How to attract and manage novice clients ( by Will Chen)

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from LifeClever ;-) Tips for Design and Life

The continuing growth of Web 2.0 startups means designers can expect to be approached by a lot more clients with five-figure budgets who are virtual novices to the web design process. Without proper handling these clients can be extremely difficult to work with.

I know, because I was one of those clients.

I was recently put in charge of redesigning my startup’s website. The only thing I knew about design was that I had a vague distrust for the color orange. I was not a good client. I asked lots of dumb questions and made a lot of unreasonable demands.

If you are interested in working with design neophytes like me, here are some suggestions on how to attract and manage novice clients:

Before you’re hired

* Show me working links to live demos. Screenshots and flash animations are nice, but I need to see your actual designs in action. I review hundreds of applications a week, so please don’t make me dig around for links to your work. Create a “quick resume” page listing all the links to your best designs. If your old clients have dumped your design, ask for permission to host a demo on your server.

* Be descriptive and honest in your portfolio. Tell me your specific level of involvement in each project. Did you do the layout, the branding, the coding, or the usability study? Did you have complete creative control or were you following very specific demands from the client?

* Show me recommendations from your clients. Testimonials from clients are worth their weight in gold. I will not hire anyone without getting at least two positive recommendations. If you are a young designer without prior experience, do a few pro bono projects for schools or charities.

* Describe your process. Give me a good overview of your process. You should of course be flexible about catering your process to each client’s individual needs. But having an initial road map gives both of us a great starting point.

* Describe your niche. I am not looking for a generic “web designer.” I am looking for specific experiences like “Drupal designer” or “Expression Engine designer.”

* Let me know about your availability. Your website should clearly state whether you are accepting new projects. If you are unavailable, offer to give me referrals to other designers you respect. Liza Kindred (Lullabot) and Nick Aster (646 Industries) were both gracious enough to offer me suggestions when they were unavailable. Their kindness will not be forgotten.

* Don’t be coy with your prices. Give me your hourly rate and then give me an estimate of the hours required to complete the project. Most serious customers do not make price their sole consideration. In return, you should expect me to be honest about my budget.

* Don’t undersell yourself. When I tell you another design firm has offered to do the same project for $5,000 less, don’t immediately drop your prices. If you do, I’ll wonder if you were simply overcharging me before. Instead, justify your higher price. Ask questions like “is the other firm putting their senior designers on this job like we are doing” or “does the other firm have our level of usability experience?”

After you’re hired

* Respond to my emails and phone calls quickly. Even if you have nothing positive to report, please at least acknowledge my attempts to contact you. I have to keep my clients and investors updated on the progress of the design. I hate having to tell them that I can’t even get you on the phone.

* Finalize things in writing, not over the phone. Every time we have a conversation you should follow up with a email summarizing what we agreed on. This is for your protection. Make sure I sign a contract before you start working. I know it is a hassle, but by providing the contract you are setting the playing field in your favor.

* Get to know my business. Ask lots of questions about my business model. The more you understand about my business the better you can anticipate my needs. Besides, I’ll never get tired of talking about my website. I’ll be flattered by your sincere attention.

* Demand respect. I know you want to be nice, but do not answer “yes of course we can do that” to every question I ask. Designers who try to cater to every novice clients’ unreasonable demands will burn out quickly. Let me know when I’m being unreasonable. I’m the novice here. Stand up to me early and let me know when I’m wasting your time.

* Use lots of visual examples and encourage me to do the same. Maybe your definition of “simple elegance” is different from mine. Show me an example of what you would consider “simple elegance” so we can see if we are on the same page.

* Don’t overwhelm me with other services. I appreciate that you are a full service firm that can provide SEO, hosting, and maintenance services. These package deals are very convenient. But please don’t try to sell them to me at every turn. Ask once in the beginning and then again at the end of the project. Of course, if you took the time to fully understand my business model, you’ll naturally be my first choice for additional services.

As you can see, working with novice clients will be a lot of work. If the process described above sounds too aggravating, maybe you should check out Drew McLellan’s advice and avoid us altogether:

Most bad customers are not really bad customers. They’re just bad customers for you. They’re a bad fit. And it’s your fault. Many businesses don’t want to miss out on any sales opportunity, so they say they can do everything. They don’t want to define themselves and risk losing a customer. So the poor customers are out there trying to comparison shop and everyone looks the same. So they take a stab at it and sometimes they guess wrong. Which means you have a bad customer on your hands.

That’s sound advice but I hope most of you will continue to take on novice clients. We’re clueless as puppies. But with some patience some of us can become loyal and grateful clients.

Will Chen is the co-founder of the Killer Aces Blog Network. He is a frequent contributor to Wise Bread, a personal finance blog. Visit those websites in two months to see their new exciting designs.

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