Client relationships have long been compared to the dynamics of a healthy romance. Whether or not you buy into the fluffy parallel, so much of the projected success of an independent contractor-client relationship stems from that first big interaction — not unlike the high stakes “first date.” In many ways the initial consultation sets the expectations on both sides and either creates a dynamic of trust going forward or a shaky foundation that can hinder progress and stir up frustration on both sides across the lifespan of the project.
We’ve put together a big-picture checklist of topics you should make standard procedure in your consultation process. These conversation points will boost client confidence in your work while also building in the necessary protections you need to account for your own interests.
Demonstrate a proactive approach to your project management
One of the biggest mistakes independent contractors make when communicating with clients is that the contractor becomes overly reliant on the client for direction. It’s great to show you genuinely care about understanding a client’s business and want to grasp the goals and metrics that matter to them, but looking to a client to give you all of the answers isn’t doing anyone any favors.
This is a rookie mistake most often made by freelancers who still view their clients as the “boss.” Remember that businesses look to hire solopreneurs to unburden themselves from certain tasks they cannot or do not want to do themselves. No client wants to feel like they’re doing the work they paid someone else to take care of.
It’s important to emphasize to clients in the initial consultation that you’ll need some degree of engagement and feedback from them, but that you are also a very driven and independent worker who can get things done right with minimum busy work necessary on your client’s end. This is a huge plus from the customer’s perspective.
It’s also a good idea to convey your proactivity by giving your prospect some recommendations or initial tasks that you would get started with right away, if the project were to commence immediately. You don’t need to “give away the farm,” but this paints your work as a turn-key solution in an un-pushy way.
Clarify you are working for the client, but designing for their customers
Jumping off from the last point, another understanding that some clients have a difficult time wrapping their heads around is the distinction of who you are actually gearing your work toward. It is certainly the case that a client hires you to work for them and it is in large part your responsibility to make them happy, but you won’t provide full value if you think only in those terms.
Your clients aren’t the people who need to have a great experience on the website you are designing and they aren’t the people that need to be wooed by the copy you write — that is ultimately the customer’s role and part of the value you provide to the client is to help advocate for that point of view.
Sean McCabe, founder of the Seanwes educational media community, frames this point very well in a terrific podcast on client relations:
“A professional does not design for the client,” says McCabe. “A professional designs for their client’s customers. Your client’s personal preferences are no concern of yours. Similarly your own personal preferences. They have no place in an objective design process.”
This will protect you from a lot of frivolous feedback and your client from the creative burden they hoped to avoid.
Define the SOW and revision process
We’ve made a case for prioritizing scope of work in early exchanges with new clients, however, there is more to do here than simply defining the basic functions of your role. While most solos explore the SOW in some capacity, many still overlook the importance of a well-defined revision policy, especially in the initial consultation.
One way scope creep can sneak in is through the feedback process. In the same way many people will take exactly as long as they have to finish a task (guilty as charged . . . ) a client will often take as many opportunities as you allow to have your work revised and “optimized.” The point of diminishing returns can come all too quickly.
You want to make potential clients feel comfortable about working with you, so establishing that revision is a vital and expected part of your process goes a long way toward fostering that necessary comfort level.
However, you need to be crystal clear about what this process specifically entails — how is a revision defined and how many revisions are included in your SOW? Alternatively, what qualifies as new work that needs to be billed?
Brand experience consultant and founder of My Visual Brief Egle Karalyte recently wrote up an awesome piece on how to properly set expectations for client revisions. “Knowing these boundaries, they should respect the process (you might need to remind them a few times along the way) and not take advantage of you by asking for numerous revisions based on their whims,” says Karalyte.
Don’t jump straight into pricing and frame your work in the context of value
Strategically maneuvering the tricky realm of pricing is its own topic (which we’ve discussed here in some length), but the main ideas are simple:
• Emphasize the value you and your efforts bring to the client in the long-term (additional traffic, completed orders, brand authority). Your work is not money lost — it’s future opportunity gained.
• Transition to pricing later in the conversation — price shouldn’t ultimately be what makes the decision for a client so it shouldn’t come up in your initial consultation before you’ve had the chance to make a good impression!
• Be clear about the pricing model you need to work with (ideally upfront and by the project, not hour).
Set up the next communication and remember the “two way-street” analogy
We all know clients can get wrapped up in many other things and lose focus on tasks that are less immediate, like on-boarding a new contractor. Often a client will want some time to think on your offer or report back to their partners. It is important to be courteous here, but the client also needs to be respectful of your time and scheduling obligations.
You are well within your rights to politely request a time to follow up with another call to seal the deal or get a concrete answer.
Lastly, do not forget you are also vetting this client and gauging for fit. Even if all of the above points are well-received, if any major red flags surface during your communication, take them to heart — you may be the one making the big decision in the next communication!
Also on this subject: When a Prospect Says “No” — Can it Mean “Not Yet”?