Ever wondered why some clients get mad or frustrated despite you delivering awesome results for them? Sometimes clients might not even tell you. You could get to the end of a project, thinking everything went swimmingly. But when someone asks your client how it went, they’ll complain that they felt out of the loop, or aren’t even sure what they paid you to do. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s a story that’s way too common among freelancers and agencies. I recently received an email from a friend that said:
"My biggest gripe is the "I don’t understand" email. It often comes after a change beyond your control (from Google or Facebook), or an invoice that they weren’t expecting or thought would be lower. Or when you build a website, and they haven’t touched it in 2 years, and suddenly something breaks. The client apparently doesn't understand why they should pay us to fix it."
While the external factors are hard to control, all of these situations come down to some kind of breakdown in communication. Even if you’re reading this thinking that you’d never get yourself into the same position as my friend, there are almost definitely some times when you could improve the way you communicate with clients. Better communication can make or break a project. So let’s dig into some simple methods and tools to improve communication with your clients:
The weekly summary email
This is by far my favorite “fix” to just about every communication problem. It’s so simple and so effective. If you implement just one thing from this post, this should be it.
When you’re starting out on a project for a client, there is loads going on. Whether it’s just you alone or you have a team, there’s research, design, planning, and all kinds of things that form the early stages of a project. This could take a few weeks in some cases.
Consider this from your client’s point of view: They’ve just paid you a wad of cash for the deposit and then haven’t heard from you for 2 weeks. Even if you’re waiting on them for feedback, that’s not a good look. If you are waiting, they probably forgot anyway. A super simple fix is to send a weekly summary email to every single client that you’re currently working with. In it, you say:
- What we worked on this week
- What we’re working on next week
- What we’re waiting on from you
That’s all there is to it. Block out some time every Friday morning (or whenever works best for you), go through every active client and send this email. It keeps them in the loop and reminds them if they need to send you some content or approve a design. Make this a habit, and project going south because of bad client communication will be a thing of the past.
Make this a habit, and projects going south because of bad client communication will be a thing of the past.
Adding in a touch of automation
Writing an email like this to every client can be tedious. So here are a few ways you can make it easier on yourself:
this amazing productivity tool creates keyboard shortcuts for blocks of text. For example, your standard weekly email could follow a framework that you load into TextExpander. You just fill in some blanks and send it away.
If your project management system can give you a summary of each task ticked off for a client that week, you can paste it right into the email. If not, you can use a tool like Digest by Zapier to create a summary email.
If your projects follow a similar structure for the first couple of weeks, you can send generic update emails via an automation tool. For example, a few days after they sign their proposal, it could automatically send an email saying “At this point, we’re working on researching your competitors”, or whatever it is that you would be doing.
Briefing & Client Discovery
A creative brief is just about one of the most powerful communication tools available to a digital agency or freelancer. No other tool will get your clients saying “My agency totally gets what we do.” like a streamlined discovery including a creative brief.
By definition, it requires you to communicate a ton with your client. Whether that is over Zooms, email, or directly into Holabrief, it’s going to come across as looking very good to your client.
If you use Holabrief, you’ll be assigning strategic exercises to your client. They might complete those with you or someone on their own team, but either way, it’s going to feel like they are more engaged in the discovery process. That’s positive no matter what way you look at it. Of course, if you’re waiting on them for parts of the brief, include that in your weekly email. To learn more about creating effective briefs, listen to this podcast interview with Holabrief’s founder Leticia Rita.
Collecting assets, content, and information
Waiting on clients for information is often described as one of the biggest roadblocks among agencies that I speak to. It often leads to delays in delivery, delays in getting paid, or complete stalling of the project. It can seem like they’re just trying to be difficult, but often they just forget you’re waiting on them. After all, they are busy too, and things tend to get missed. It’s also quite a big task for clients to provide you with a lot of information. Big (or hard) tasks tend to get put to the bottom of the pile.
Because they’re busy, it’s hard to find the time to provide everything you need. When they do find a bit of time, if they are in a rush, they’ll just dump everything on you by whatever means possible and leave it for you to clean up. On your end, that looks like a barrage of 25 emails - each with one image attached. I know you’ve been there. We all have. If you make it easy for clients to provide what you need, and remind them periodically, it goes a long way. Let’s look at a few ways to do that:
Option 1: Content Snare
There's a little bias here for sure since I’m one of the founders of Content Snare. But this is a purpose-built tool for agencies to collect information and content from their clients. Think of it as a forms tool, with some key differences:
- Everything your clients add is saved immediately, so they don’t lose anything, and you don’t have to wait until they finish everything before you can get started.
- It sends automatic reminders so you don’t spend weeks chasing them.
As a bonus, you don’t have to feel bad for sending yet another reminder. Whether you’re collecting content, files, or just general client info, you can keep it all together inside Content Snare. It’s also incredibly easy for your clients to use.
Option 2: Document templates + online folders
If you ask for content by sharing documents with your clients, make sure you provide some kind of template. If your clients are staring at a blank page, they’ll get stuck immediately.
Documents should have guidance on what you need and have dedicated areas for your client to fill out. You can achieve this by adding 1x1 tables, which effectively look like text boxes for them to type into.
If you’re using Google Docs, or other online documents, you’ll get the benefit of auto-saving so clients don’t lose work. However you’ll still need to send reminders (hint: the weekly summary email), and a link to online storage (e.g. Dropbox) to gather files.
Make it very clear what kind of files you want and what folder they should go in, otherwise, your folders will end up becoming a mess that you’ll have to deal with later.
Option 3: Forms
For small amounts of information, standard forms tools can work. As a rule of thumb, a form is OK when you can reasonably expect your client to be able to fill it out in one 10-minute sitting. Forms are great for initial (short) questionnaires or feedback. You can often use integrations to push that information into other tools, like your CRM or project management.
They fall down if you’re asking questions that need a lot of thought, or if you’re asking for files that your client will need to track down. In these cases, it’s common for your client to forget, accidentally close the window and lose the work they’ve already done.
Design feedback and approvals
Once you’ve finalized a design and sent it over to your client, there are few things more stressful than waiting to hear what your client has to say. The most important part of getting good design feedback is everything that happens before you even send the designs over.
By this point of the project, both you and your client should have a pretty good idea of the project goals and, to an extent, even what it might look like. That’s the purpose of the brief or “discovery” phase of the project, and it’s so very important to get right. If you haven’t built a solid creative brief, then there is a high chance of issues arising during the feedback stage. By now they should also trust that you know what you are doing, and respect you as a designer. This is a whole other topic in itself. This respect is built through social proof before they even signed on with you, and through the initial briefing & client education process.
If you find that clients are blasting you with all kinds of minute details during design feedback, then something has probably gone wrong during client education. That said, you still want to make it easy for your clients to give you feedback. There are a few ways you can do that, and it’s a polarizing topic. What you choose will ultimately be the one that gels with you and your clients the most.
Option 1: Point-and-click design feedback tools
There are many tools that allow you to upload an image or live website for feedback. They allow clients to click anywhere and leave a comment on the design. These include Adobe XD, Red Pen, and the WordPress-based Project Huddle.
The benefit of these is that they are super easy for clients to use. Just about anyone can understand how to click anywhere and begin typing what they think. The downside is that they are almost too easy and open. Clients can run amok on your design, clicking everywhere and leaving comments. This creates a lot of work, sometimes unnecessarily.
Option 2: Simple dot-point email
One of the largest agencies I personally know resorts to the oldest, simplest way to get design feedback. They request a “dot point list” of all the things that a client would like changed, or thoughts they have about the design. This can make it difficult for clients to explain what part of the design they are talking about. But on the plus side, it often encourages them to put more thought into each item.
This final section isn’t specific to any part of the design process. It applies to your entire business, and it’s an important habit to build. How often do you send an email to someone and realize a month later that you never got a reply?
If you don’t have a system in place to follow-up with people, your answer is probably going to be often. So many potential new clients, partnerships and other business opportunities never come to fruition simply because someone forgot to reply. It’s easy to miss an email here or there, no matter how important it is. To avoid this, you simply need a system of reminding yourself when someone doesn’t reply to an email.
I use Superhuman, which is a Gmail client. Another great tool is Follow Up Then, which works with any email client from any device. There is also Boomerang for Gmail. The tool doesn’t matter so much as just having something in place, and using it every time you send an important email, like:
- Sending a proposal
- Requesting information from a client
- Asking for design feedback
- Pitching to be on a podcast
Personally, every time I expect an answer to something, I set a reminder to follow up if I don’t get a reply. It’s helped me create partnerships, land more clients, and get referrals. It will do the same for you.
One of the biggest issues that people I talk to have with agencies is their communication. Whether it’s not being kept in the loop, not understanding the process, or never hearing back at all (which is strangely common), it results in a sour experience for the client.
Based on the complaints I hear, it’s not an exaggeration to say that good client communication has the potential to make or break your entire business. In this post, you’ve learned some ways you can:
- Educate clients
- Keep them in the loop
- Collect information from them faster
I hope this has helped identify some ways you can improve your communication. If so, send me a tweet!