I think the first piece of advice I would give a new freelancer/entrepreneur/small-firm-owner/creative pro, besides learning how to price so that you can eat, would be to learn how to communicate with your clients. I enjoy visiting the website Clients from Hell, as it is amusing to read about disastrous client/creative pro relationships, if not a little depressing. I find that many of the stories on the site are related to breakdowns in communication.
Yes, there are a lot of people out there who do not know how to be good clients, but there are also plenty of creative pros who don’t know how to communicate. I am convinced that a bad client can be reformed or necessarily avoided through good communication.
Here’s some tips for good client communication:
- Be specific. Let the client know what specifically you will not provide as well as what specifically you will provide. Give them numbers, days, and times. They don’t understand your process, and they don’t need to. However, you do need to give them some idea of what you’re going to be doing and how long it takes. If something’s not possible, give them a specific reason why. It doesn’t have to be every reason, but a good reason will suffice.
- Educate them. People who don’t know Photoshop think Photoshop can do everything. Really. It is your job to make sure your client understands the limitations of what you can and can’t do, and what doing the impossible costs (i.e. a whole lot). The more you take a little time to educate your client, the more they will trust your skills and knowhow, and the less likely they will be to leave you for their “cousin who says he can do it for 100 bucks.” In the end, they’ll come back to you when they find out their cousin was full of it, but why lose them in the first place?
- Listen. When does your client need to hear specifics? When do they need to be educated? You’re going to have to listen close to what they’re saying to figure that out. This means many times you need to read between the lines. Clients don’t know what it means to design, so vague statements such as, “make it sharp,” or, “make it bright” are common. It is your job to read between the lines of what they are saying when they outline the project for you to make sense of the vagueness. You have to listen closely.
- Ask questions. If you’re listening, you will know what questions to ask. In general, though, make sure you are crystal clear on what it is they want and need. This may mean showing them some examples, or asking them if they can provide some examples. Do a google search together. Either way, always respond to one of their directives with, “So what you are saying is …” Don’t let them have one thing in their mind while you have another.
- Don’t assume anything. They think Photoshop can do anything. They believe a good video production can be cranked out in one afternoon, because they did that thing in high school that everyone thought was so good. Websites can be done overnight. Etc. Etc. Etc. Remember, they’re not in the creative business. You are. Just like you don’t know what goes into their work, they don’t know your work, but they will have a lot of attitudes based on what they’ve seen on television. Understand that, and make sure you don’t bring your own assumptions about what they should know into your conversations and negotiations.
Photo credit: By Tatyana Zabanova (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons