Everyone needs new clients but how do you make sure that they don’t turn out to be your worst nightmare?
Fail to screen clients correctly and you open the door to a world of potential pain and deeply unsatisfactory and demoralizing working experiences.
The good news is a lot of this is avoidable. Most times, the reason a particular job ends badly is that either you or the client didn’t have the information you needed from the outset to ensure things run smoothly.
In this article, we’ll cover the seven revealing questions you should ask clients straight out of the gate to create a solid, happy basis for your work.
Not all of these will apply to every freelancer and situation of course so feel free to pick and mix as you see fit.
Let’s start with the most obvious one.
1. What’s the Scope of the Project?
This is the big one you need to tie down: exactly what work the client wants done and what deadlines are involved. If the client is vague or unsure of the project scope, you’ll inevitably find that it keeps expanding in terms of complexity and number of tasks.
Without a clear understanding that can then be set out in a contract, you’re vulnerable to “mission creep” – that awful situation where you find yourself doing far more work than expected for the money involved. Things like how many change requests are reasonable become important if a client suddenly decides everything needs to be amended.
If you find the client doesn’t have a project scope in mind, this is the time to talk through with them what they need (the basic stuff), and what they want (the nice-to-haves). Remember, they’re hiring you because you’re an expert in your field – they should welcome your input. If they don’t, consider this a red flag.
2. What Are Your Payment Terms?
People are sometimes reluctant to ask about this because it seems awkward but this is another definite “need to know” before you finally clinch the deal. Is the client proposing to pay you a lump sum for a defined amount of work, or do they have an hourly rate in mind?
Other questions might include: do they pay by check or directly into your bank account? Will they pay you at the end of each month, or have they some other schedule in mind? When do they expect you to invoice, and do they have a particular format they need you to use?
In some businesses, it’s standard practice to ask for a deposit/retainer, and if that’s the case in your field you definitely need to find out whether the client will agree.
It’s not crass to talk money at the outset, it’s practical. If a potential client doesn’t have a clear idea of when and how you’ll be paid – or takes offence at the question – that should set warning bells ringing.
3. Who Will Be Working With Me On This Project?
If your potential client is a big company, the contact points need to be clearly identified or you could find yourself struggling to get things done.
If your project is staged, or needs some kind of guidance or feedback, you don’t want to find yourself stalled and desperately searching for the right person to move things along. Knowing the chain of command is key.
It’s also worrying if there turns out to be a large group of people who might have input, because you could find yourself endlessly making changes that will satisfy one person but not another.
If the chain of command seems unclear, this is something you can explain to a client tactfully at the outset just by saying “I want this project to run as smoothly as possible for you, and if we can agree a project owner who has the final say, it will really take that forward”.
4. What’s the Purpose of This Project?
This is somewhat different to the project scope – you’re trying to get an insight into why the project is being undertaken, and what the client expects to get out of it when it’s finished.
If a client is really enthusiastic about their project it will shine through – and that sort of commitment is something you need, because it should ensure you keep their backing and support.
It’s also great if they have a clear vision of what they want from the project, because that feeds into understanding the project boundaries (and therefore what you’ll be expected to do). If you realise at this stage that some of the project aims are unrealistic or unachievable, hopefully you’ll be able to set the bar at a more practical level.
5. Have You Worked with X Before?
The X here represents your type of business – this type of open-ended question could tell you what you need to know about how clued-up your client is about the work you’ll be doing.
If a client has never worked with your type of business before, they may need you to explain carefully what you can and can’t do, to avoid unrealistic expectations.
The answer may be “yes”, but the potential client will then launch into criticisms of various freelancers in your field that they have worked with. If they do, it’s time to listen very carefully and decide whether the fault lies with the freelancers or with the client.
One issue to be wary of is the client that knows your job (or thinks they do) better than you. You need the freedom to do your job as set out in the scope of work. What you don’t need is somebody telling you that you’re doing it wrong every day.
6. What’s the Biggest Challenge You Are Facing Right Now?
This may sound very general, but the answer to this question will tell you a lot about your client and how they see their business as a whole (and not just the part you’re involved in).
It’s a good question to ask because it will tell you the sort of priorities your client has, and whether they have an approach to dealing with issues that you understand and can buy into.
From the client point of view it’s also a good question, because it shows you have an interest in getting to know more about their business than just the narrow details of your own project. Building a relationship is key to any good contract, and showing you want to learn more about their world will help a great deal.
7. What Could I Do Work-Wise That Would Really Add Value For You?
This is a question that tries to go beyond the formal scoping exercise to look at what your client might really see as important in the contract.
They’ll appreciate you asking, and you’ll gain specific insight into their hopes for your work. After all, you want to do a great job for them, so understanding what would make a fantastic result from their point of view is key.
By asking a few well-chosen questions before you take on a client, you can save yourself a world of pain. You might say, I need the money, who cares if they turn out to be a bad client? The answer is, you do.
Choosing the wrong client is a short-cut to endless issues that can test your patience and your sanity.
If a client is likely to keep changing your brief, be vague about pay, or thinks they are the expert at your job, you need to know before you take on the contract and either walk away or raise your rates to a level where it is worth your while.
Are there any questions you’d add to our list? Get in touch in the comments and let us know.
Image Credit: Marco Bellucci