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Keeping Projects On Time And Managing Client Expectations

A lot of the claims we see at With Jack follow the same patterns, usually centered around poor project management. Knowing these common issues exist we asked other freelancers how they keep projects running on time and manage client expectations.

03Aug'20

It feels like a lot of the claims we see and stories we share on this blog follow the same patterns. There are common mistakes that lead to problems—usually around poor project management. Some of these problems escalate to unhappy clients, which is when insurance becomes useful.

Pattern one is missed milestones and delayed projects. Whether it’s a client dragging their heels with deliverables or providing feedback, or the freelancer not having their organisation skills up to scratch or underestimating the workload. This is problematic because clients can claim loss of income or demand compensation to hire other freelancers to get the project up to speed.

The second pattern is that client expectations are different to the freelancer’s expectations. Why is this bad? Because if a client feels like they haven’t got the work they expected and budgeted for, it can open up a can of worms such as refusal to pay or threats of legal action.

With so many issues stemming from these areas, we asked our freelance friends two questions:

  1. How do you keep projects running on time?
  2. How do you manage client expectations?

Keeping projects running on time

Laura Bohill, a talented designer and illustrator, makes sure she includes a timeline with project milestones for both the client and herself in the scope.

Laura says, “For me, deadlines work both ways and it’s so important to get feedback from a client on time so you can stay on track for the project duration.”

Laura provided us with an example of how she approaches timelines. For example, if she’s designing an icon her timeline might look like this:

  • Initial icon sketches by illustrator are due Monday
  • Feedback from client on initial icon sketches are due Wednesday
  • 2nd round icon sketches by illustrator are due Friday

And so on until the final deadline and file handover.

What’s useful about this is that Laura is scheduling in feedback from her client. This holds them accountable to keeping the project on time, whether it’s in the form of having to give feedback, sign off on revisions or provide deliverables.

A branding studio we spoke to had a similar approach to Laura. They make sure a schedule of presentation and delivery dates are included in the initial contract. Anything that falls out of the scope is discussed as how it would affect or lengthen timescales.

Considering a lot of the claims we see revolve around scope creep and missed deadlines, it’s important to pre-empt common issues like that and be transparent with the client. Yes, the scope may change, but this means making them aware of how those changes impact timescale and budget.

The branding studio said, “Being confident of our creative process and being able to explain it well and simply to clients is key”.

A lot of the problems we see arise from freelancers not having confidence in their approach to dealing with clients. Adding to what the branding studio said, our advice would be to have confidence in your work, your pricing and yourself!

What if a client doesn’t stick to the schedule? Laura includes a note in her contract to say that if a client doesn’t meet the deadlines, she can withdraw from the project and be paid for the work she’s done.

We’ve talked about something similar in the past called a pause clause. If a client is late in providing deliverables, you’ll put the project on hold after some time has lapsed as stated in your contract.

When the deliverable is received from the client, the project will be rescheduled based on your current workload and availability. This incentivises clients to provide deliverables whether that’s input, content, payment or approvals.

Unfortunately, Laura has had to withdraw from projects before. It’s important to have (and stick to) a clause like this in your contract. Client delays mean compromising other scheduled projects you may be working on or have lined up.

Some of you have been freelancing for long enough that you have a good idea of how many hours work will take you, like another illustrator we spoke to who believes basic time management skills go a long way.

You could argue that learning basic time management skills is just as important as honing whatever your craft is. If you’re new to freelancing, set time aside to figure out a workflow. How to manage projects, communicate with clients, and figure out a system that works for you.

Managing client expectations

I also asked Laura about handling client expectations to make sure everyone is on the same page at all stages. Laura said, “I make sure to be very thorough when explaining the scope of the project in the contract—but also take that one step further by making sure the client knows how many rounds of revisions are included within the project”.

For example, if Laura was designing one icon her scope would include something like:

  • Initial icon sketches with 2 rounds of revisions
  • Digital icon work with 2 rounds of revisions
  • Final files

This removes ambiguity around how many revisions are included. This is important because it stops a two week project becoming a nine week job because the client keeps requesting changes. It also ensures the client knows exactly what they’re getting and in what format.

What about projects that change? Surely we have to allow for some flexibility. Laura's approach to flexibility is suggesting that any revisions requested outside of the contracted scope will be billed at an hourly rate.

Again, this is all about pre-empting common issues. Having this outlined upfront means there are no nasty surprises for the client. It also means Laura doesn’t end up doing extra work for free.

To make sure both the client and Laura are on the same page at all times, Laura says that moodboards are helpful for confirming any style directions and getting everyone on the same page. She says, “Even beyond that, if midway through a project a client says 'I like what you’ve done but can you make it more grungy' it’s good to confirm what they mean with reference imagery rather than assume what you think looks grungy is what they had in mind”.

Freelancers are skilled at lots of things, but mind reading usually isn't one of them. Confirming exactly what your client has in mind instead of assuming means you're likelier to meet client expectations.

When talking about client expectations, the branding studio offered an important reminder about not overpromising and underdelivering. We've seen claims arise because work that's been promised within a certain timescale or to a certain standard isn’t delivered. Irrespective of why that is, the client becomes unhappy and the relationship is strained.

The branding studio said, “We don’t overpromise on timings in the first place (we’re realistic), and usually have more than enough creative time to ensure good outcomes”.

The studio can gauge if they think the project may need more time added to the timescale based on the first presentations with the client. Having a schedule, and only ever working on one or two projects concurrently, allows the branding studio to set and maintain expectations.

To recap, here's how to keep projects running on time and manage client expectations:

  • Timelines with project milestones should be provided for both the freelancer and the client’s sake. After all, deadlines work both ways and it’s important to get feedback from a client on time so you can stay on track for the project duration
  • Timelines help to keep everyone accountable for their role in the project, including client feedback, signing off on revisions or providing deliverables
  • The Schedule of presentation and delivery dates should all be included and agreed upon in the initial contract. Anything that falls outside of the scope must be discussed as how it would affect or lengthen timescales
  • Make sure you have a clause in your contract to protect you if clients go quiet and the project stalls. If a client doesn’t meet the deadlines, Laura can withdraw from the project and be paid for the work she’s already done
  • When it comes to keeping projects running on time, don’t underestimate basic time management skills. This is just as important as being a skilled designer or developer
  • When it comes to making sure client expectations are met, this means getting everybody on the same page at all stages of the project. This is where the project scope comes into play and removing any ambiguity by being thorough when explaining the scope to the client
  • Things like how many rounds of revisions are included should also be noted in the scope to prevent projects from spiralling out of control because the client keeps requesting changes
  • The client should know that anything requested outside of the contracted scope will be billed at an additional rate and impact timescales
  • Don’t overpromise on timings and then underdeliver. Having a schedule, client presentations and only working on one or two projects at a time can give you a good idea how much work is involved
  • Having professional indemnity insurance in place can help if problems with clients do escalate

We asked ourselves one important question …

What do we want out of an insurance provider?

With Jack is the answer