Efficiency and effectiveness are equally important to freelance designers and small design firms (and large ones as well, but that won’t be the focus of this article). There are obviously any number of different things you can do to improve your workflow or to produce a better end result for your clients. One area for potential improvement is systemization or standardization of processes.
The process of designing and developing a website for clients is rather complex and involves a lot of different steps. First, there is the initial contact either through an online inquiry or maybe a referral. Then comes a quote for service, a contract, the opening stages of the design, client feedback, revisions, development, completion, final billing, and record-keeping. Of course, the exact steps may vary from one designer to another, but the point is that a lot goes into the complete process of taking a client from inquiry to the completion of the project.
With all of these different steps and a lot of gray areas from clients about how the process will take place, creating some sort of standard process of your own can be an excellent way to improve the simplicity and effectiveness for both you and the client.
The average client will look to the designer to take the lead and have an established process. While many freelancers who have been on the job for a long period of time are likely to have set their own standards, this is an area for huge potential improvement for those who have yet to do so.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the aspects of the client process that can benefit from some sort of established procedure. With established practices, you’ll find that you’re able to save time, keep things more organized, make fewer mistakes in important areas like the legalities of the process and record-keeping, and in general, you’ll be able to provide clients with a more comfortable process.
The thoughts in this article are from my own experience. Developing a system that works for you and your clients is more important than following a set guideline.
Aspects of the Client Process:
All client projects have to start somewhere. It may be a contact form submission through your portfolio website, a call from a friend or former client, or you may even initiate the contact. Personally, the majority of my inquiries come through my website, so that’s where my own focus has been. As you receive inquiries from a number of potential clients it’s pretty easy to lose track of who has been contacted or where things stand. My own system involves setting up folders within my inbox. I have a general inquiry folder where new emails go after I have responded to them. This way I know that if an inquiry email is sitting in my inbox and not in any specific folder, I still need to reply.
I also have a few other folders that I use for inquiries. If I’ve talked to someone that shows some interest but hesitates to make a decision, I’ll usually put that email in a “follow up” folder so I’ll be reminded to get back in touch with them if I don’t hear anything in a while. I’ll browse through this folder every now and then to see who needs to be contacted.
Another option for tracking your inquiries would be to keep a simple spreadsheet. This is something that I’ve done at times in the past when I wanted to track something such as the source of my leads over a period of time. A spreadsheet can be helpful because of all the options for sorting and different things that you can do once some data has been accumulated. However, I’ve found that a simple folder system in my inbox works better for me and is easier to maintain.
Pricing services is a challenge for most designers. Unless you use set pricing packages, you’ll need to have some type of process for developing quotes. Even if you use set prices, it’s likely that you’ll get some work that doesn’t fit within the standard box of those packages.
How you choose to price your services is up to you, but the important thing is that you actually have a standardized approach. Of course, some flexibility is needed from time to time, but without an established method for quoting you’ll wind up spending too much time on clients that wind up not choosing to use your services, and your prices simply won’t have much meaning behind them.
My approach is to do the best job that I can of getting information from the client about specifically what it is that they want from me. With this information, I’ll make my best estimate on the number of hours that the project will require, and I’ll quote based on what I need to earn per hour. Part of my process also includes stating specifically what is involved in the service and what is covered in this quote with the explanation that additional services or time may be dedicated, but they are subject to additional charges.
It’s also helpful to have a standard form that you complete for the quote. Much of the information may be the same on most projects, so just entering the specifics rather than starting from scratch each time can help with efficiency.
Once I’ve sent the quote to the client, I save it to a “Quotes” folder so it’s easy to find in the future. If you’re working on a few projects at a time it’s easy to forget the details of the quotes, so having them easily accessible can be helpful. Also, you may find that some clients don’t make a decision right away and a few months after the quote they’ll get back in touch with you. When this happens it’s nice to know exactly where you can find the old quote without needing to start over again.
3. Payment Policies
Much like pricing your services, establishing and following policies for accepting payment is not the favorite activity of most designers. Most of us have learned the hard way that it’s necessary to get a portion of the payment upfront to avoid wasting time on a client that’s not committed to the project. When dealing with clients I find that it’s easier and more comfortable if there is a standard policy and if it is communicated to clients.
Most clients will understand that you need to get some of the money upfront, and many appreciate knowing that this is your standard process, so they don’t feel singled out. Regardless of the process that you choose, it’s helpful to decide on how you want to handle things and stick with it as much as possible. It will be easier for you to know when you’ve been paid and how you were paid, plus there will be less back and forth with potential clients on these issues when it is presented as your policy for doing business. Of course, you always have the right to make exceptions if you see fit.
Creating and tracking invoices is an area that all designers need to standardize in one way or another. There’s obviously a need to know who you have invoiced when it was sent, and if payment has been received.
Fortunately, there are a lot of good invoicing tools. You can find plenty of free templates online for creating invoices and set up your own system for storing and tracking them, or you can use one of the many services that will make the process easier for you.
FreshBooks is one of the leading services for these purposes, and it actually includes much more than just invoicing. You can also use FreshBooks, and many of its competitors, to create quotes or estimates, as well as to track your time and expenses. If you’re charging clients a portion upfront and the balance upon completion, it’s especially important to be able to accurately track this information.
Some designers have clients sign a contract and some don’t. I’m not a legal expert so I’m not going to go in-depth here, but obviously, it’s recommended that you use contracts for your own protection. This is an area that you’ll definitely want to standardize in terms of the actual contract that is used, and also in terms of record keeping.
6. Client Intake
Once you’ve provided the client with a quote, they’ve decided to use your services, and you’ve received the initial payment to get started, you’ll now have to get completely familiarized with the client before diving into the project. Most likely, in order to provide an accurate quote for the client, you will have already done some basic research into their business and their needs from you, but at this time you’re likely to need more specifics about what they do and what they want in a website.
From my experience, this is a critical stage in the process and one that is best done with as much personal interaction as possible. Most designers do not meet face-to-face with every client, but at this stage, a phone call is much more personal than an email, and you’re likely to get much better information over the phone. Email is great for communicating with clients, but in order to get the information that you need and to have an effective conversation at the start of the process, email communication is usually not enough.
Many of the questions you will ask clients will be the same for almost everyone. For this reason, it’s a good idea to save a document somewhere with all of the typical questions included. Personally, I prefer to take notes by hand when I’m speaking with clients on the phone, so I’ll print out a sheet with the questions and then record my notes there. Others may prefer to type directly in the document or to use a tape recorder and go back and take notes later. Regardless of your choice, you should have some sort of typical process for getting information from clients.
Once I have a client signed on and ready to go, I create a separate folder to store all of the information on their project. The quote, contract, will go in this folder, and so will the responses to intake questions if I type them.
This is a process that you won’t want to completely standardize since each client is unique. I recommend having a core set of questions, but be flexible and take the time to think about what other information you may need for this specific situation, and what information from your core questions may not be needed in this case. This will allow you to achieve efficiency without losing a personal touch.
7. Tracking Time
Whether you’re working on set pricing or charging by the hour, it can be extremely helpful to know how you are spending your time. You may have decided on a set price to charge the client for the project, but when it’s all said and done, how do you know how much time you actually spent on it? The next quote you write up may be easier and more accurate if you know how you really spent your time on your latest project. You may find that you’re spending more or less time than you realized, and this is helpful to know for pricing. If you’re charging by the hour it’s obviously critical to have accuracy in this area.
8. Process of Design, Feedback and Revisions
Most of the areas we’ve looked at so far focus on the business aspect of being a freelance designer. These areas, in my opinion, are a bit easier to standardize than the design process itself. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no room for improvement in the design process. For example, it’s helpful to have some sort of established process for going about the design work, getting feedback from clients, and making the appropriate revisions.
You may want to establish a process that involves 1) sketching a basic layout after getting the initial information from the client, 2) getting approval from the client on the basic concepts of the design, 3) completing the mockup in Photoshop, 4) getting client feedback on the mockup, 5) making any changes to complete the design, 6) coding the website, and 7) testing. This is just a sample scenario, you can develop your own process. It’s helpful for you to know what the process will be for each project, and it’s also helpful for clients if that process is communicated early on so they know what to expect.
At this point, we’ve looked at many of the major stages of the process from inquiry to completion. I find that establishing some standardization in these areas is helpful in my work, but you’ll need to evaluate these areas for yourself and your clients.