“I’m disappointed in you” were words my dad could use in a calm and direct way that was more powerful than any physical punishment or tongue-lashing I can imagine. In fact, I’m pretty sure my dad only had to use these words on me once, because the first time was enough. Well, there was the other time he used those words because I dyed my hair black, but on the inside I think he may have been laughing.
These words carry more weight when they are used without anger or frustration. The key, if you’re a parent disciplining your child, is to be sincerely disappointed and that’s all.
Disappointment is the result of unmet expectations, and when you’re managing an agency you need to take care to manage the expectations of your clients, lest you end up with many disappointed customers. This can be particularly challenging for firms specializing in advertising, marketing, web development, and graphic design, because these services are so commonly misunderstood.
Since 1999 when I went into business for myself I’ve learned to do a few things to manage expectations that have made all the difference.
1. Be frank up front.
2. Speak English.
3. Create formal proposals.
4. Use contracts.
5. Have a process.
6. Stay in touch.
7. Continually educate.
1. Be Frank Up Front. Some agencies withold information, such as pricing or the real timeline for getting a project done, because they want to get the potential client hooked and then they won’t be scared off by the high price or the fact that their website will take four months to design and build and regrettably will not be ready for their big presentation next Monday.
I’ve found that witholding information results in me doing more work and not getting more business, and if I do get more business then it’s often the kind I don’t want.
Here’s a suggestion–tell potential clients how much something is going to cost, and even exaggerate a bit. Tell them it’s going to take 25% longer than you think it will. If the client walks away, spend the time you’ve got finding more clients. If you get the client, you’ve now got them paying you a decent rate for your work, and you’ve got a timeline that should be easy to meet. Yeah, I know this is easy to say when you’ve got plenty of clients knocking on your door, but guess what–if you do it you’ll start getting more clients knocking. It sounds weird, but it works.
2. Speak English. Well, not specifically English, but speak the language of the people. Don’t use fancy words to confuse your clients and keep them in the dark. Don’t use jargon ignorantly, assuming that clients understand what you’re talking about. Err on the side of being overly simple. You can do this without being patronizing. Another way to say this is “make sure your clients understand what you’re saying”. Otherwise you’ll find yourself having to explain to an angry, frustrated, and disappointed client that when you said “one design concept” you meant one idea, not one collection of ideas.
3. Create Formal Proposals. Sometimes an email proposal will do, but submitting a formal proposal will help both you and the client establish exactly what they want, which will lead to a more clear and understandable contract, which will lead to more accurate expectations on both parts about what services are going to be provided.
Plus, the proposal is a chance for you to impress the client and land the deal by showing them how much more professional you are compared to your competition. Trust me, there are some big agencies out there who struggly to put together decent proposals, and if you’re a smaller agency this is the Achilles’ Heel you can attack.
“But I don’t have time to provide formal proposals for all these people, most of whom end up not even having half enough money to pay for what we do.” If this is how you feel, see #1. Be frank, and those you are giving formal proposals to will be clients you already know you want to work with.
4. Use Contracts. I know some people just dive into a project without a formal contract. Don’t do this. The contract is not just something to protect you if things get legal, it’s the best way for you to set expecations because the client has to sign their name to it, in effect stating that they understand what they’re paying for and when they’re going to get it.
As a follow-on I would say “use detailed contract” because a vague and generic contract isn’t much better than no contract.
5. Have a Process. How do you go about getting things done? If you develop websites what stages, phases, or steps do you have? Do you develop a site map? A wireframe or prototype? Do you develop the back-end functionality before creating the design or vice versa? You don’t need to go overboard with details on the process or you’ll be violating rule #2, but you should have something that tells the client how they can expect things to happen. Clients hate not knowing what’s going on and by educating them on your process for their project you can minimize this. This leads to #6…
6. Stay in Touch. Client hate not knowing what’s going on. It is ten times better to give clients too many updates than the opposite. If nothing else, create a schedule of when you will contact clients to give them an update. In most cases one update per week is the minimum. One thing that can help is having a good project manager whose responsibility it is to keep clients in the loop. If you can’t afford a full-time project manager, get some project management software like BaseCamp from 37signals. The most expensive package is $99, which even a freelancer should be able to afford and trust me, the payoff is much greater than $1,200 per year, even if you only bring in $30K per year, let alone hundreds of thousands or millions.
7. Continually Educate. This is more of a long-term strategy. I’ve found that educated clients are better to work with, all other things being equal. Education isn’t something that can happen in one day, and while you can get some in during the proposal/contract phase, the real time to educate is before that.
To that end, find ways to make your clients and potential clients smarter. Email newsletters, white papers, and blogs are just a few examples. You’ll end up educating a lot of people who aren’t and never will be clients, but for those few people who do become clients it’s worth it.
If you follow these seven rules/steps I guarantee you’ll find more enjoyment in the work you do, and you’ll make more money.Liked it? Share it!