There’s no shortage of examples when it comes to lack of accountability and dependability within the industry. I decided to just pick one that I feel many of you may already be facing (or soon will face) as you begin to work with your own clients or on your own projects. The example I want to share with you is about holding your client accountable on a project. From billing to completion. I also want to touch on dependability as a designer and what it means for your business.
Early on in my career while working with clients at either a small boutique design firm, global firm, and even with my own clients, accountability and dependability always seemed to be the root of many issues. I chalked this up to just working in the industry. However, I found that I could solve many of these issues by getting serious about managing my clients. Like many of you, I too struggled with holding my clients accountable. I always felt like projects where never really getting completed, or they were launching way past deadline with a stack of overdue invoices that I felt like I could do nothing about. After a continuous pattern of this, I knew that if I was ever going to make a real living as a freelancer, I needed to develop a better way to hold my clients and myself accountable right from the very beginning. I personally had no issue with delivering on my end. In fact I’m often guilty of over delivering. However, if I wanted to ensure that my clients respected my time and saw the value in my work, I needed to set the appropriate tone right from the very beginning of the project. After losing a great deal of money and feeling like I was constantly reacting to my clients agenda, I decided a change was in order. I immediately started with the billing of my projects. Here’s what I did.
Instead of allowing my clients to pay me once the project was done, I started to require them to pay me 30% of the entire project up front. This was also non-refundable. By making that simple change, it ensured that I got paid at least something even if the project fell through due to reasons outside of my control. This change also created upfront cash flow for me so that I could hire contractors if I needed to. Perhaps the biggest benefit was that it established a clear start date for the project. Without any question everyone who is a part of the project knows that the project won’t begin until the initial deposit hits the bank. Another added benefit to that approach was that I noticed my clients becoming more involved early on because they were now monetarily invested in working on the project with me. It’s a small change that went a long way to providing the right tone of holding my clients accountable though the entire project.
Asking for that initial deposit showed my clients that I was serious about how my business is run. They weren’t just working with any freelancer, but a freelancer who understood that his time is money and that he should get paid for it. Sure, some thought it was strange, but if they refused to pay the deposit, I let them move on because I knew they weren’t going to be a good fit if they had issues getting the project started. Once that small exchange of money had been made, it then became my job to just continue keeping the project moving along in a way that constantly held them accountable. The more I checked in with them, the more I found they would provide me with the things I needed and on time.
This small shift in mindset, of holding my clients and contractors accountable, had the biggest impact on the way our business grew. It created a cause and effect scenario. If I was asking my clients to be serious about my time, I had to do the same for them. Which brings me to my final point.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s a ton of designers in the world that are much better than myself. However, I’ve found that it’s not always in the design that the money is made. By showing my dependability and professionalism from the very beginning of a project I stand a good chance at having a great relationship with my clients. Not just because of the solutions I’ve created, but mainly because of the trust they have in me. They know that because I take my business serious I’m going to make the most out of their money by providing them with equal value.
These are the types of changes you can start to make at any point in your career. Even if you don’t work for yourself and you’re a designer working at an agency, take a deep look to see if there’s a way you can establish trust with your clients. Are they dropping the ball around the same time with each project? How can you suggest things to the agency that helps them pick it up and then holds them accountable to not drop it again? It’s not easy and sometimes they will always drop it, but at least you did your best to show that you’re the dependable one and they’ll love you for that.
It’s not mean to hold people accountable: I used to think I was being pushy if I sent out emails asking questions about unpaid invoices or final approval on designs, etc. Sure, I suppose you don’t want to be a big pest, but you should not feel like you’re being mean. If you need something to do your job, whether that’s from a team member, contractor or client you have to ask or they won’t know.
There’s a balance between being dependable and over-delivering: I’m just as guilty of over-delivering as the next designer. I think that’s what happens when you love something right? However, being dependable doesn’t mean that you have to over-deliver and be available at every opportunity. I use to feel the need to respond to every email right away or I would feel like I wasn’t being dependable. The truth is I can still be dependable while respecting my personal time. Staying dependable means being organized, communicative and progressing forward on your project. Not disappearing and pulling something together last minute to meet your deadlines.
Everyone drops the ball now and again: Could you imagine how things would be if we were all perfect? Nothing is perfect. Things happen and sometimes someone drops the ball. It’s okay if it happens once in awhile, the key is to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. This is why late fees are added to invoices. Sometimes it ensures things stay on track. I personally don’t do late fees. I’d rather stop progress on the project until things are paid up. If someone drops the ball it’s important to ask them why and what can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Stay organized: The easiest way to ensure that everyone on the project is being held accountable and you’re staying dependable is by being organized. Use tools that force you to document and keep things organized for your clients. If they know when things are due and if they’re written down for the whole team to see, it’s less likely things will get missed. If they are missed you have a record of it being on the calendar. I’m a fanatic about being organized with my projects. In my opinion it’s the easiest way to offer value to clients.
You can make a lot of money by just being dependable: Similar to staying organized, being a dependable designer and developer goes a very long way in the industry. You’d be amazed at how many of my leads come through because a designer or a developer dropped the ball or just fell off the face of the earth. Sure, not all of these are projects that I take. However, being dependable has made me a ton of money through referrals. It’s stressful to give money to someone in exchange of a service because you never really know what you’ll get in return. So, when a client finds someone they can depend on, they’ll stay pretty loyal to them.
It’s very frustrating to manage clients and to hold people accountable. Everyone has their own agenda. There’s not a one size fits all solution to making sure everyone stays accountable. Start off the project with a strong tone. Have a reputation for being dependable and delivering on your projects. Your clients will build trust in you. They too want a great final product and most will do what they can to ensure that you have what you need to make that possible for them.
The key to accountability is holding people to it. Everyone starts off with great intentions, but then things happen. Schedules change, people get busy and things get forgotten. It’s okay if it happens once, but make sure they understand there’s is an effect to their actions. If it continues to happen then you have to ensure they’re still invested in the project. Perhaps it’s time to put a hold on it and revisit it at a later date. It’s okay to set those standards with your clients. You too have a business to run. And if you’re dependable there’s a good chance you have plenty of business sitting in the wings waiting for your time.