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So You Want to Start Your Own Graphic Design Business: Managing Clients and their Expectations

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You may be anxious to get your first clients, but don't fall into the trap of promising too much and delivering too little. You need to have a detailed description of exactly what your services do and do not include. As long as the client knows up front what to expect, you won't end up with a client who is disgruntled, and you won't end up providing services that you did not really get paid for.

Editor's Note: This is part 3 of a 5-part series. Read part 1, Are You a Good Candidate? part 2, How to Get Started, and part 3, The Secret to Selling Your Services to Clients. Look for a link to the final part of this series on the last page of this article.

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You've started your own graphic design business, and now, if you're on your way to success, you have some paying clients. Clients can be like spouses[md]you can't live with them, and you can't live without them. For your own good, you need to learn to live with them.

Unlike spouses, however, clients can be trained. If you invest some time in building a relationship with the client and teaching the client what to expect, you and the client will be more satisfied with each other. This is the principle of "managing a client's expectations," and you should start practicing it from the time of the initial meeting with the client. If you don't, too many of your clients will be dissatisfied. Why? Because it is the nature of most clients to expect more than is "reasonable." In this case, I don't mean to imply that the client is unreasonable. No, the client is uneducated. He cannot make an informed decision about what is "reasonable" because he simply is not knowledgeable enough about graphic design. His area of expertise is making widgets.

In the rest of this article, I will be discussing the major areas of concern for a client and how you can help the client set the proper expectations. These areas include the following:

  • What you will do for the client
  • How long the project will take
  • How much the project will cost
  • What the client's role in the project is

What You Will Do for the Client

In the area of what you will do for the client, hopefully, you have taken the advice that I gave you in the third article in this series, and provided the client with a list that outlines the scope of the project. Because this is just an outline, you need to fill in the gaps for the client with a very detailed description of what your services include and what they do not include. The more detailed the description, the better you will be able to manage the client's expectations. For example, if the description of your most basic web designing service is "a home page plus five additional pages," you've just set yourself up for lots of problems. With this minimalist description, you wouldn't be able to gracefully call a halt to the number of design concepts you have to create before the client accepts one, or you would look like you were backpedaling if you had to tell the client you charge extra for the premium elements he requested. In addition to the number of pages you will include in a web site, a better description of your services would include the number of designs the client has to choose from, the special elements the site can include, the number of static photos the site can have, the type of navigation menus to choose from, the number of graphic elements you will design and include, and so on.

No matter how detailed the description of your services is, clients will always find undefined areas that they assume are included. For example, if a client gives you text that is poorly written, has grammatical errors, or just doesn't make sense, he may expect that cleaning it up is part of the service you provide. As a pre-emptive strike against these types of expectations, you might want to tell clients right up front that if something is not listed in your definition of a service, then they should assume it is not included or it costs extra. For both your sakes, it is better to encourage the client to ask you questions instead of making assumptions.

You can handle misguided expectations on a case-by-case basis, but in each instance, you should refine your definition of the particular service so the next client doesn't have the wrong expectation. This process will take a while, but after you've had enough clients, the description of your services that you develop will be very comprehensive.

If a client makes a request for something you never thought of but would like to offer, don't be afraid to tell the client you'll have to do some research before you can quote a price. Never give a client a quote off the top of your head for something you know very little about, even if you think it makes you look bad because you don't have a ready answer. You run the risk of quoting a price that is too high or too low. If the price is way above the standard price, you will look like you are trying to take advantage of the client. If the price is too low, and the client buys the service, you're going to be unhappy about working for too little money. It's better to say something like, "That's not a service I offer right now, but let me look into it, and I'll get back to you by Friday."

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