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I’ve got a MASSIVE episode on client relations for you here today. I’m going to share the top 10 mistakes you’re making with clients that cost you.

These mistakes are costing you in a number of ways: They’re causing you to lose time, to lose money, to miss great opportunities, to miss out on working with the right type of people, to devalue your work, to get paid slower, to be seen as a novice, and to lose the respect of your client.

It’s been awhile since I talked specifically about the nitty-gritty details of client work, so I have an overwhelming amount to share on the subject and I don’t hold back.

Show Notes
  • 10 Mistakes You’re Making With Clients That Cost You
  • 05:10 Sean: Client work is the fastest way to make money. Sure, products make money once you’ve grown, but getting there is not super fast. It takes a lot of resources. The same with teaching: you need to establish your authority and expertise to grow an audience. You have to cultivate relationships with people. Teaching eventually becomes a great way to generate residual income but like products, it takes a long time. Client work is the easiest entrance point and the fastest way to make money. If you want to sell products or teach, start with client work to get the money first.

1. Not Filtering With Your Questionnaire

  • 06:31 Sean: Your questionnaire isn’t just for asking questions that pertain to the project. It’s also a filtration device.
  • 06:45 Having this questionnaire form on your website means that only serious people can contact you. If you just have a plain form with a email and message field, the barrier to entry is lowered. This will let everyone in. You’re going to get more low-quality requests.
  • 07:02 Whereas if you put your whole questionnaire in a form on your website and require all of those questions to be answered in order for someone to be able to submit, it acts as a filtration device. Someone has to be serious enough to answer these really thought-provoking questions about their business and about the project.
  • 07:22 Ben: “Maybe you’re personally acting as the filter right now, but think about how much time and energy that’s taking away from you. I picture a water filtration system. It has several levels of filtration with varying degrees of granularity. With your questionnaire, you can decide the order in which you ask the questions to continue to narrow it down. By the time it gets to you, you have almost exactly what you’re looking for. You don’t have to do any additional filtration.”
  • 08:22 Sean: I love that analogy of filtration devices with different size rocks or sand filtering the water. Having the questionnaire form on your website as a requirement before people contact you is like the largest rocks in this filtration machine. It’s keeping things like twigs in the water from getting into your glass. It’s the stuff you would never want. You don’t want someone saying, “Hey, do work for me for free,” or “Can you do this for $50?” That’s what this is filtering.
  • 09:21 When you’re starting out, a lot of people say, “Take whatever work you can get.” People are scared to put a filtration on it because they’re afraid they may not get any work. “Maybe I’m not going to be able to make money if I filter this too heavily!” But you don’t want to work with the wrong type of client. That’s just going to lead to more bad work.
  • 09:46 You want to work with the right type of client and that means establishing how you work up front. It means sharing case studies and explaining your process. It means requiring these questions on your questionnaire before the client can get to you to show them that they need to be serious if they want to work with you. The right type of client is one that values your expertise and is willing to come under your process.
  • There’s no magic point you reach where you’re able to be selective with clients. You’re able to be selective because you’ve chosen to practice selectivity.

2. Not Establishing Roles

  • 10:29 Sean: The client is responsible for two things:
    1. Content
    2. Goals
  • 11:00 You are the professional. Making design decisions is your job. The only person making design decisions is you as the designer.
  • Professionals do not subject their clients to design decisions.

  • 11:15 This is easy to say, but it’s hard in practice. The reason it’s hard is because you need to have a certain level of trust built with this client. The client needs to know what they are responsible for and what you are responsible for at the onset of the project. Any miscommunications are your responsibility.
  • 11:32 Ben: “I like the way you say that: The professional doesn’t subject their client to design decisions. Instead of thinking about preventing your client from having input, you’re actually saving them from doing something that’s going to be harmful to their brand.”
  • 11:55 Sean: The reason I say it that way is because it’s an acknowledgment of who has authority in this relationship. It starts with the professional. The client comes to the professional for their expertise so they can solve these problems. The design professional is the person who has the authority here and if they’re relinquishing any of that, it’s on them. It’s not a question of “What if the client starts making design decisions?” No, that’s you relinquishing that control.
  • 12:29 You relinquish control when you say “What do you think about this? What would you do in this design?” That’s not the client’s job. You’re subjecting them to a design decision. That’s your responsibility. This is something you have to establish in the beginning. Like I said, there needs to be a trust. You have to build that. You have to facilitate that. You have to establish the roles. “Client, you are responsible for content and goals. I’m going to take those two things that you provide to me at the beginning of the project and I am going to design a solution. That’s my job.”
  • 16:41 Comment from Sarah in the chat room:

    “Sean, if you feel the client is trying to give you stylistic direction even though you stated clearly that it’s your job, how do you react? Say no or explain again?”

  • 16:53 First of all, we have to acknowledge that if the client is trying to give you stylistic direction in the middle of the project, guess whose fault that is? Guess whose responsibility that is? It’s the professional’s responsibility. You always have to take responsibility. Even if the client is being crazy or silly, or sending things that you told them not to send, it’s your responsibility. In the beginning, you need to make it abundantly clear that you are the designer and you are designing for their goals. You are designing their content for their goals. Tell them up front how you work.
  • 18:19 So first of all, you have to know it’s your responsibility—it’s something that you need to prevent. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You’ve got to nip it in the bud. If they are asking, you point back to the conversation you already had. Point to the discussion over email where you explained your agreement in plain english and they acknowledged it. Don’t thump the agreement. That is the last resort. Avoid that at all costs. If it comes to the very, very worst and you have to pursue legal routes, then you can start talking about contract, but don’t talk about the contract in the middle of the project. That’s not going to make for a good relationship. It strains the relationship. It’s not going to make for a friction-free project. You need to point to a conversation you already had personally with the client.

3. Not Setting Expectations

  • 19:21 Tell the client what to expect. What’s going to happen when? (Related: e024 Finding Clients While Maintaining Professionalism) You have two processes:
    1. General Process
    2. Project Specific process
  • 19:58 Give the client a way to visualize the flow of the project and what they can expect. Have this on your website before they even contact you. You’re planting the seed of what they can come to expect when working with you.
  • 20:32 The project-specific process is basically an adaptation of your general process that is tailored to this particular client. It’s basically a guideline of your general process but everything is tailored to their needs, their content or goals, and this timeframe. You explain when you start, when you send invoices, when you need to be paid, any milestones, checkpoints, etc. Give them a full overview of what to expect.
    • When does the client get involved?
    • Do they get involved at all?
    • When will you send deliverables?
    • When will they hear an update from you?
    • What will the update contain?

4. Not Pricing on Value

  • 21:23 You’re selling your time and not the results of your effort. You’re selling your hours and not the benefit to the client. You’re selling your days and not the return the client gets on their investment.
  • 21:50 You’re positioning yourself as an expense instead of an investment to the client. Time vs. Value. When you charge for time, it doesn’t acknowledge the value the client receives. You’re making yourself a commodity. When you make yourself a commodity, you open yourself to comparison and price bidding.
  • 22:22 Clients will then encourage you to give them a lower rate because they know someone cheaper. This is because they see you as an expense.
  • Expenses are what businesses try to keep at a minimum. If you put yourself in that pool, you are going to be yet another thing they will try to pay the least amount for.

  • 22:45 If you can get yourself into the investment pool, then they see you as a place to put money in to get money out. They’re giving you money because you’re going to make them money. The reason they know this is very simply because of a shift in conversation. You’re positioning the conversation around value. You’re all about accomplishing goals for this client, and you’re all about return.
    • How can we impact your conversions?
    • How can we impact your bottom line?
  • 23:18 The way you position the conversation is critical. When you start right up front by saying, “What’s your budget?” you immediately throw all of that out the window! You just positioned yourself as an expense. You’re saying, “How much money do you have? How much do you want to give me? How much you have allocated to this expense?” rather than saying, “Hey, what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish? What makes you the most money right now and how can we make that better? What does a successful project look like?” You see how we’re positioning the conversation around value?
  • 23:51 Ben: “When you point the client to value, you also reinforce for them how valuable their thing is. It’s a little bit of an ego stroke. It’s saying ‘Why would you treat something that could potentially give your brand more value as a commodity?’ Treating this like an investment is saying they believe so much in their brand that they’re willing to invest in something of quality.”

5. Not Using Two Prices: Full Price & Free

  • 25:25 Sean: These are two prices that acknowledge full value: full price or free.
  • 25:38 When you charge full price, the client feels like they’re getting a full-priced value. When you discount that rate, it devalues your worth. It devalues the worth of your work. However when you do a project pro-bono and you don’t charge the client but you say the value is X dollars, then they value the project at the full rate—even though they’re not paying the full amount. They know what the value is. So those two prices, full price and free, are the only ones that acknowledge full value. Everything else is a devaluation.
  • 27:16 The next time you start to do a project and you tell the client it’s going to be $2,000 and the client says, “Oh, I only have $1,000,” what are you going to do? What a lot of people do is they say, “Well, I guess I can come down in price just this once,” or “Ok, I suppose I’ll take the project, I just might have to make it a lower priority.” What you’ve just done is devalued the worth of your work.
  • 27:42 You don’t ever want to arbitrarily discount rate or your price, you only want to remove features. That’s the only way to go down in the amount that you’re quoting someone.
  • 27:54 Ben: “Be very careful about that too. If those features are part of what makes your service valuable, then you might not want to remove those at all.”
  • 28:06 Sean: Right. You have to know that. If it will cripple the functions of the final product, then you don’t want to remove those features. You just say, “This is what it is. Come back when you have $2,000!”
  • 28:24 Ben: “If you’re using The Overlap Technique and you’re just starting out trying to get clients, pro bono work is a great way to start. You get to do great work for somebody who values your work at full value and you also have the added benefit of them being willing to want to refer your services to other people.”
  • 29:01 Sean: That’s the huge part because say you do a cheaper rate for someone: they don’t think of you as this professional who charges a premium amount and does quality work, they think they got a deal! They think they got a cheaper rate and they’re associating you with that cheapness. You’re better off saying, “You know, I realize you can’t afford this $2,000 project, but I’m going to do this for you pro-bono.” They now know and acknowledge the full value of the project and when they refer you to someone else, they will say, “This guy does awesome work. It’s $2,000, but for your business it sounds like you’re in a place where that would work for you. You might want to give him a call.”
  • 29:41 Ben: “You might even work it in as a marketing plan where you are willing to accommodate X number of pro-bono clients per year.”
  • 30:01 Sean: Yeah! Maybe instead of actually putting ads out or doing other forms of marketing, you could allocate some funds to cover your own expenses to be able to do these types of pro-bono projects. Because they can bring in some more high-paying clients. The best clients are the ones that come from referrals.
  • 30:18 It’s all about trust. We want people that are on board with our process that understand and acknowledge that you are the professional. They’re coming to you for your expertise. That’s something that is built on trust. People trust those who other people they trust say are good. It’s one more step in building that relationship.
  • 30:40 Ben: “Can we answer a question from Cory in the chat room?”
  • “How do you charge for things with no ROI? Weddings, etc.”

  • 31:02 Ben: “We talked about this before where the value is something that isn’t always related to money. Sometimes there’s ego-centric value, sometimes there’s emotional value, sometimes there’s sentimental value or other forms of intangible value.
  • 31:22 “Sometimes there’s a value that is so far beyond measuring with dollars and cents that somebody might be willing to pay any amount to get whatever it is that you offer. They may just be allocating the means to pay a great amount for it because it means so much to them. You have what they want and what they need, but if you’re positioning yourself as a commodity or as an expense you’re going to charge way less than what they would be willing to compensate you.”
  • 32:01 Sean: That’s a great point. You may be charging $300 for shooting some wedding photos and you’re baffled at the fact that—believe it or not—there are photographers out there that charge $30,000 for a wedding and you have to fly them out to your location all-expenses-paid! What’s going on here? Someone values those photos—the sentimental value of this event—at $30,000. This other person has the guts to position themselves as someone who can deliver on that value. That’s pretty scary, right? Can you imagine positioning yourself that way, confidently charging that much and requiring people to fly you out? Who’s going to pay for that? Well guess what—not the people that are paying you $300 for a wedding.
  • 32:53 You need to get over the fact that you’re going to lose those people. Because the tighter you hold onto them, the more that is going to be your audience. That’s going to be your client base because you’re too afraid to lose them.
  • 33:06 Ben: “Here’s a comment from Justin in the chat room:
  • “If you’re doing value-based pricing, it’s based on the value client is going to reap. That means different amounts, for different clients, in different situations. You should use what it would cost you plus base profit as a starting point and not go lower than that.”

  • 33:35 Ben: “You do have to make a calculation for what your time is worth.”
  • 33:40 Sean: Yes, so real quick to help you out there—value-based pricing is built on three things:
    • Time
    • Cost
    • Value to the client.
  • 33:50 When you have something like a wedding, you’re dealing with intangible or sentimental value, not a dollar amount. A lot of cases are not possible when your base costs are more than they want to pay at all. That’s not even accounting for any value—tangible or intangible. What that means is you can’t do the project.

6. Not Requiring Payment Before Sending Deliverables

  • 35:32 This is something we were discussing in the chat recently. Someone was struggling with this. Most people know that you need to get paid up front. If you don’t know that, let me just hammer that point real quick: You get paid up front. 50% minimum. You don’t do any work until you get paid 50%.
  • 36:22 Require 50% up front. If you’re not getting paid, you’re not working. You don’t work before you get paid. Now, a lot of people already get that, so I’m not going to hammer on that too much. But here’s the part that a lot of people don’t do: they don’t get paid before the deliverables are sent. You must get paid before the deliverables are sent. Let me break down the order of events for you:
    • Preliminary discussion
    • Agreement sent
    • Agreement signed
      • Agreement states project does not begin until initial invoice is paid.
      • Agreement states that initial invoice is due in 5 business days or project is canceled.
    • Initial invoice sent
    • Client pays
    • Project starts and process begins
    • Work is finished
    • Present to the client
    • Send final invoice
      • Reiterate terms of agreement when you send invoice and state that the final payment is required prior to sending deliverables.
    • Send deliverables
  • 38:47 That’s the order of events. You don’t send the deliverables and say, “Will you pay me?” You don’t send the deliverables and the invoice at the same time. We hear this all the time: “How do I get clients to pay? The client hasn’t paid me!” That is not something you should be worrying about. That is something you should’ve prevented.
  • 39:11 Ben: “Or you could just charge 100% upfront. Also, if you’re booked for the next few months, you can take a deposit up front to secure their time in your schedule.”
  • 40:15 Sean: You can totally do that. That’s your choice. You can set the requirements. Maybe you have a minimum to where if it’s under X thousand dollars or X hundred dollars, they have to pay all up front. Because at that point, you’re spending your time invoicing. That’s no fun. That’s not what they’re paying you for. You’re wasting time. Let’s simplify this and spend less time on the paperwork and more time on the actual work. Part of enabling that could be charging 100% up front.
  • 41:01 “But my client is Net 90! They’re Net 9,000! I’m not gonna get paid! They say I’m not gonna get paid unless I do Net 90!”
  • 41:12 What the heck?! Net 90? 90 days? Do you know how many days are in a month? There’s 30 days in a month. Do you know how many 30s go into 90? That’s 3 months. That’s a quarter of a year. That is insane. That is asinine. That is ridiculous. You are the professional. You are the one who sets the terms. You can say, “Pay me in 5 days or get out of my office, sir. Take a free letterpress coaster on your way out. Good day!”
  • 41:42 That’s something you set. You have to be the professional. You have to stick to your guns. If you’re good at what you do, you can demand that.

7. Not Acquiring Content Before the Project Starts

  • 42:06 Let’s get something straight:
    • You don’t design websites, you design content.
    • You don’t design mobile apps, you design content.
    • You don’t design brochures, you design content.

    You design content.

    You need content to design.

  • 42:33 So many designers start projects without content. Do you ever get those clients that send you more content in the middle of the project? “Where did this come from?”
  • 43:00 You have to have content at the start of the project. Before it begins, you need the content.
  • 43:07 “But Sean, my client doesn’t have content yet. They said they’re working on it!”
  • 43:18 If they don’t have content, they have no business hiring a designer. It’s your job to tell them that. It’s your job to refuse to take them on until they have business hiring you.
  • 44:30 Sure, help them get the content. Point them to a copywriter or whatever you need to do. Don’t be unhelpful and just say, “No, I’m not going to work with you! You’re not even ready!” You don’t have to be rude about it, but you shouldn’t be working with them unless they have the content.

8. Saying, “What do you think?”

  • 47:00 Do you ever send something to the client and say, “What do you think?”
  • Saying “What do you think?” is the mark of a novice.

  • 48:04 As the professional, it is your job to present. Explain what problems you solved. Go through every design decision.
    • Why did you do it this way?
    • Why is it this color?
    • Why is this element on the right?
    • Why is it this tall?
    • Why does it adapt this way when you are on a different device?
  • 48:30 Explain every design decision. Nothing is left up to chance. Nothing is left to preferential whim. You’re explaining all of it. You are presenting. You’re not throwing it at the client and saying, “What do you think?” It does not matter what they think. They hired you to solve the problem. They hired you because they have goals. They hired you to design content. You did your job. Tell them how you did your job. Tell them how the results of the work that you did serve their goals.
  • This is your opportunity to explain to them that they just spent their money very wisely.

9. Not Providing Solutions

  • 50:26 Sean: A professional does not design for the client. A professional designs for their client’s customers. Your client’s personal preferences are no concern of yours. Similarly your own personal preferences. They have no place in an objective design process.
  • 51:26 If your favorite color is red, that doesn’t mean the client’s logo is going to be red. This is obvious. We know this. ”Duh Sean, I’m not gonna just use red because it’s my favorite color!“ Well it’s the same with the client! Stop bending on that just because it’s the client and you want to make them happy. It’s not about making them happy—it’s about affecting the bottom line of their business: more revenue and reaching the client’s customers.
  • 55:31 When you provide options to the client, you are subjecting them to a design decision. Design is objective. We have goals here. We’re trying to accomplish something. Which concept more effectively accomplishes the goals we have and reaches the target audience?
  • 55:44 Who is more qualified to make a design decision? The designer or the client? Yes, the client is the expert in their field. You defer to them as the expert in their business, but when it comes to design, you are the designer and you make the design decisions. This is something that you must articulate to the client beforehand. That’s your job.
  • 56:20 It’s also your job to acquire all of the relevant information that the client has to offer the project. You’re deferring to the client in the area they specialize in—their expertise. You need to gather all of the insight they have in their field that is relevant to this particular project. That all must be done up front.
  • 56:44 Remember, the client is responsible for two things: content and goals. If the content or goals change, the project must start over. We are no longer trying to accomplish the same thing anymore. Certain aspects affect other aspects. You can’t just replace things or then you’re just grafting limbs and putting patches on things. That’s not effective design. That’s why you have to have the content upfront.

10. Believing There’s Such a Thing as Clients From Hell

  • 57:29 Ben (Joking): “Wait, but there’s not?”
  • There’s no such thing as clients from hell because only designers from hell take on those type of clients.

  • 57:42 Someone cannot be a client unless you take them on. If you’re saying, ”But if I don’t take them on, someone else will take them on! See? They’re a client!” Well, that’s someone else’s job. That’s their responsibility. They made that person a client. Every bad client is the responsibility of a bad designer. That bad designer made them client by taking them on. That’s why there’s no such thing as clients from hell. Only designers from hell take them on. No one can be a client unless you allow them to work with you.
  • 58:17 Ben: “So if I’ve taken on a client who is doing stuff that I don’t like, that’s not the client’s fault?”
  • 58:26 Sean: Right. Everything is the responsibility of the designer. You, as the professional, are responsible for every single problem that occurs.
  • 58:35 The definition of a professional is someone who actively seeks and acquires responsibility. A novice will consistently try to put blame off on someone else. A professional seeks responsibility. When something goes wrong, they’re actively looking for places where they can take responsibility for something having gone wrong.
    • How could I have prevented this?
    • How could I do better?
    • What could I have done to keep this from happening?
  • 59:05 Ben: “The responsibility thing is difficult sometimes because I think we naturally just don’t want for things to be our fault. We feel like it compromises the perception the client has of our professionalism but I think it’s totally the other way around: When we seek responsibility, the client recognizes that as professionalism. When we say ‘That wasn’t my responsibility,’ or ‘I didn’t make a mistake there,’ it’s actually undermining the perception the client has of our professionalism.”
  • 59:50 Sean: I like that point. It’s easy to forget that the client is actually seeking someone who seems to know what they’re doing—someone who is looking for responsibility. That’s what they want. They may not be saying that’s what they want, but that’s what they want. They want someone who’s confident and knows their stuff. They want someone who knows what they’re doing. Everyone’s afraid to be “harsh,” but people look for that certain “harshness” in a professional. It’s not a harshness that comes from a place of condescension, it’s a “harshness” that comes from a confidence that is backed by expertise and experience.
  • 1:00:44 The client wants to hire you as a professional. So don’t be afraid to be uncompromising about stuff. Don’t be afraid to be professional because you think it might be “harsh.” The right type of client is actually looking for that. They want someone who exudes that kind of confidence.