Photography: Trevor Haldenby
Winning a new client sounds like something that can only bring benefits. It’s certainly a reason to feel proud. You’ve beaten off your competitors, proved that you’re the best person for the job, and you’ve increased your income too, of course.
But a new job also brings new risks. Every client is different and even if the job is familiar, the specific demands will be unique, as will the client’s expectations. Providing plenty of examples so that the client will have a good idea of what you’ll produce is always a good idea but you’ll never really know how the job will turn out until it’s completed — and neither will the buyer.
That’s where the problems can begin. If you’ve just spent three months working on a project, you want to be sure you’re going to get paid for that time. The client too wants to be sure that you’ve produced the product he needs, that he won’t have to pay for something he can’t use and that he won’t have to start again with another service provider — and find himself in exactly the same position in another three months’ time.
The best solution is to get regular feedback while the project is ongoing.
It sounds obvious, but in practice it’s neither natural nor always easy to organize.
Breaking it Down
Once you’ve won a project and feel that you understand the requirements, the temptation is often to knuckle down and get on with it. No one likes to be told what to do all the time, and if a client has seen your work and hired you, he’s given you his trust, leaving you to produce results in the way that you see fit — right up until the moment that you discover that your results don’t fit what he needs.
Long projects then should always be broken down into smaller, bite-sized pieces not just so that you’re not dependent on one big payment at the end that might never materialize, but so that you can find out whether you’re on the right track.
The first milestone then should come good and early. For a website design, for example, it could come after the architecture has been planned and a mock-up made of the home page but before the hard work of coding begins.
The key here though is to make sure the feedback you receive is full and detailed. Clients aren’t always skilled at providing information; they’ll often assume that what they have in mind is more than the best way to do the job; they’ll believe it’s the only way to do the job. Instructions to make a design “bolder” or “improve usability” might seem obvious to the person providing them but they tell the contractor nothing helpful.
When you send in the first milestone then, it’s a good idea to include a list of specific questions that demand detailed answers. A bullet-pointed list of features for the client to look at could be helpful as could yes/no questions to choices that have been puzzling you.
While it’s true that forcing clients to answer your queries — and answer them in full — does make demands of them, it also increases the chances that you’ll produce a better product, which is what both of you want, after all.
Keeping the Feedback Flowing After you’ve Been Paid
But the stream of information you receive from the client doesn’t have to end with the job. In fact, some of the most valuable words a client can provide come after the job has been completed satisfactorily — and they aren’t even the words on the check.
The first is a testimonial.
That’s easy enough. When you deliver the last installment of the project, the client should respond by telling you what a great job you’ve done. If the compliment is strong enough, just ask if you can use it in your marketing. Promise to include the name of their business and you’ll also be offering free advertising — a good reason to provide your own testimonials to people who have made you happy.
If all you get is a thank you, be bold. Once you’ve received your payment, ask for a testimonial. If the client was genuinely happy with your work, he won’t refuse; if he wasn’t happy, you won’t see him again anyway, so nothing will have been lost. Again, a reminder that you’ll include a link to the client’s business site can help to seal the deal.
Persuading the client to pass your name on to friends and colleagues is tougher. You could just mention that if he happens to know anyone else who needs the sort of help you provide, you’d love to lend a hand. But that’s likely to give you an agreement without any specific action.
You could also offer an incentive. Mentioning that other clients have provided referrals and that you rewarded them with a free upgrade, for example, or a discount coupon for future work can work, but perhaps the best way — if not the easiest — is to do it naturally. If your conversations with a client can touch on work that other people he knows need then suggesting that the client pass on your name to his friend will feel like you’re offering a favor rather than asking for one.
It’s not easy and it requires building a good relationship with the client during the production. But that’s also another good way of getting valuable feedback while you work.