The first phase of any of my projects begins after the initial contact with a prospective client. We’ve talked (depending on geography, either by meeting in person or conversations via phone, instant message, Skype, etc) and they’ve expressed an interest in my services. Usually I try to get as much detail about the project as possible during this interaction. First, I want to qualify them according to a few criteria: is it the type of work I do? Does the expected start time and duration fit into my workload? Is their budget reasonable and does it align with my rates?
Sometimes at this point I find out the client doesn’t have a budget, or they’re reluctant to tell me what it is. This isn’t always a deal breaker, but it could be a warning sign. No budget could mean a few things:
- The client isn’t familiar enough with the process to have even a rough idea of what things cost – not a huge deal but will probably require a little extra hand holding throughout the process.
- They haven’t thought enough about the project. This can make extra work for me in the long run. If the client can’t clearly define exactly what they want, I’m trying to hit a moving target. It will be particularly important to nail down, and agree to, specific requirements before beginning. Otherwise these types of projects tend to get larger and larger (scope creep). Again, not a deal breaker but it will be important to keep things on track. I have a questionnaire that I use to try to get clients thinking more in-depth about their project.
- If they have a budget but won’t disclose it, they’re probably shopping around by price. If I can determine that’s the case, I usually say “thanks but no thanks” and move on. I’m not trying to position myself as the lowest cost provider so it’ll likely be a waste of time. I can spend hours researching solutions and putting together a proposal, only to get it tossed out if I’m not cheapest.
What They Really Need, Not Just Want
Once I know my skills, availability, and rates fit with the prospect’s general requirements, it’s time to get into more detail. Prior to writing a proposal, I give my prospective client a copy of this web design project kick-off questionnaire.
The questionnaire is a living document that gets edited and the questions asked are specific to each client’s project. They make a good starting point to get them thinking about their project in terms they can more easily communicate to the developer. What they tell me helps me need their needs better. For example: if the client anticipates that their initial content will quickly be outdated or needs frequent updates, my solution should probably include the ability to modify that content.
Sometimes clients come to me with very specific requests. They saw something somewhere and really liked it, their competitors have it so they need it, or they read or heard that technology X is “really hot right now”. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons behind these requests but other times what they think they want isn’t what they actually need to solve their real problem. The questionnaire can help me get to the bottom of that, uncover their goals, and tailor a solution to meet those goals. Not just keep up with trends and fads.
Eating My Own Dog Food
If you’ve ever heard that saying, then you know it’s a good idea to use your own products and services to show clients what you can do. That’s one reason why I’m keeping this journal of my own redesign. When the series is complete, I’ll have documented my process and have a much needed redesign of this site. The next post will cover my answers to the questionnaire and nail down requirements necessary for the proposal.
Paul Boag from the UK firm Headscape has some excellent articles on the web development process and getting the most from the client and designer/developer relationship:
My kick-off questionnaire is based on the Freelance Switch article How to Extract the Facts with a Web Design Client Questionnaire. Martha’s excellent post contains some additional questions as well as explanations of the relevance and importance of each answer.