Knowing about all the different types of clients is an important factor in deciding the kind of consultancy you want to run. Some super fun clients have terribly boring projects. Some super boring clients have incredibly fun projects. You need to choose the client and the project that brings you the most money and the most enjoyment.
You also need to know how to handle clients based on their general interests, buying habits and characteristics. Like most companies, when LessEverything started taking clients, Allan and Steve had no money and did practically anything they could to get money flowing; in fact, Steve spent one summer being a Vegas showgirl just to keep the company afloat (not only was he hot, but they also got a lot of “clients” that way).
“I wish we had been more picky about the opportunities we took. The opportunity cost of working on projects you don’t enjoy is very high. If you’re a designer, your time may be better spent contributing to open-source projects, blogging and doing things that help you get your ideal projects.”
We put clients in two categories: the ones who listen to you (those who really want your expertise in more than just code/design) and the ones who don’t. The latter group can be further broken down into: those who make you think they’ll listen and those who don’t. You’ll have to figure out why clients are hiring you. Most clients will hire you for your knowledge and expertise, but maybe it’s just because you’re in the same city, or because you have experience in their industry, or perhaps you’ve built the type of features they needed before. It might be simply because you’re the cheapest. Whatever the reason, it will be easier in the long-run if you figure it out and accept clients with similar motivations. Once you know why they are hiring you, you can decide if you want to continue with these types of clients/ projects and enhance the aspects they are looking for. You might decide that you want to attract different types of clients and change your company to exude different characteristics and, hopefully, change why people are hiring you.
These are people who give very little information about their requirements and are just looking for the cheapest price. They’re usually the hardest to work with because they don’t want you unless you want to be cheap. They want you to work for below market norms, and then they don’t understand why you didn’t create the Taj Mahal of websites for them. LessEverything took a few of these projects to get started, but the last thing you want is to build your entire business on these types. Rarely do these turn into great experiences. Usually the client doesn’t listen or only acts like they’re listening because they really feel that any developer or designer is the same as the next. They just want the best price. These people tend to drive Yugos because it’s basically the same car as a Mercedes. And no, they’ve never actually driven a Mercedes.
This is someone with an “amazing idea”, but no clue about the market, the competition, etc. You’ll quickly realize that these people can easily be taken advantage of--but don’t do it. Be kind. Spending a few extra minutes on the phone talking through these individuals’ ideas and showing them similar ideas already in play is actually quite helpful. Help them make their product more unique by giving them a few pointers on research.
Most often, this helps turn them into educated clients who will listen to you and heed your opinions. Because they start off with such ignorance, these types don’t know how much work goes into completing a project, and they usually have small budgets. With some time and education (provided by you), some of them will obtain funds and increase their budget to something viable.
These clients--the ones that need hand holding--can end up being your bread and butter. It takes a bit longer to teach them the right ways to build a web app and familiarize their expectations of cost, but they often can become clients with whom you have long, fruitful relationships. Years after the project is over, you can still enjoy lunch with these people and probably even receive referrals from them.
This is the guy who’s got it all figured out. He’s got a business plan, and he knows how to market. He spits numbers and projections at you. He uses every buzz word he can think of, and he makes your skin crawl. This is a person that “knows everything.” Only work with this guy if he gives you the feeling that he acknowledges your expertise. He will probably listen to you and give you the feeling that he really respects your opinions, but then (most likely), he will ignore everything you say. If you’re good at what you do (which you should be), you need to steer this ship. He will make the final decision, but it should be heavily-weighted on you.
“The educated buzz word dropper” can be a very frustrating type to work with. LessEverything has only ever fired one client, and they were this type. They had a great personality and listened very intently, but they never really considered or took any ideas. They knew everything, so eventually, Allan and Steve stopped giving advice and just did what the client said. The relationship went downhill from there.
This is the client who calls the first time and says, “Hey, Allan! How’s the weather in Florida? I hope your son is doing well. How’s your wife, Anna, doing with her second pregnancy?” The conversation is not only engaging, but it’s also sort of a creepy stroke on your ego. They know you.They’ve researched you. It’s cool. It’s flattering. It’s not a horrible thing (unless they know whether you wear boxers or briefs). These are usually the clients you want. They want to listen, they want your opinion, and they want you to flex your creative muscles. If you have to bend on price, bend on price with them. They’ll usually be so happy with you that they’ll give you referrals just to tell people they got to work with you. Whenever a client lets you do what you want, that’s a win for you, but you have to be careful not to take advantage. You are building something for them. This is not the time to write that awesome plug-in you’ve been wanting to release to open-source for the purpose of gaining fame. Focus on their needs and how you can help them.
AVOID projects that require an RFP. When Allan first started freelancing, he would respond to RFPs and spend many hours diligently working for the potential client. This was always a waste of time. He never got even one job from an RFP. Often, the client has already unofficially selected a service provider, but they’re being required by a board of directors or a supervisory committee to get several proposal submissions anyway. Avoid this time suck. Your time is much better spent doing something else. The client you’d gain from this RFP has deep pockets. You’d be working with a system whose gatekeepers won’t accept your most creative self. They’ll tear your work down until it’s something you’re not proud of. They’ll flood you with documentation, meetings and politics. While Allan never won an RFP bid, he did work with a lot of large corporations. That work always ended up just circling around various departments and never saw the light of day.
“Because these types have spent so much time thinking about what they want, they’ve added every feature to the RFP that you can possibly imagine and probably have used language that will limit how things are implemented, how pages are structured, how things are navigated, etc. In the end, you may have a big-name website you can point to, but it will likely be an unusable piece of crap that you’re not proud of. ‘Look what I built for the U.N.!’ you’ll say and then spend the rest of the conversation saying, ‘I know, I know, but that’s what they wanted.’”
You’ve narrowed down the types of clients that you want to stay away from and the type of business that you want to build. Now, close your eyes and picture the perfect project for you. What type of business is this project for? What kind of projects do they want you to take on? Perhaps you’ve already had an awesome client/project experience. What about them did you like? Was it the creative freedom they gave you? Maybe it was the fact that they wanted detailed progress reports and maybe you need that kind of structure. Was it the client/management process you had with them? Do you like clients that require a daily progress call? Is there an industry you enjoy working in?
Decide now how you’re going to locate and target your ideal client. Pinpoint what they’re looking for and how you can can be the go-to source for them. Figure out what they’re noticing when they browse your portfolio. Learn what they need to read/see on your website to before they decide to call you. Find out what their trigger is.
When Allan was a freelancer, he wanted clients that gave him complete creative freedom. He worked best when they’d have a phone call every other day, and the work he enjoyed the most was conceptualizing web interfaces. These clients were paying for an opinion, and they needed to see that he could speak his mind about the proper way to design an interface.
“I wanted a client that liked to joke around. I scattered my sense of humor all over my site. That was my filter. People would only contact me if they thought I was funny.”
The story you tell, the website you design, the copy you add to that website, the way you talk on the phone, etc... will attract a certain type of project and client. One strategy that has worked well for LessEverything is filtering clients by basically trying to make them go away.This is how you begin to only attract those extremely valuable clients that have been through the gauntlet and have truly sought you out. After that, it’s all about learning when to say “no” to projects or clients as your workload gets too big to handle. In the first email reply, the company will ask the potential client about their budget and launch date. During the first phone call, the company will reveal that they’re very expensive. Besides whittling down the list of people who are constantly in pursuit of LessEverything’s help, it sets up an interesting psychology regarding who is being wooed, and it makes it easier to close deals later in the sales process.
The sales process of building web products for clients is literally this: flip the conversation on its head. They need you. Tell them that. They need your experience and talent. You’re not being a dick; you’re being honest. The client needs to feel you’re confident enough to take their $$ and turn it into a business.
An important thing to understand is that other web shops are trying to sell the same projects you are. It’s important to identify their sales tactic and then find a way to convince those clients to believe in you instead.
Allan and Steve have worked on over 100 Rails applications and are listed in the top 100 at working with Rails. People often ask, “Why Rails?” The answer Allan and Steve give is that the language used on the project isn’t what will make or break it; the right people will. You can pick a horrible Rails team or a terrific PHP team. You are most likely to have a successful outcome if you choose the people you want to work with and use whatever technology they prefer.
This type of interaction forces the client to trust you and your opinion of the right technology.
“In some conversations, we’ll point out to prospective clients that they themselves are unable to judge good code, so they’re putting a lot trust in the team they pick. They’re judging the development team by reputation, conversation and vibe. Acknowledging this will build further trust in your relationship.”
Some shops will insist on doing a story-carding phase which is usually a 40-hour project and involves 2-4 weeks of project documentation-writing. Does this amount of documentation-writing time sound crazy to you? You’re right. It’s insanity. You should be able to write documentation for a 2-4 week project in less than eight hours time (if you want to charge for this time, it’s up to you). When up against story card companies, point out to clients that most companies ask to be paid for 40 hours of documentation-writing time (equalling to about $5,000). Suggest that you and the client spend an hour writing documentation on Google Docs and see how far you get. You can probably write the whole document in that amount of time. If it really takes you 40 hours to write documentation, you’re either Forrest Gump or your writing style is too formal/wordy. Only spend time like this with a client if you know a general amount they want to spend, they have the money, and they can pull the trigger on the project. Avoid spending hours and hours of free time helping clients who are still seeking funding.
Use your hourly/project rate to throttle your client workload. If you’re simply too busy, tell the client you can’t start for X amount of weeks or perhaps raise your rate 1.5x. Make it worth your while to miss those nights of sleep. If you need work, discount your services in order to land a client.
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