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Client expectations and onboarding for freelancers

jordanholtdev profile image Jordan Holt Originally published at blog.jordanholt.dev on ・9 min read

Creating a clear process for onboarding new clients is an important step when freelancing. From the first interaction with a new client it’s important to define the relationship and expectations. I freelanced in the film & television industry for almost a decade before I transitioned into web development where I continue to freelance. I was project manager on several feature length documentaries, films, commercials and live events. My experience taught me the importance aligning expectations and clear communication throughout the life cycle of a project and continue to serve me well as a developer.

Here are a few of things I learned about taking on new clients and expectations.

Every journey is going to look different

The process around taking on new projects or clients is always evolving and no two projects will be the same. It’s important to stay flexible (within reason) to other methods and processes when interacting with new clients. Try and be empathetic and realize that the client is also taking a risk with you, help them feel secure by having a clear process from the moment you first interact. When there is no process in place, expectations cannot be aligned and a project can quickly get into trouble. So what does this process look like?

The process will vary based on your business and the type of clients and projects you work with. Regardless of how it takes shape the goal is to have a clear process in place from the initial contact of a client to when you agree to move forward with a project.

Here is an example of an onboarding process I use. This process will evolve based on you preferences and the scope of your work but it often follows this pattern.

  1. Initial contact - A client has found me from one of several possible channels (i.e link at the bottom of a site you built, referral, promotion), and then reaches out. This is usually an email, but it could be a phone call or other method of contact you’ve setup. During this step the client usually gives me a bit a information about the project. At this stage it’s usually vague but the requirements are sometimes detailed.
  2. Response & basic queries - When I find the time, I’ll respond to the client. During this step I provide a list of questions to the client to learn more about the project requirements. These are basic questions that I ask for the majority of projects I work on. Depending on your work you might even automate this by having a form that clients are directed to after the initial contact.
  3. Review & schedule meeting - Once the initial questions are answered, I take some time to sit with them and make notes. Once I’ve gone through the answers and done some basic research on the clients business, I’ll request to schedule a brief meeting.
  4. First meeting - This meeting is meant to be a discussion and is exploratory in nature. I meet with the client to get to know each other, learn about the project and determine if it’s a good fit. A 30 or 40 minute call or video meeting is usually enough time. The goals of this step are to clarify any questions I have and to get to know the client. Red flags at this point are not a good sign.
  5. Statement of work - At this point, I’ll usually have enough information to decide if the project / client are a good fit for me. If I’m still not clear on the project at this point it could be a bad sign. But if things are clear and I feel it’s a good fit, then I start working on a statement of work document. What you actually send them will vary based on the nature and scale of the work and your personal preference, it could be a simple one page document sent in the body of an email or a larger document or series of documents but you should have the basics covered including deliverables, timelines, specific responsibilities and cost. I go into more detail below about what to include.
  6. Signing and payment - When the client and I are synced up and in agreement regarding the scope of work and requirements then we agree to proceed. I have the client sign the statement of work and send the payment. Depending on your industry and the project this could be complete payment upfront but in my experience splits like 50% upfront / 50% upon completion or 50% / 25% / 25% are also common. The takeaway is that I’m not starting work without money in the bank.
  7. Client Requirements - Generally there are a number of things that I’ll need from the client before I can get started. This could be photos or copy for a landing page, or API credentials or numerous other things that could prevent the project from moving forward. I usually send a brief checklist of items/tasks they need to complete before I get to work.

Get it in writing

It’s often appealling to keep things casual, especially when it’s a smaller project or if you’re just starting out but this is a mistake. Although people generally have good intentions, expectations can be the cause of a lot of headaches. Laying out requirements and important details like budget details, scope and payment schedule on paper will help avoid misunderstandings, align expectations and reduce any emotion that might occur if you or the client feel slighted. You have an agreement in writing that you can refer to.

Proposals, work agreements, statement of work and other documents can be used when working out the details of a new project. However, if you’re just getting started freelancing I suggest you keep things as simple as possible. A single document is often all that’s needed for smaller projects. The main goal is to align the clients expectations with yours and to agree in as much detail as possible the work requirements, budget and timeline.

For most of the projects I work on I use a single document called a statement of work. The statement of work document(SOW) was traditionally used as a document that accompanied a request for proposal (RFP) and detailed the work requirements laid out in the RFP. However the SOW format serves freelancers well as a document that can outline the important details of a project. Modified SOW documents are commonly used in the freelance world and are often used as binding contracts. Paperwork can be intimidating to some clients, so I find using a modified statement of work document that is used as an agreement works well for most of my use cases.

There are many different SOW templates out there, all of which include different elements. Some elements are obviously useful while others will only be beneficial for certain projects, with experience you’ll learn what to include. Here’s a few things I usually include in my statement of work document:

  • Introduction - This is going to include a general description of what the project is about and your understanding of the clients business and what will be gained by completing this project.
  • Scope of work / Responsibilities - This is a brief summary of your expectations regarding the scope and responsibilities for yourself and the client. This is usually an overview, while a more detailed and technical breakdown is often included in a work requirements section.
  • Exlusions - It’s a good idea to also include what is exluded from your responsibilities. This is optional and it’s generally assumed that anything not included in the scope or work requirements would be exluded, it doesn’t hurt to have more detail. With experience you’ll start to develop an instinct for to include here.
  • Timeline - This section will define how long the project will take to complete. It’s also common to indicate what happens in the case of delays. Depending on the size of the project you could incorporate the schedule and milestones into this section or have a separate section.
  • Work Requirements/Deliverables - This is a section where you can get detailed about the work requirements. In some cases it’s best to summarize these requirements for each stage of a project. Design Phase Build Phase * Handoff Phase
  • Cost / Payment Schedule - This is the section where you detail how much it’s going to cost. Make sure to include when payments due dates, down payments and some detail about the process around late payments and kill fees ect.

You can use this as a starting point and add or remove sections based on your needs. This document is going to change over time but the goal will remain the same, it describes the the work requirements and aligns expectations.

Communication is key

Open and ongoing communication is key when working in a team and even more important when working with new clients. Details like the frequency and method of meetings, dealing with documents, communication preferences and so on should be discussed and agreed upon when a project begins.

A well thought out communication process will help keep the project on track and avoid common issues. Here are a few of the common issues that inevitably creep up throughout the life cycle of a project:

Reevaluate scope

Inevitably the scope of the work you’ve agreed on will start growing, aka scope creep. There are a number of reasons for this but most commonly this is due to misunderstanding the project requirements and client expectations. Early on in the project it’s important to reiterate scope and go over the process with the client.

Schedule regular discussion for feedback

From the very beginning of a project ensure that there are regularly scheduled meetings for feedback. Call these meetings whatever you want to but there should be frequent and consistent and allow for you and the client to openly provide feedback on the project. Ideally these meetings take place in person, or on a video or voice call so that you the interaction is more natural. This gives an opportunity for those involved to voice concerns or suggestions without having to reaching out specifically about it.

Regularly evaluate the project status

To keep the project on track it’s important to keep track of the project status. Usually this is a document that will be updated with project information such as budget, obstacles, accomplishments and next steps. Ideally you’ll go over this document before you start any work and review it regularly in meetings.

  • Budget
  • Project obstacles
  • Accomplishments
  • Next steps

To avoid these issues, it’s helpful to have a communication strategy in place at the beginning of a project. Again, the simpler the better and I find that a single document serves my purposes well. Here are a couple of things I like to include:

  • Project Team Directory - A simple list of all the team members involved in the project, their role and contact information.
  • Contact Preferences - At the minimum you should agree on preferred methods of contact. You want to set some boundaries about when and how contact will take place. For example, don’t call me in the middle of the night with unless it’s an emergency and agree what constitutes an emergency.
  • Communication Matrix - Fancy term for a list of the meetings, their goals and the method and frequency of the meetings. Below is an example of how this could look:
Type Goal Method Frequency
Kickoff Initial project meeting. Introduce the project and review the requirements Conference call - Zoom Once
Project Team Meetings Review status of project Conference call - Zoom Weekly. Mondays @ 10am
Project Status Report of the status of project, milestones and issues Email Monthly
  • Documents - How will project related documents be handled? Basecamp, Trello, Asana, Google Docs? Determine how documents will be stored and how to handle revisions etc.

Remember you’re communicating with other humans

I often hear the phrase “this project has many moving parts” and I usually chuckle because those parts are generally other humans. We all have lives outside of a project, we have families and other obligations that are important to us. Determining healthy boundaries around communication early on in a project is essential to its overall success. Panicked phone calls in the middle of the night are an easy way to ruin a working relationship and can easily be avoided by having a process in place.

It’s possible that a client is a new business owner and still discovering their own process, and the ability to recognize this can help build meaningful relationships in your career. Remember that people have lives outside of the projects they work on.

Here are a few things suggestions that I find helpful when working with new clients:

  • Have some empathy for the clients. If you’re having a difficult time with a client you can use it as an exercise in patience.
  • Don’t ever put up with a tyrant. Coming from film and television I can tell you countless stories of big egos and bad behaviour, but it’s not isolated to that industry. Don’t ever put up with yelling, rudeness or any other poor behaviour.
  • Practice active listening with your client. Sometimes we become frustrated just because we feel we’re not being heard. Working with new clients creates a great opportunity to learn how to listen and recognize when others aren’t listening to you.
  • People have a big impact on the success of a project. Psychological safety is an important part of creating an environment of success. A hostile, judgmental or otherwise negative environment is a recipe for disaster.
  • Share with your clients. Clients are taking a risk when invest in you. One way to make them feel their investment is safe is to openly share with them. Share your work, your though process and approaches regularly and don’t keep things tightly controlled or hidden from view.

Wrap up

Freelancing as a developer can be a rewarding experience if you have a clear process for onboarding and communication in place from the onset of a project. With experience you’ll start to form a process that works best for you. The process doesn’t need to be overly formal or have an overwhelming number of documents, but there needs to be enough detail to avoid common issues. The more you’re able to align expectations the more likely you are to successfully complete a project and develop lasting, meaningful relationships with clients.

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