Tips for Stress-Free Communication With Your Freelance Clients

Taking on new web development projects is exciting. But if you’ve been around the block a few times, you know the sense of dread that accompanies working with a new client. Will they be a scope-creeper? Will they try to contact you at odd hours? Will they engage in conversations befitting of Clients From Hell?

This might sound like an exaggeration but the fear can be real. Working with a “bad” client can add a ton of stress to your life and make you wary of future projects. And sure, there’s likely to be a few genuinely bad clients out there who don’t know what they want or are just plain rude. But the vast majority of web development stress is related to miscommunication.

And I think we all can agree, that’s something that can be fixed.

So with that goal in mind, let’s spend some time today talking about how developers cab improve their communication skills to try and foster better client relationships and reduced project-related stress.   

Establish Expectations

One of the best ways to reduce stress in all of your web dev projects is to establish (and manage) expectations. Clear communication is how you can accomplish this, of course, but a few actionable steps you can take include:

  • Create a solid plan. What constitutes a “solid plan” will be covered in the next sections, but for now, just know that the more information you have committed to pen and paper about a project, the more likely it is that you’ll prevent the whole thing from falling off the rails.
  • Use client questionnaires. You’re going to want to ask potential clients as many questions as possible about what they want before you begin. This helps to reduce surprises along the way (for both of you), shorten project length, and reduce the number of revisions required. There are tons of examples online but I found two—one on Scribd and one on Tuts+—that seem especially apt here.
  • Create a proposal and budget. Once you’ve run through all of your questions and come up with a vision for the project, write it down. This is your proposal. Make it as detailed as you can. Include all relevant deliverables and their respective dates. We actually published an article that covers some of this territory recently, so you might want to check out How to Always Get Paid, Not Played As A WordPress Freelancer.
  • Develop a project scope. This is a part of your proposal and contract but I wanted to make sure I called it out by name here because it’s so integral to project success. Scope creep is a very real thing and unless you have every last detail of a project laid out in writing, there’s a very real chance that a client could take advantage. It more than likely wouldn’t even be purposeful. But scope creep can still wreak havoc on a project and lead to frustration for everyone involved. Set a limited number of revisions to help mitigate this as much as possible.
  • Sign contracts. Both parties need to sign a contract. No question. You both need to agree to the terms laid out in your proposal and scope. You also need to agree on the budget. Having all of this down in writing with signatures attached will help to prevent confusion and disagreements later on.

Establish Deliverables

I mentioned deliverables when talking about contracts above, but they warrant their own section. It is often the case that the biggest stressors related to web development projects involve deliverables in some way, whether it’s due dates or what the deliverables actually are.

These are things you need to pinpoint before you even get started on a project (or very shortly after beginning):

  • What the main deliverable is: in this case, it’s likely to be pretty clear. It’s likely you’ll be delivering a website.
  • How many parts will make up the deliverable? It’s always a good idea to break it down into logical parts. So, a website might be broken down into a site outline, a homepage design, a store design, etc. You can do it page by page, feature by feature, or whatever else makes sense for your given situation.
  • When will you submit deliverables? Assign a due date to each of the parts above and make sure you leave enough time for revisions.
  • How will you submit deliverables? Will you create a password-protected environment for clients to log in and view the progress on their project? Will you email mockups?
  • How should the client provide feedback? Make sure your expectations are spelled out in terms of how you want to receive input from the client.

Ask the Right Questions

According to the Freelancers Union, one of the biggest mistakes freelancers in general make is failing to ask the right questions. You see, it’s not your job to read the client’s mind. It’s their job to tell you what they want. Many devs approach a project as though they need to have the answer for everything right off the bat, but that’s not necessary. Hearing the client out and determining what features they want is your best bet.

But if the client is having trouble articulating what they want, what do you do then? Why, ask a lot of questions, of course.

Simply asking the client, “What do you want on your website?” isn’t enough, however. You need to get specific. Here’s a list of questions to have on hand if you’re having trouble getting to the bottom of what a client wants:

  • What do you want your site to accomplish?
  • How do you plan on using the site to further your business goals?
  • Do you have a company style guide?
  • Are there examples of sites you’d like to mirror?

Don’t Make Assumptions

About anything. Ever. You may think you know what the client wants but unless you want to risk having to start a project over again, clarify every detail before you sink any time into a site. If you’ve invested time in asking questions and creating a detailed contract, you should be good here.

But there is one detail a lot of people forget when working with a new client. Is your contact person the one making the decisions at the company? Or do they answer to someone else? You need to know this because your contact might make a passing comment like, “This looks good,” because it’s their opinion. Then, a few days later you could get a message that says, “Well, actually, we want to move in a different direction.” And unless you ask point blank sometimes, you might not know this important detail.

So, find out who has the power to make decisions client-side. Then adjust your expectations to meet this information. If there are several people who will have a final say in the site’s design, come to an agreement about when they will let their opinions be known. Set clear deadlines for the client to provide feedback, too.

Finally, setting a clear revisions limit in your contract (as we discussed above) can help clients see that it’s in their best interest to make sure all parties who want/need to be involved in the decision-making speak up in a timely manner.

Steer Clear of Jargon

How can a client make informed decisions if they don’t understand what you’re saying? While it can be easy to slip into jargon, especially if you primarily talk to other designers and developers, you must make an effort to put things in simple terms when speaking with clients.

You see, sometimes, clients will agree to something because they know you’re the expert and don’t want to question what you’ve said. So imagine their surprise once you submit the project, and it’s not at all how they envisioned. They’ll be disappointed because they’ll realize they agreed to something they didn’t want. Sure, the client should have asked for clarification, but you shouldn’t put them in the position to need to ask in the first place.

It’s not necessary to hand-hold your client through a lesson in web development. But you should take the time to explain and define terms they’ll need to know to make decisions about how their website looks and functions. Be straightforward in your speech and simplify when need be.

Be a Better Listener

Sometimes, you can eliminate stress from your web development projects by simply listening. If you’ve asked the client a bunch of questions, you have plenty of information to work from. Go over your notes and see if you can distil what your client wants to a simple statement. Then, while working on the site, keep this statement in mind.

You should also keep it in mind during all future interactions with the client. If a conversation seems to contradict the information from your initial interviews, ask the client for clarification. Perhaps you’ve simply misunderstood. Maybe they’ve momentarily forgotten their main objectives.

Regardless, listening ensures you and the client remain on the same page at all times and you continually meet each other’s expectations.

Practice Client Interviews

A lot of the success of moving forward with stress-free projects is to be a clear and concise communicator. If speaking is not your strength, it’s a good idea to practice with some of your colleagues. One of you can pretend to be the client on a fake development project of your choosing. Then you can take turns role-playing.

This is a great way to play out how a client interview might go and to see what kinds of questions elicit the most informative responses.

Don’t Let the Client Wonder

It’s normal to go a few days between communications with a client, especially if you’re really engrossed in a project. However, if your client calls you or emails you, it’s a good idea to respond the same day if you can. This shows attentiveness and makes the client feel like a priority.

If the client gets antsy and has to check in with you to see how a project is coming along, you’ve waiting too long. Of course, some clients might just jump the gun a bit and expect immediate results. For the most part, however, your clients just want to stay in the loop, so keep them informed.

There is an exception, of course. Clients shouldn’t expect an immediate response outside of business hours or on the weekends. Even if you work at 2 a.m. don’t make a habit to respond to emails at that time. It’ll give off the impression that you’re always available. Boundaries are a good thing.

Stand Up for the Client’s Best Interest

You should always listen to what the client has to say and you should respect their input. However, sometimes a client will be wrong. And that can make for some potentially stressful situations. The key is knowing when to let it go and when to stand your ground.

If you run into a disagreement on an aspect of a website you’re building, take a step back and evaluate what the client is saying. Are they simply misinformed? If so, provide context and as much information as possible about why things need to remain the same/be changed/whatever else fits your situation. If the client’s wants for a site would be destructive to their business, by all means, speak up!

However, if it’s just something small or comes down to preference, it might be best to let it go. This is their site, after all.

Remove Stress from Your Web Dev Projects

When approaching a web development project with a new client, it’s vital that you take the time to hash out the details and create a detailed communication plan. To skimp on the planning stages  and contract details is to ask for trouble and a whole lot of stress later on. So don’t do it. Plan ahead, be prepared and be an effective communicator from this point forward. Your previously shot nerves will thank you.

What are some of the most effective communications strategies you’ve utilized to make your web development projects go smoothly? Have you been able to sidestep catastrophe by being a clear communicator? Please share your stories below.