3 Steps to Setting Client Expectations

03/10/2015 12:05 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015
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Many years ago, a woman emailed to ask if I could build her new website. She had heard about my work through a friend, saw my name listed on other websites, and gushed about my portfolio.

She clearly wanted to work with me and offered to pay half the project fee upfront, just so we could skip all the formalities and start designing. It seemed like a dream. Someone who loved my work was throwing money my way, and she wanted to start -- now.

Was I ever wrong.

I didn't set any expectations for the project, such as determining whether we were a good fit and defining her goals. I just started designing. I was quickly awoken from my happy dream when I sent her an initial mockup.

First, she said I hadn't done my best work, because she hated everything about the design. It didn't match her audience or her business. Why had I "phoned it in" on her project and given my best work to all my other clients?

I ended up doing five times the work to salvage and complete the project. She still wasn't totally happy at the end. This experience taught me the value of setting clear expectations before money changes hands.

If both parties aren't perfectly clear about the deliverables, process, timeline, and shared responsibilities -- in writing, before there's money on the table -- you're basically jumping out a window and hoping it's not the 27th floor.

My process now involves the following steps. No exceptions:

  • Onboarding. I have an onboarding process that serves two purposes. First, it pre-qualifies clients before I put my own time and effort into a new project. Potential clients see my project rates, exactly which services I do and don't provide, and how the project will unfold, step by step. Then they fill in a project planner, which demonstrates how they communicate in writing (and if I understand what they're trying to say) and whether their goals match up with my expertise. Second, the onboarding process shows me whether a potential client can follow directions. It seems like a silly test, but I've found that if someone can't read instructions and provide clear answers to my questions, the project is destined for failure. For example, if I ask them to share one favourite website and I get 27 examples, warning bells start to ring.

  • Communication. Next, I talk to the potential client on the phone or through video. It's important to see how well we communicate, listen, and riff of each other's ideas. This conversation also brings their goals to life, because they explain their motivations and what drives their work. Even though this is a web design project, we talk a lot about their business and what I can do to help.

  • In writing. The second lesson in this course covers proposals, so I won't outline what goes into one yet. But, I always put everything in writing before there's money involved. It's essential to be fully transparent--even though costs are mentioned in my onboarding process and we've discussed the deliverables in a call--about what services I'm providing, how much it will cost, and how long it will take to finish. Legally, it's good to have everything in writing, but it's even better to ensure both parties understand and accept the project terms, so we never reach the point where lawyers are screaming at a judge about witness badgering (like a scene from Law & Order). And if the client starts pushing for more, we can easily refer back to the signed agreement and project terms.

  • These three steps (onboarding, initial communication, and putting the project in writing) will help you to screen your clients more effectively and significantly reduce those bad project / bad client experiences. After all, you deserve the clients you get--and since you deserve great clients, make sure you do everything in your power to work with ones you're stoked about.

    One note: if, during any point between between the introduction and signed contract, you feel like the work isn't a good fit, or you get a bad feeling about the project or the client, end the relationship. Gut feelings, especially after you've freelanced for a while, often are rooted in fact, so listen to them closely. You don't need to be rude; just explain that you're not the right person for the gig or you don't think your skills / expertise are a good match for the project.

    While it might seem smart to quickly accept money for a new project (especially when you've got an eager, paying client), it's definitely in your best interest to set clear expectations about deliverables, costs, and timelines before the work begins. That way there are no alarms and no surprises (as Radiohead said so eloquently).

    This is a lesson that's part of a free email course for freelancers to get good clients and good pay.