How to manage your clients

Two people having coffee in the mountains

After 19 years of running my own web design business, I can honestly say that nothing has contributed more to my success than the time I’ve spent cultivating relationships with my clients.  Making my clients happy throughout the process of working on a project together is always my goal. I want them to walk away from the experience with a good story to tell.  That doesn’t mean I haven’t had failures over the years, but I can honestly say I learned something from every client that I’ve ever had.

Never view your client as someone you just want to build a website for and never see again.  You want to become a trusted friend and an ally to the person that has hired you.  Here are my ten tips for managing your clients in a way that will exceed their expectations.

1 – Trust your gut

When someone reaches out to me for a proposal or quote, the first thing I ask for is a phone call and during that call, I’m doing more listening than talking. When that inquiry comes in, I don’t immediately want the job.  Why? I have to make sure they are a good fit for me.  That fit might be what they want in terms of web design, or how we communicate with each other.  Do they know someone I know?  Did they just find me on Google? Without a conversation, I feel in the dark about how this relationship might go.  After all, my goal is to create a long-term relationship.  After I have screened them with a call, I send a project application for them to fill out. I don’t want to spend time sending a proposal to someone that isn’t a good fit.

2 – Take charge from the beginning

I take the job of web designer seriously in the new client relationship.  And that means that I’m running the process of building the website.  Not the client.  I don’t care if they used to work at Microsoft or have a tech background. I have a detailed process of building a website and want them to know that from the start.  My proposal document includes what I plan to do for their project and also conveys my hours of operation, my scheduling links, and answers frequently asked questions.  I require a call or Zoom to review this document, my estimate, and my 10-page contract.

3 – Set expectations

As I mentioned above, in addition to a 12-14 page proposal, each client gets a 10-page contract to sign (no edits can be made to that contract) and a detailed estimate.  Nothing moves forward without a Zoom or phone document review and a deposit.  If a potential client marks up a bunch of edits to my contract, I tell them they can have an attorney write up a contract for them, but mine is non-negotiable.  This is usually a red flag that it’s not going to be a good fit.  Better to figure that out now, before we sign on the dotted line.

I also include a sample timeline in my proposal that stresses that everything hinges on their ability to send me content. If the content is two weeks late, our dates move out two weeks. I stress this repeatedly in our review.

4 – Give something away

While I’m working on their new website, I stress that our mock-up hosting is being backed up and scanned in my care plan service. I also offer them a free month after the website is launched to evaluate the service. I have nearly a 100% sign-up rate after I changed my pitch and gave that first month up for free.  If the client asks for a small addition to a page, like a testimonial feature or an added social icon, I tell them we can fit that in our original scope of work.  The key here is that I’m talking SMALL changes.  Large changes can be accommodated but require a new estimate.

5 – Over-communicate

I have Jennifer Bourn to thank for this tip.  If you are a designer and you are looking for training on how to run your business, Profitable Project Plan was the best training I’ve ever done.  I have over 80 emails prewritten that guide, my clients, through the 9-11 week process of building their website.  Jennifer’s training gives you fully written emails, but the true magic happens when you put them in your own voice and match them to your own process.  I use MixMax to schedule the emails and only do one week at a time.  This prevents an email from going out before it should and allows me to review things as we proceed.

I also send out a monthly newsletter to all clients.  This is how I communicate my vacations, share blog posts, and any information I feel they need to know.

6 – Don’t be too available

When you are first starting your business, the need to make your clients happy is the first thing on your mind.  But, if you aren’t careful, making your clients happy can make you miserable.  I was so overwhelmed at one point in my career, that I had 44 projects going at once and I cried myself to sleep every night.  I couldn’t say no to anyone.  Now,  I’m very disciplined when it comes to setting my own hours and keeping to those hours.  If I choose to work on the weekend, my client should never know.  Here are a few things I recommend you do to manage your time

  • Put your working hours in your email signature
  • Set an “out of office” message every single weekend – you are closed.
  • Ask clients to only text you if their website is down.  Never for regular requests.
  • Get a scheduling system like Calendly in place and block out hours for meetings (NOT EVERY DAY). I’m only available for meetings 8.5 hours each week. Of course, I keep a couple of hours open for emergency meetings, but a client can’t book that time without me.
  • If you work on the weekend, schedule emails to update your clients on MONDAY after 10 am.  It’s a mixed message to say you’re out of the office but email a client on Saturday morning.
  • If a client repeatedly asks for things during off-hours or with little turnaround time, schedule a meeting with them.  Explain how much time you need.  It could be that they just don’t know.

7 – Be personal

My client newsletter is not just all business.  It has updated my clients on the well-being of my parents for several years.  I travel to California often to see them.  Previously, I made the trip to cook for them.  Now, they are both living in separate care facilities.  My Dad has lymphoma at age 91 and my Mom has dementia at age 85.  Why do I tell my clients about my parents?  Because it’s a huge part of my life. Because I want them to be ready for me to say, “I’m heading to California to be with my Dad” for his last days.  I want them to know I’m a human, not a computer.  Recently, I had unexpected surgery and shared this with all my clients.  It’s good to let them know when you have life happening.  It happens to all of us.  Don’t be afraid to humanize yourself to your clients.

8 – Offer ongoing service

My client relationships deepened when I started offering care plans.  In 2015, I watched a free webinar from Troy Dean on WordPress care plans.  I hired a marketing maven to help me figure it all out and six years later, I’m managing over 150 websites every month for my clients.  I use GoDaddy Pro to accomplish this.  ProSites (aka ManageWP) is my single most important tool as a business owner.  While it gives me one dashboard to access all my client’s websites, it also is giving me a monthly report to send to my clients every month.  This communication tool helps me stay in touch and lets the client know that I’m always looking out for their website.  My clients have started calling it “Cami Care” and routinely tell me how much they appreciate that I have an eye on their website and they don’t have to.  Before I started this part of my business, my clients had no idea how much work was needed to maintain their website.

9 – Check-in with clients

This is going to sound really weird, but sometimes I’ll have a random thought about a client.  It might be that I’m just wondering about them personally, or maybe I know they could use a feature they don’t have, or it’s been years since I heard from them.  This is a fabulous time to send them a card, or an email.  I tend to like to send a card and a $5 gift card to Starbucks.  It’s a personal note, not a sales pitch.  This honest connection can do more for your business than any advertising campaign.  You’ve already been through the screening process and worked with this person.  Make sure they know you are still there for them.

Using a CRM is a great way to track how often you communicate with your clients.  I recommend STREAK and INSIGHTLY.   A Google sheet can do the trick, too.

10 – Know when to fold em’

Do you ever think back to high school and that crush you had?  The one you couldn’t get over and spent hours brooding about in your room while you listened to Joan Jett sing directly to you? (totally fictional example) – And now, you want to go back and tell yourself, OMG, DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME ON THIS.  They are so not your type!  Move on!  Well, this is true for clients.  If you have a very tough time working with a person, it’s okay to pass on working with them again. I learned this one the hard way. I said yes a second time to someone I knew I should say no to.  We didn’t click and every single exchange was difficult.  The “nice” person in me just had to make it work. But it didn’t.  And it was a frustrating experience.  Don’t force anything.  When a window closes a door opens.

Managing your clients has a lot of working pieces. It’s managing expectations, time, and money. It’s staying true to who you are and exerting your power.  The best thing about being a freelancer is being your own boss.  Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

RESOURCES: How To Build Rapport With Your Web Design Clients

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Cami MacNamara

Cami MacNamara has been designing websites since 2002 from her home office in Seattle, Washington. Cami has designed 500+ websites, manages over 200 sites in her care plans, and wants to share what she learned along the way. Look for her at WordCamp Seattle. / Twitter / Instagram
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