other aspects of the person with whom we’re conversing… Big relationships are built on small talk.”
— David Burkus, author of “Friend of a Friend”
When was the last time you spoke with a client about something other than your work? Take the time to do this to strengthen your relationship, but be mindful of the line between friendship and a professional partnership. Be friendly with your clients, but know that they’re not your friends. This blurring of boundaries can lead to a relaxing of your professional processes, and before you know it you’re chatting at 9 PM and doing everything for “mates rates”.
4. Build Long-Term Relationships
If you want to truly build a business, and not become some transient freelancer who ultimately gives up and goes back into full-time employment, you need to think of your client relationships in the longer term.
This means digging into their goals and their business well-beyond what your project will deliver in the first instance. Consider how you can help them in other ways: read an article relevant to them? Send them it. Stumbled across a new piece of software that could make them more efficient? Recommend it to them. Find ways of delivering value to them, and it will come back to you in more work and referrals.
Repeat business is important because the average repeat customer spends 67% more in months 31-36 of their relationship with a business than they do in months 0-6. This particular study pertains to e-commerce sales but I have seen similar patterns in the B2B space also. It’s really all about trust. Once you’ve earned it, they’ll come back for more.
Taking the time to foster a relationship with your client helps to shift your thinking away from seeing them as a means to pay the rent this month, to looking at them more as a long term partner.
5. Practice Your Self-Development
If you’re anything like me, achieving the previous four points would have felt like a steep hill to climb when I started over 10 years ago. Being able to really grasp a piece of work and manage the project and people effectively takes experience, confidence, and skill.
For the main part, much of this depends on peeking outside your comfort zone. Running video calls with multiple stakeholders, managing conversations with clients, and insisting on good practices (such as contract signing) all require a level of assertiveness that doesn’t come naturally to many people.
If you struggle with self-confidence and feel ready to build your resilience, read up on things like positive affirmations and assertiveness skills. These “self-help” ideas are easy to sneer at but they will provide you with practical tools to seriously boost your confidence and grow as a professional.
In Summary, The Product Comes Second To The Service You Deliver
Website development is a service. Clients pay for the end product, but the experience they have in working with you will be remembered. How you make people feel matters.
To quote Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why as mentioned above:
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
If you want to do better work for more money and be respected along the way, taking the time to grow as a professional and go the extra mile in how you manage clients can do a lot for you.
Whether you’re embarking on a freelance career, or you’ve been around for a while, I urge you to invest some time in reflecting on your work process and communication skills. Reflect on how you’ve done business to date, and consider what the next 3 years might look like for you. The service element of the web design industry is only getting more competitive, sophisticated, and demanding. But with demand comes amazing opportunities. Are you prepared for it?
- “Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway,” Susan Jeffers
- “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action,” Simon Sinek
- “Become a Key Person of Influence,” Daniel Priestly
- “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey
- “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff,” Richard Carlson
- Various regularly updating topics on Medium such as freelancing, startups and entrepre-neurship.