Are you getting what you need—and want—from clients? Do clients send you the wrong types of files? Does it takes a long time for clients to sign your contracts? Do you find yourself resending logo or print files for the umpteenth time? Are you embarrassed because clients point out edits you missed? Do you make it easy for clients to say yes? Learn how to improve your processes for a smoother, more enjoyable and efficient workflow for yourself and the client, so they keep coming back.
- Scheduling calls: Calendly, Acuity, Bookafy, Zapier review of the 17 best online scheduling apps
- Calls/meetings: Skype, Zoom, FreeConference.com, FreeConferenceCall.com
- Proposal software: Better Proposals (affiliate link), Proposify, Bidsketch
- E-signature tools: HelloSign, AND CO, Adobe Sign, eSignGenie
- Agency Mavericks (formerly WP Elevation)
- Scheduling/calendars: Google calendar, TeamUp, Airtable
- Invoicing: FreshBooks, Wave, Xero, Fiskl, Quickbooks
- Project management: Pancake (affiliate link), Dubsado (affiliate link), Trello, Plutio, Project Panorama, 17Hats
- Perfect Your Print Process
- Client portal: WP Client, Client Portal, Huddle
- Cloud storage: Dropbox, WeTransfer, HighTail
A lot of designers, unfortunately, lack streamlined processes. After all, we’re creative people, right? But having them in place: sets the tone for the relationship with the client, so that you look professional and as an expert; sets you up for a smoother work process; helps you stay on track with deadlines and invoicing; and sets expectations for the client, so they know what to expect and when, eliminating the potential for confusion and any nagging e-mails.
This all results in a positive experience for your client, and positive experiences lead to good testimonials and reviews, word-of-mouth referrals, and clients coming back again and again with more work.
Now, because sometimes we don’t know what we want until we realize what we don’t want, I’ve got a ton of information for you based on my 21 years of experience. So let’s review a lot of ways you can streamline your processes and create a positive experience for the client—from the first time a prospect or client contacts you all the way through project completion.
Scheduling a Consultation
It can be frustrating getting interrupted by a haphazard phone call while you’re working on something else. If you take the call, that frustration may come across in your tone.
You can remedy this by using a scheduling tool. You can put on your website or in your e-mail signature a link that allows someone to schedule a call with you. This ensures you will have set aside dedicated time to give them your undivided attention.
They should appreciate this because I’m sure they wouldn’t be happy about it if it were their project you were working on when you got interrupted.
Using a scheduling tool also eliminates phone tag and all the back and forth e-mails, or the cc’ing you on their team e-mails, trying to find out who’s available and when.
Pick a tool, set the hours you prefer for calls, send the prospect or client the link, and let them pick a time that’s convenient for them. There are several apps for this:
- a slew of others. (Zapier did a review of the 17 best online scheduling apps.)
The free version of Calendly does enough for my needs, so that’s what I use. The client simply clicks my link, chooses a date and time from my available time slots, and puts in their name and number. They can also select if they prefer a phone or video consult. Then we both get e-mail notifications of the scheduled call and a reminder e-mail later on.
If they opt for a video call, then I’ll use Skype or Zoom (and I provide that information in the scheduler). They both offer free plans, and the prospect or client does not have to turn on their video if they don’t want to. I’ve noticed some of my clients are more camera shy than I am!
Many people are already familiar with Skype, but a client may not have it at their office.
Zoom is easy because you simply send a link. With a free Zoom account, you can have a call with up to 100 participants and hold an unlimited number of meetings. The caveat is there is a 40-minute limit on meetings of more than three people. If you exceed that, you will see an alert pop up, asking if you want to pay to continue. Luckily, it doesn’t seem to just cut you off after 40 minutes.
Making It Easy to Say Yes
Now, when it comes to sending estimates, proposals or contracts, I doubt you’re mailing out paper documents and awaiting signatures via snail mail, but if you’re not using proposal software such as Better Proposals, Proposify, Bidsketch or something else that has e-signature capability, then consider this:
If you are sending clients PDFs of contracts that they have to print out, sign and fax back, or take a pic or scan and e-mail back to you… boy, is that a lot of work you’re asking them to do! That’s not a good way to start things off. You don’t want them to wonder: if just this part is so difficult, what it will actually be like working with this designer?
Make it easy for the client to say yes and start working with you. Run—don’t walk—to your computer to get yourself a modern, professional, easy-to-use e-signature tool. There are several that I recommend depending on your budget and needs.
The first one is HelloSign. Before using Better Proposals, I used HelloSign and it worked well. I had just the free plan, and I would upload PDFs I had created from InDesign and prepare them in HelloSign by adding in fields for signatures, names and dates, then specify who each of those fields was for (me or the client). It didn’t take too long and it did the job.
HelloSign is free for one user to send out three documents a month. They have paid plans to accommodate more users, more templates and unlimited documents.
AND CO is free and allows you to create proposals, estimates and contracts.
Adobe Sign is another option and may be included as part of a Creative Cloud subscription.
eSignGenie allows you to upload your PDF or Word files and provides status notifications. It is $2 per document with a $10 minimum. I tried it out and found it pretty easy to use.
You always want to follow up after that, whether it’s a new prospect or an existing client. I recommend sending a handwritten card thanking them for the opportunity and saying you look forward to working with them. This will really help you stand out because most designers do not do this.
If you did not present the proposal in person, it’s also a good idea to call to say you just sent it (you never know: it could go to their junk folder and they’ll think you just never sent it or are no longer interested), thank them for the opportunity and let them know you are available in case they have questions.
Then, until they sign the agreement, every two to three days (gauge the situation for yourself based on their responses or lack thereof—and you probably won’t get a response and that’s fine), send an e-mail with a link to a helpful article that is relevant to the work, whether it’s one you’ve written on your blog or it’s from another legit source.
For example, if the work is a redesign of a website, send a link to an article that talks about the elements of an effective home page. For a logo redesign, you could send an article about the importance of a good brand or why logo design is so important and shouldn’t be skimped on. Then just say that you hope they find it interesting.
Other ideas could be:
- e-mailing a link to a page on your site or an infographic that talks about your work process or diagrams it out;
- e-mailing a testimonial you got from another client about similar work you did for them (bonus points if the testimonial includes the results you helped to get for that client);
- e-mailing a link to a page showing similar work you did for another client.
Whatever you do, don’t ask if they got the document. It makes you appear needy. You want to provide value—appearing helpful, not waiting with baited breath. They got your e-mail, they see your name, they know they owe you an answer.
By the way, I have to give credit to Troy Dean of WP Elevation for this brilliant method of sending a series of helpful e-mails, which he calls “anti-follow-up.”
Setting a Schedule
In the proposal or estimate stage or some time before starting work, you may need to create a schedule, specifying:
- when the client needs to send content;
- when you will provide first, second and final proofs, or any wireframes, if it’s for a website;
- when the client will provide feedback and edits for each of those proofs,
- when the client will provide final approval.
For print work, you need to account for time for printing (usually 10 days), and, for website work, time for developing, testing, launching and checking the site.
You can set up a schedule to share with the client with any of the following:
There are so many ways to send invoices, but there are tools that make it easier and faster to get paid—and for the client to pay. Personally, I prefer checks in the mail still or bank transfers because there are no fees. But if a client can click a button and pay online while they’re so excited about that estimate or proposal, why should you stop them?
There are several accounting programs out there that allow you to send one-time or recurring invoices:
If you use a full-spectrum project management tool, then you probably won’t need any of these. For example, I send invoices through my project management system, which is Pancake. (I love that it’s only $149 one time, by the way, no recurring costs.) The client will get my customized e-mail with the link to the invoice. They can click a button to pay on my website through Stripe, Paypal or Authorize.net with a bank account or credit card, and they can download the invoice. If do they pay online, Pancake records the payment and any fees associated with it, and I can charge their card for subsequent projects—with their permission, of course.
After getting the signed contract and first payment, it’s time to start work. But first, you need to get the job set up on your computer. I do that and also set up the project in my project management system.
I highly recommend using some kind of consistent naming convention for all your projects. I’ve always had a system where I give every project a unique number plus a name. That way, when I have jobs of the same name—say, an ad I created two years ago and now the client wants to make edits to it—I know which version is the latest one to pick up from because of that unique job number. I can easily search for it on my computer or external drive with archived jobs.
On my hard drive, I have several folders inside a main Projects folder labeled:
- in progress,
- estimates sent,
- to be invoiced,
- waiting for payment,
- archive (for completed jobs, which then get copied to external drives).
I put the numbers in the name so they appear that way in the Projects folder, and I leave the “1. in progress” folder open in that window so I can see all the jobs being worked on at that time.
When I first set this up, I also dragged and dropped each of those folders over to the sidebar of the window so that I could see all of them from any window open on my hard drive.
I then have a folder for every project named with the job number and title and store everything for that particular job in it:
- all administrative-type files, such as estimates, invoices and e-mails, in an “admin” folder;
- files that come from the client in another folder;
- proofs in a “proofs” folder;
- final approved PDF files (for web and print) in a “final” folder.
I drag the individual project folders, as needed, to the folder that corresponds to what stage the project is in at that moment, so I can always see where each job is and what needs to be addressed.
I might have 10 jobs in the “1. in progress” folder and I finish one and it needs to be invoiced. So I drag and drop it from “1. in progress” to “3. to be invoiced.” This also helps me to invoice in a more timely manner. Clients appreciate getting invoices promptly.
So that’s how I organize them on the computer. You could also replicate this setup in Dropbox or whatever cloud storage you might be using.
Then in my project management system, I set up the corresponding project by number and name. The project management system allows for all time on every job to be tracked, whether it’s a flat or hourly rate, and it shows all the invoices, estimates and client info, etc. with every job.
If you think I’ve gone off on a tangent and are wondering what does this all have to do with the client… well, when you’re organized, you can better serve your clients because you can find information and files more easily. When they ask you if they’ve already sent you such and such file for a project, you’re able to easily look for that project, see the corresponding files and respond to the client. If you’re missing any files for a project, you might realize it before the client does and ask for it without waiting to the last minute (which makes you look like you’re on top of things).
Also, if they ask, “Hey, remember that brochure you did two years ago? We need to make edits to it. Do you still have it?” You will know how to find it either by searching your project management system or your project folders on your hard drive. Plus, being an organized designer sets you apart from the majority of other designers, who aren’t.
So that’s my setup. You can organize your projects any way you like. Just make sure it works for you: that you can find projects easily, see what needs to be worked on now or later, know what needs to be invoiced and when, and so on.
I spent months researching and deciding on a project management tool. As I mentioned, I use Pancake, because of all its functionality and automations, and you host it yourself so you don’t have to worry if the developers go out of business, because you’ll still have everything! It’s also really inexpensive.
So if you need help managing your projects and staying on top of things, some others I’ve tried out and recommend are:
- Dubsado, which is full of bells and whistles and automations. It has excellent support and a very active Facebook group.
- Trello, which you could use to show each of your projects on its own card, then move the card to another list as needed based on the status of the project. So the lists would be named whatever the status of the project (“in progress,” “to be invoiced,” “to archive,” etc.), so you could have lists with those names and the projects would each be on their own card and you would drag and drop the card between lists as needed.
- Plutio, which starts at $15/month.
But, you know, I hate those recurring charges.
A few others that I haven’t tried out are:
- Project Panorama, which is a client dashboard and project management plugin for WordPress. A colleague really likes it.
- 17Hats, which is $199/year (so, you’re not paying by the month but by the year). I have some colleagues that like it.
Once you’ve got project folders set up on your hard drive, you’re ready to get and organize content from the client. Content refers to text and images and sometimes other types of files such as PDFs or videos that they might send you.
Here are my recommendations based on clients sending me undesirable file types or from the questions I’ve gotten from clients over the years.
Tell clients how you want them to prepare their text files. Provide some guidelines such as the following (although, unfortunately, only expect that the first one might be adhered to):
- that they have all text edited and proofread first, unless you will be doing the proofreading. Otherwise, if they make major changes to the text later on, you may have to redo the layout, and that will cost them time and money (or, depending on your contract terms, you might end up sucking that up!).
- using styles in Word, especially for long documents, so you can easily distinguish what level a heading should be (top- or second-level, for example) or what should appear in a sidebar or as a pull quote or caption, etc.
- using only a single tab (not 20 in a row!) when aligning text.
- using center alignment, not tabs, to center text.
You also want to tell clients what formats you prefer. For text files, it’s usually .docx, .doc or .txt. You definitely don’t want a PDF to copy text from! That retains line breaks, which you don’t want; it doesn’t allow you to import text into InDesign; and it doesn’t use paragraph or characters styles, like a Word document might (well, here’s hoping, right?). You also probably don’t want a Publisher or PowerPoint file, but maybe you don’t mind that.
If there are any data tables, the client might have them in a spreadsheet, in which case, .xls format would work.
Some clients propose sending you some text to “get you started.” Just say no. I’ve often seen the text change drastically from the first to the second draft, requiring that the entire design be redone.
Do you prefer that the client send all files at one time or as they have them ready? Specify that as well. Personally, I don’t mind getting files piecemeal as long as they are final—meaning edited and proofread.
If clients will be providing any photos, there are several guidelines you can give them.
Permission and Attribution
A lot of clients want to use images found through a Google images search, which is not OK and will open up them—and possibly you (unless you specify otherwise in your contract)—to copyright infringement, which could result in hefty legal fees. So if the client will be providing any images, let them know they should have obtained any necessary permission to use them,
If there any people in a photo, the client should have obtained written consent from them. If they are minors, it is especially important to get consent—from a parent or legal guardian.
Whether it’s a photo you find or that the client provides, find out if any credit line needs to appear.
Not doing these things would not be a good experience for the client. If something were to happen, they would wonder why you never brought it up. You are the expert who knows more about these issues than they do.
Ask clients to obtain the highest resolution and largest dimensions possible. Explain the importance of proper resolution: so that images look crisp and not pixelated at the size they will be used.
If they provide crappy images, ask for better ones. Don’t let them be surprised when they see the final result, which is equally poor.
Ask clients to send images in their native image formats—not embedded in a Word document! So, JPEG, TIFF, EPS, PDF, etc. for print work, and those formats or PNG or GIF for website-related projects.
Ask clients to clearly name any images they make reference to in their text documents, so that you can easily identify each one. It simply isn’t helpful, especially when you have tons of photos that are named “DSC” and a number. Having to go back to the client to ask who’s in what photo, who this is and what this photo is for isn’t fun for you or for them.
If you happen to spot something unusual or questionable in the client’s copy during the layout process, bring it to the client’s attention and ask them about it. They will appreciate the attention to detail. Never change it without telling them though. Despite all my years of experience with proofreading and editing, I have seen a couple of rare situations where a word that seemed definitely incorrect was indeed correct.
If you have a suggestion for a better way to arrange the content, present that idea to them. You’ll be seen as the expert, not an order taker, and they will end up with a better result.
Checking Your Work
Always, always, always, double check your work before presenting it to the client.
- Check that the specs of your document (colors, dimensions, folds, etc.) match any specs you may have been given. If you got print bids based on your work, you want to make sure that your work still matches the print specs because you made changes and now you need to make changes to the print specs.
- If you did some masking in Photoshop, temporarily add a stroke to the mask (I use a bright color so it’s easy to see) and then zoom in to check for any parts you may have missed. You definitely don’t want a client to tell you that you missed a spot!
- Zoom in on images in your proofs to check that points on shapes connect where they should, that elements line up where they should and that nothing overlaps where it shouldn’t.
I got into a lot of detail about setting up and preparing documents properly for printing, so check out episode 3, Perfect Your Print Process, for more information
Presenting Design Comps
There are several ways you can present your initial design proofs:
- in person (which I personally never do);
- a PDF or image file via e-mail (which most designers do);
- InVision, which allows you to upload images and have others comment and reply. A lot of designers use that for websites but you could use that for any kind of design;
- live screenshare with the client on Skype or Zoom or something else;
- a screen recording via Loom that the client can view any time (and you can see when they did).
The screenshare and recording provide a really personal touch. Whichever method you choose, be sure to explain your design approach and how it achieves the client’s need and goals.
When it comes to getting feedback on your designs, how do you prefer to get feedback? For print work and sometimes for websites, I prefer PDFs marked up or with comments. One thing’s for sure: I do not want a new Word document! I doubt you do either.
Whatever process you have, that’s what the client should follow. That’s how you work and that’s how you work most efficiently. So just spell it out.
For instance, I have a page on my website that talks about the do’s and don’ts for providing feedback based on my preferences, so I can send that link to the client if needed. I also explain why I want them a certain way. For example, I tell them it’s more efficient to see the edits where they appear in the layout—and it is. But I’m also saying to myself: “I don’t want to spend time searching for edits in a Word document, even if your changes are tracked, and then having to search for the corresponding text in InDesign.”
Also, it’s super frustrating when multiple contacts working on the same project send you their own separate PDFs or e-mails with changes, only to find that some of them conflict with one another. (I’m getting irritated just thinking about it.) It means you have to spend time going back to all of them and find out which changes are fine to make and which aren’t.
So I always tell the client that there should be one designated point of contact for the project, and that person is responsible for going through any group edits they may have before they come to me. Let them argue about it amongst themselves!
Now, I’ve heard a lot of clients—and their copy editors—complain that they feel the need to babysit a lot of designers because the designers miss some of their edits or comments. This couldn’t be any easier to prevent! If you get a PDF with changes from a client, the first thing you should do after opening it is to open the Comments panel. Then, you can sit there and literally check off each of the comments as you make them in your source file. Then save the PDF file, because if you have to come back to the list of comments later, you know which ones you’ve already addressed. You can easily filter and see the ones you haven’t checked off yet by going to Comments, clicking the filter icon, going to Checked and selecting Unchecked. Easy peezy!
Another thing I do is always leave unchecked anything I need to ask the client about. I can go right back to that PDF and filter by unchecked and then draft my e-mail when I’m ready, with my list of any questions of anything that needs to be addressed.
This is especially helpful when working on large publications.
If the client sends edits in another way, always go through the edits and make sure they’re done before sending a revised proof.
Isn’t it irritating when the client asks you a third time for a vector file of that logo you designed two years ago? As if you have all of their files available at your fingertips at any given point in time, right? Well, what if they could help themselves? If you had a client portal where they could access proofs or final files, they could go get those files themselves.
Some project management tools have a client portal built in, like the one I use. If you just want a client portal, though, there are several other tools that provide this functionality:
- WP Client, which is for use on WordPress websites;
- Client Portal, which integrates with WordPress, you can brand it;
- Huddle: able to be branded.
Of course, there are also cloud storage options such as:
But then you’re limited to space and having to upgrade for more.
Asking for Feedback
Let’s talk about asking for feedback. You do do that, don’t you? Upon completion of a project, ask the client for feedback:
- “How did you find the experience of working with me?”
- “What did I do well?”
- “What did I do not so well?”
Uncomfortable? Scary? Yeah. But the answers will help you improve your process and provide a better client experience to the next client. If you get positive feedback, ask to use it as a testimonial.
When a client pays the final invoice, my project management system sends out an automated e-mail that includes a link to a page on my website with a short form with similar questions and a link to leave a review on Google, if they want to do that too.
I hope you now see how when you have processes that make for a better client experience, it builds trust and confidence with the client, they take you more seriously and perceive you as a professional. You can work more efficiently, you can charge more, you get more referrals and you can have a more successful business.
I want to end by saying that I’m not advising you to run out and get all—or any—of these shiny objects. Just consider how one or more of them could save you time, so you can spend time getting new clients and not messing around as much with administrative tasks that suck up your time; provide convenience for you and your clients; and make you appear more professional—especially if you’re trying to get bigger clients!
I would love to hear what you are doing or what software you might be using to make the experience better for your clients.