Priceless Tips On Dealing With Clients For Beginning Freelancers

There’s a lot to figure out when you start the freelancing journey. It’s a bold move. You have to figure out which technologies to use, where to find work, how much to charge, and probably hardest of all: how to deal directly with clients. If that sounds like the easy part, trust me, it’s not. There’s a whole site dedicated to client horror stories. I’ve learned plenty of lessons the hard way and could probably add quite a few stories to that site myself. I’m hoping that if you read this, you’ll be able to learn from my mistakes and life will be much easier.
 

LESSON 1: YOU CAN SAY NO

This lesson is about taking on a client. At the beginning of a freelancing career, the mindset is usually: “I’ll take any work I can get because I need to prove myself.” And that’s sort of true. You do need to work on building a portfolio before you’ll be able to land the dream clients. However, you do not have to take anything that comes your way just because you’re starting out. When we first started our web design business, me and my business partner would search through Craiglist using SearchTempest to find gigs. Sometimes it was real work and led to some good starter sites on the portfolio, but plenty of people asked us to work for “the experience”. Do not ever take a gig for “the experience”. It will not be a fair trade. Thankfully, we said ‘no’ to those offers so I don’t have any horror stories there. However, I do have one on the subject of saying ‘no’ to client demands that are out of scope. That leads to lesson 2…

 

LESSON 2: STAY IN SCOPE

The scope of a project is the expected result or deliverable you will present to the client. This is so important that I actually have three pieces of advice for this lesson.

First, be 110% sure that you and the client are on the same page about what is in scope. Don’t simply agree to “design a website”. Get the details. How many pages do they want on the site? What kind of content goes on the pages? Is it just text? Are you going to need to purchase stock images or design a logo? What functions does the site need? Is it a simple informational site or a more complex e-commerce site? If e-commerce, do they have payment methods setup? How many products do they want loaded? The list can go on and on. Before I agree to work with any client, I ask them to fill out a document that asks some of those very questions. (Note: It should be a huge red flag if the client can’t answer most, if not all, questions about what they want.) I always set the scope first. One of the worst things that can happen is to agree to a price and only later find out the client wants much more functionality than you anticipated.

While we’re on the subject, I’ll move to the second piece of advice about scope. That is, do not set a price or a deadline before scope is agreed upon. Let’s define ‘agreed upon’ real quick. What it’s not: a verbal agreement. What it is: a signed contract. I cannot stress the importance of a signed contract enough. Get. It. In. Writing. Clients change their minds allllllll the time. Instead of a simple site like you agreed upon, now they want to sell products. That’s out of scope. That’s a major change that will take a decent amount of extra work. These are the moments you will thank yourself for having that written contract. You can go back and show them exactly what you agreed to and where they signed. (Note: Try out HelloSign for contracts – it has been a major help.)

Third, don’t go out of scope. Unless you and the client agree to add something to the scope and there is a price change reflected, don’t go out of scope. Here’s where my horror story comes in. This was in my business’ pre-contract days (seriously, use contracts) and we had a verbal agreement on scope. It seemed simple. A 5 page informational site. Nothing crazy. (Except the client.) We built the site just like he asked and just as we had all agreed to. We sent him the URL to review the site, expecting maybe just a few minor changes. What we got back was a list of about 30 changes. Everything from font color to completely different images to making a new version of his logo. We didn’t want to say no, so we made all of the changes at no cost. We sent him the URL again, ready to finish up and take payment. However, the same thing happened. We got a new huge list of changes to make. This time, completely changing the design and page structures. We were pretty annoyed, but we didn’t have a contract to go back to so we felt stuck. We made all of the changes. This happened THREE more times. There were over 100 changes by the end of it all and it ended with me on the phone with him, making the changes while on the call. By the time we finished the site, the small fee we had charged really didn’t feel worth it. We were so bitter about it all that we actually didn’t even use the site in our portfolio. Don’t go out of scope. Once you do, it’s almost impossible to go back and stick to the contract.

 

LESSON 3: HOW TO SET A PRICE

Since I’ve mentioned price a few times, I’ll directly address the subject. This one’s tricky, as there are several different ways to price and it’s really up to the freelancer. The main two options are hourly or per-project. I don’t really like charging hourly. Mostly because clients usually want a price before they agree to anything, but also because it’s more of a pain to keep up with. If you do choose an hourly rate, I would suggest using something like Toggl to keep track of hours. I much prefer to charge per project. This can be hard because every project is different, but there are ways to make it easier. For example, try setting an amount per page that you want to charge. If you charge $100/page, that would be $500 base price for a 5 page site. Then you can add in charges for e-commerce set up, logo design, and other functionality the client wants. I’ve noticed the client appreciates everything broken down so they can understand what they’re paying for. I always list all functionality charges and costs in my contracts. (Note: Make sure you add in your hard costs to the price. Hard costs include stock images, plugins, themes, etc.)

 

LESSON 4: GET A DEPOSIT

Once you set the scope and agree on a price, the next step before starting work, is to get a deposit. This is something I learned the hard way. Clients are busy people and will easily forget about you. If they don’t have any ‘skin in the game’, it’s hard to get their attention. If they have invested in you, though, they are much easier to get a hold of. It’s not a punishment for the client to ask for a deposit. It’s an important part of an agreement that helps both parties stay interested enough to get the job done. I usually ask for a 25% deposit and I haven’t had any clients complain about paying that before work is started. (Note: It should be another huge red flag if the client throws a fit about paying a deposit on a project.)

 

LESSON 5: PRACTICE SMART LISTENING

When you are ready to start working on a project, listen to the client. Just because you know of a really cool plugin or theme, it doesn’t mean it’s right for the client. I learned this the hard way. The client’s original site was outdated and had a cringe-worthy design so we really wanted to make it “cool”. And we did. The site we redesigned was really some of our best work and looked great. However, after some time, the client began to complain that the site was too difficult to navigate for his older customers. This was something we should have realized at the start, but we were so focused on making a sleek design that we forgot who the audience would be. Now, we’re paying the price of a new redesign. We’ll keep a modern look, but this design will be much simpler and more suited for his audience.

Now, I use the term “smart listening” for a couple of reasons. First, keep in mind that the client probably isn’t technical. They probably don’t know the right words to describe what they want, so you have to be a good listener. Be patient and help them get their message across. Second, keep in mind that the client probably isn’t design-minded. If they make a terrible suggestion, find a kind way to explain that it’s not a good idea. They’ll usually understand. I speak from experience when I say that nothing can truly prepare you for some of the client suggestions you’ll get. Just know it’s coming. I once designed a site for someone and they mentioned they had some images they wanted to use. (Always be wary of client images.) They sent me a Dropbox link to hundreds of images of dragons and swords and such. The site had absolutely nothing to do with any of those things and the images would have ruined the design. Thankfully I didn’t use them, but just be aware that some ideas are okay to say ‘no’ to.

 
I hope you find this list helpful, but I’m sure there will be plenty of lessons left to learn. If you have any questions or want any advice, feel free to leave a comment or send me a message via the contact form!

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