You gave your client a rough proposal and they said yes. You want to show your enthusiasm and start working right away - but that’s not such a good idea.
First, you need to flesh out the project scope, agree on how you’ll be working together, work out a payment schedule, and sign a contract - and then you can start working. It’s important to set up ground rules from the start if you don’t want to spend the rest of the project extinguishing fires.
Before for the Meeting
After a client hires you, find out everything you can about them. You already know a lot from what you discovered during the business development phase. Now, delve deeper and focus on how you can solve their problems.
Use your previous work experience to generate some ideas. Think of similar businesses that you helped, brush up on them, and have them in mind so you can offer examples on the fly during the meeting. In the client’s mind, previous success translates to future success. Show them you know exactly how to get them from point A to point B.
You’re running the show and you want the client to trust your judgement - after all, they hired you because of your experience. By establishing yourself as the expert, you’re setting up the tone for the rest of the project, and ultimately the final presentation. This is the best way to prevent the client from hijacking your work in a pang of panic or distrust.
Write a short meeting agenda on a piece of paper in bullet points so you don’t ramble randomly while forgetting the important parts. Your agenda should cover the getting to know each other phase, defining the collaboration process, project scope, finance, and legal. Don’t worry if the conversation takes it’s own course - let it flow but make sure you’ve covered all the bases and crossed off each item.
Before the meeting, ask the client to send you a standard contract beforehand (if they have one) so you can go through it and see what works for you and what doesn’t. The bigger the client, the more likely they’ll have their own legal department, and the more compromises you’ll have to make. This way, you’ll come prepared and settle on an agreement faster.
Note that you don’t need a detailed project plan before the meeting. In fact, it’s detrimental. The plan will be more accurate and emerge naturally once you sit down and talk it out. You can’t afford to plan every detail only to hear the client doesn’t have enough resources, had different dates in mind, or decides on more/less work. Have a general plan in mind, including the milestones and dates, but keep it flexible so you can tailor it to the client’s needs on the go.
You also don’t want to arrive to the meeting with sketches, mood boards, mockups, or preliminary user research. First, you can’t do any of that before you don’t fully understand project goals. Second, the client didn’t have a chance to be consulted, thus making the pitch look like you’re not flexible. And last, you weren’t paid for anything yet except for coming to the meeting.
Don’t start the kickoff meeting before the client pays you the commencement fee. If they’re serious about collaborating with you, they need to understand you don’t work for free, no matter how enthusiastic you are. It’s about trust, risk mitigation, and gaining leverage. If you’re dealing with a big organization or a government institution, you don’t have to be so strict because it puts an undue burden on the client with a complicated bureaucracy. In that case, wait until the payment has been processed.
Starting the The Kickoff Meeting
Every project officially starts with a kickoff meeting. It’s best to meet the client in person because communication is more natural and fluid. But if you’re working for a client that’s far away, Skype is usually the norm. In that case:
- check if your headphones and camera work 30 minutes before the call,
- dress up and smile even if you’re at your office and the camera is off,
- find a quiet room you know no one will enter and put an intimidating “do not disturb” sign on the door.
Start the meeting by expressing enthusiasm and thanking the client for choosing you. Tell them a bit about yourselves and present your team like they’re superstars in their respective fields. Highlight what each team member does and share a story that highlights their talent. Clients are looking for reassurance - the fact that it comes from you doesn’t matter much. It’ll subconsciously reinforce their trust and help them rationalize their choice because they want you to succeed. If you succeed, they succeed.
Then let clients introduce themselves and their team. You should know everything about them before the meeting, but be polite and let them talk. Let them know how you’re going to need their help and can’t wait to work together. Note who’s responsible for what and make sure they feel acknowledged by asking for their contact information - even if you think you won’t need to consult them later. You want them to be excited to work with you, knowing their contribution is appreciated.
Start the project discussion with the client’s goals. Ask them what they want to achieve with the project, what they’ve done so far, and what they expect from you. Write down the exact words they use and how they phrase the problem - you can reuse those exact word when you present your work. Remember that the first meeting is all about listening (and the final meeting is all about talking).
Big companies usually have a huge list of clearly defined goals and know exactly what they want. They probably use KPIs to measure them and have forecasts for each quarter. Smaller companies usually have a vaguer notion what they need because they’re busy running the business, so you’ll have to fill in the blanks and talk about their goals for them. This is a good time to mention your experience, and show you know exactly what they need and how to get there.
Business goals are pretty much the same across all industry types so if you worked on one e-commerce website, you’ll already know they want to maximize number of sales and make purchases easy. In that case, you don’t need to focus on getting newsletter subscribers or worry about ad placement, like you would when designing a blog or a web magazine. If you brushed up on your previous projects, you’ll nail this.
Ask the client about their company structure and available resources. You want to make sure they can maintain your work once you leave. You don’t want to end give your client a website that needs four full-time Ruby developers just to keep it going. You want to show the client you’re thinking about the project’s long-term sustainability and feasibility.
This will also help you know whether to include training and other services in the final estimate. You need to discuss the need for future work (like bug fixing, maintenance, training and education), and if they’ll keep you on a retainer.
Agreeing on Collaboration Process
To avoid agonizing over why the client is calling you at 1AM or wants you to redo your work for the fifth time, always agree on the collaboration process beforehand, namely:
how often you’ll communicate, who contacts whom and when, how and when feedback is given who’s in charge of the review, and the number of reworks (and cost).
You can talk about your workflow and methodology, but it’s too much information for them. They pay you for the final product and fulfilling their goals - talking about how you do sprints on a Kanban board doesn’t contribute to that.
But they need to know what you expect from them. So for example, if you have To-Do, In Progress, and Review project phases, they need to know when you expect from them to provide feedback or reply to notifications where they’re @mentioned.
Investigate how much they want to be involved and how willing they are to collaborate using a project management tool. Then you can propose to either:
- invite them to ActiveCollab, let them see everything, and track your work, time logs, and budget
- communicate on an as-need-to-know basis via email and meetings/calls after each milestone.
ActiveCollab was made to ease collaboration so there’s no separate client-side. This means clients can see everything you’re working on and what they pay for. When you invite a client to the project, they’ll be able to see tasks you’re working on, comments, notes, discussions, and time records and expenses. Each item can be hidden from a client.
Use hiding with caution, though. When a client opens the project, they’ll be unsettled by emptiness. This is not the image you want to send.
By opening up your project and letting clients catch a glimpse of the process shows them you’re a hard-working professional. You’ll also spend less time debriefing because they can track progress themselves. When you involve a client early and give unrestricted access, it gives them a sense of ownership and helps them champion the work to the company’s employees and management.
The main concern with this level of transparency is that clients will judge your work while it’s unfinished and jump to conclusions. And it’s a valid concern. If you make a mobile app that works perfectly but the design isn’t polished, the client will latch onto the color scheme and won’t be able to appreciate the complexity behind the app - all they’ll think about is how ugly it looks.
This is mainly a client management issue and a project leader’s job. The above problem can be solved using sketches. They don’t look anything like the final product but they can serve to illustrate the functionality without distracting your client with other things. You need to constantly work on managing client expectations by being clear that it’s still work-in-progress.
The number one reason why projects fail is untimely communication. By opening up the project, you’re letting your client see work in progress and raise red flags if they don’t like something. It’s a check-up mechanism that helps you avoid false starts so you don’t have to backtrack and extend deadlines. Sure, you’ll have to spend more time and energy talking to the client to ensure they don’t make wrong conclusions about the unfinished work - but you also lower the risk of losing a ton of time and money. The earlier you catch the mistake, the less it’ll cost you.
Know all the key players and decision makers in the project so you can identify who has authority over the project. You need to involve those people early on, get their buy-in, and remove any roadblocks and reservations they might have - or risk them holding a grudge and backlash. This is especially true if their field of expertise overlaps with yours. For example, if you’re a design agency, make sure you to make their in-house your ally: they can provide tremendous insight or hinder you every step of the way.
Ask for the client’s activity timeline. You want to know how much attention they’ll be able to give you and when they’re be busy. This includes vacations, company events, and each department’s peak activity. You can later use this calendar to know the best time for contacting the client so you get their full attention. The last thing you want to do is schedule a presentation during their peak season when they’re stressed out and have other worries on their mind.
Finally, agree on the ground rules, like what are the off-hours when you don’t work and can’t reply. You don’t want to let the client think they own you and your time and that you must drop everything the moment they need you.
Defining the Project Scope
This is a good opportunity to talk about milestones and deadlines because that’s when you’re officially presenting your work and asking for feedback. This part overlaps with payment talk because the client will want to know the costs, how much time you’ll spend on it, and the timeline.
But defining project scope can be overwhelming for the client. There’s a lot of new information to take in, and they can get bored and lose the big picture. So be brief. Outline all the steps and describe how each contributes to their goal. Always keep in mind that the point of the meeting is to see what the client needs, bond, and agree on the timeline and the budget - getting into the nitty-gritties is overkill at this stage.
You can start the talk by iterating the agreed estimate, going over it once again, and clarifying each item. Outline the project phases, deliverables, time estimates, and show how each phase contributes to the final product and how it impacts the company’s goal.
First, decide what features the client needs and when. Then calculate how fast you can deliver them, how many man-hours you’re going to need, identify whether you have the resources to do it, and if you’ll need outside contractors. Then negotiate.
Focus on fulfilling the client’s goals and let the price be an afterthought. You don’t need to constantly bring it out unless you sense that the client is extremely price-sensitive. But if they use you for hand work, keep them updated about your hourly rates so they don’t get surprised when they get a huge bll. If you do great work, better than the most, don’t advertise your affordable pricing. Decide what your competitive advantage is and focus on that during the meeting.
If the client asks you for a guarantee that your work will improve their business, ask them to add an incentive clause to the contract and pay extra if you hit the goals. They’ll move to the next subject before you finish the thought.
When talking about the scope, have a checklist with you because you’re sure to forget something during the meeting.
Once you know everything that needs to be done, outline all the project steps and indicate where and when you need the client and what their responsibilities are. There are some services they may not even be aware they need - like content migration or accessibility compliance - this helps discover them and agree on whether they’ll handle it themselves or hire you.
The project scope will change during the project, but if you do the project kickoff right, it shouldn’t deviate much. But even if it does, it can a good thing. If you get more work and the client is happy, it just means you’re great at collaboration.
Other posts in the series on Managing Digital Projects
- Part 1: How to manage client proposals
- Part 2: How to make your client kickoff meeting a success
- Part 3: How to make sure you get paid (legal & finance)
- Part 4: The huge shift in how we manage projects
- Part 5: What's a project manager's actual job
- Part 6: A practical guide to project planning
- Part 7: Keeping projects on the right track
- Part 8: Getting things done, both together and on your own
- Part 9: How to work with clients
- Part 10: Time tracking for busy people
- Part 11: A practical guide to invoicing and billing work
- Part 12: The future beyond projects, clients, and deadlines
- DOWNLOAD THE WHOLE GUIDE (PDF)
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