Installment #2 in the Ask The Experts series is focused on best practices as a designer as you’re beginning a project with a client. Thanks to my panel of experts for their input on this interesting topic.

When you start a project with a client, what are your first steps? Do you use a questionnaire? Have a phone call? Do you use a contract? What do you think is key to getting started on the right foot?

Char Polanosky:

charWhile I would love to have a questionnaire in place, I still find that the most effective way for me to start a project is to spend 30 minutes or so on the phone with the client. Since each project is different, I can tailor the questions to what I already know and what I still need to find out in order to make the project a success.

I always use a contract that spells out the scope and terms of the project. I learned the importance of the contract years ago – it just protects everyone’s interest the most effectively. Also, using a contract helps manage client expectations which I feel is the most important part of starting off the relationship on a good note.

Vivien Anayi:

vivienIt depends on how I’ve been approached or contacted by the client. If I get an email, then I reply with a list of questions to get as much information about the project and the client as possible. Usually my questions are specific to each project & client. Currently I’m re-designing my business web site and considering to put up a PDF questionnaire for clients to download before contacting me for a quote. This should streamline my research and planning process and make it less time consuming.

If I get a phone call or meet in person, I usually ask a few important questions, then ask the potential client to give me additional information by email, after that I either email with more questions or put together a project proposal. I’ve been burnt a couple times for doing business without a contract, so now I always get clients to sign a contract (or rather in my case it’s a Statement of Work) and asking for a deposit before proceeding with any work.

If I’m working with local clients, I usually like to meet with them in person before embarking on a journey of working with them.

The important things to keep in mind when getting started with a client on the right foot are to get a good feel for the client and the project, bring professionalism and personality to your communications with the client, set up clear and realistic expectations, under-promise but over-deliver (David Airey’s favourite mantra that I’m now trying to follow), and finally, keep asking questions until both you and your client are crystal clear about the project’s goals, tasks and deliverables.

Brian Yerkes:

brianIn our online contact form, we ask the client if they want us to respond by “phone or email”, so our response depends on what they choose.

If they choose “email”, we reply with a “thank you for your interest in working with Brian Joseph Studios…etc” and then we ask them a few questions about their project. I have been back and forth on whether or not to use questionnaires. My company has used both and I’ve seen the positive and negative effects of this. Lengthy questionnaires can turn a lot of people off, they see more than 10 questions, and they decide not to fill it out or get back to you. It really seems to depend on the person. Another part of me thinks that if the person is too lazy to fill out a questionnaire for their important project that they are about to spend a few thousand dollars on, do I really want them as a client?

The positive side of having questionnaires filled out by the client is it gives you a lot of information and confirms with you exactly what the client needs. Obviously this depends on the length and detail of your questions, but by doing it this way, both you and the client really understand the specifics of what will be produced. This provides a clear playing field for both of your during the project, and saves you from arguments about what was promised/asked for etc..

Currently, we mainly use the phone to discuss the project with the client. Our prices can be a little at the high end of our competitors so we always make sure to ask the client for their budget before we arrange an in-person meeting if they are local.

So, we get all of the details that we can, and if they have an appropriate budget, we will meet with them. The face-to-face meeting is really just a trust building process. If they are going to spend thousands of dollars with us, they really need to know the person or company they are giving that money to. Some clients don’t need this meeting, but I find that a lot prefer it. It’s makes them feel more secure and it makes for a better client/vendor relationship if you have gotten a coffee with them prior to the project starting.

We then get the contract ready, send it over and require 50% to be paid up front, then we are ready for the project to start.

Tracey Grady:

traceyI try to find out as much as I can about their business or professional activities before talking with them, as it always comes across well in that first discussion if you can show you’ve already done some research.

I arrange for a discussion by phone or Skype, or in person. I have also had preliminary client meetings using IM but I much prefer being able to talk with someone if possible. I have a questionnaire but I now prefer to use this during the discussion rather than sending it out to a prospective client to fill in and return to me.

I use a contract which includes all details of the work to be carried out, and the amount which I’ve quoted for the work. I also request a down payment prior to work starting.

To get started on the right foot with a prospective client you need to be a good listener, prompt with your correspondence, and show enthusiasm for working with them. What need are they seeking to fulfill for their business by approaching you with a design query? By listening, communicating and taking an interest in their business, you’re showing the client that your top priority is addressing that question. You also need to demonstrate that you have a good command of both design and project management, as well as the confidence to see the project through in a timely and professional manner.

One more thing: after the preliminary discussion with a new client, I quickly send them an email outlining everything we covered during the meeting (and asking them to correct any details if necessary), and if it’s a lengthy project I’ll also provide a breakdown of all the stages for their design project from start to finish. Clients appreciate knowing what to expect, and it’s a great way to give a very positive first impression.

My turn:

Clearly setting and managing expectations along with a good contract to protect everyone’s interests lays the foundation for a great working relationship. I usually have a preliminary meeting by phone with a client to get to know them and their business, and gather information about the project. One of the most important questions I ask is “What is your goal for your site? What do you want the visitor to DO?” That is a really valuable piece of information to have in mind as I create the site and the answer can be very different from client to client.

Your turn:

What do you think? If you’re a designer what do you have to add that you think makes for a great start on a project? If you’ve been a client, what do you expect from someone who is providing you with design services?

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