As part of my BizBox course I host occasional Zoom meetings on topics that are particularly challenging for new web designers. We had a great meeting this morning where we talked about the issues we experience with getting timely and high quality content from our clients. Since this is something that many designers struggle with I thought it might be helpful to share my most helpful strategies here as well.
Tip 1: Communication is key!
This is all about setting expectations and establishing boundaries. Boundaries are so important when we run our own small businesses! There are a couple of ways and places to do this:
On Your Website
Spell it out clearly on your Services page: What is included with your packages? What is your process? What are the timelines? What are the client’s responsibilities? Providing all this information up-front has the benefit of setting the right expectations from the start and will also deter tire kickers from contacting you and wasting your time.
During Your Consultation Call
Make sure you talk about content and ask the right questions: Does the client have an existing website and if yes, are they planning to use the same content? Will they write the content themselves or do they have someone to do it for them? Are they comfortable writing their own content or does this fill them with dread? If their answer to the last question is yes then that’s a good indication that content delivery will be a challenge!
Talk to them how you expect content to be delivered. Mention your own preferred method which could be email, a Word or Pages document uploaded into a Dropbox folder, or an online questionnaire. Gauge their reaction to this as that will also be an indicator of their comfort level with providing content.
Talk about expected timelines. If you work within defined timeslots (e.g. you deliver websites within two weeks, or one per month) make sure the client understands this and what they need to do to ensure a timely launch. Be specific about your timelines, e.g. when I still did my 3-day websites the client was given a date by which they had to submit their content and they knew that this date was a non-negotiable milestone.
Tip 2: Take control of your project
We are not just designers, we are also project managers. And as such it is important that we not only set clear expectations and boundaries at the start of a project but also that we manage the process and our clients throughout. Again, communication is key here, and taking control can happen in various ways:
Schedule regular check-in calls. This depends on the overall timeline of your project but if you for instance develop a website over a month then setting up weekly progress calls would be reasonable.
Automate your workflow. Use Asana or 17hats to send automatic reminders to clients for milestones they are responsible for. See tip 4 for more on this.
Ask for feedback and set a deadline for the client’s response. I used to send long emails whenever I was ready to receive feedback but lately I’ve been recording mini videos instead (using CloudApp) where I walk the client through what I’ve done, explaining my thought process behind design and content layout decisions and giving them a deadline by when I need their feedback. Turns out that these mini videos are a lot more effective than my emails used to be and have helped a lot in getting more timely feedback and content from my clients.
Do all you can to help your client deliver the content. This starts with setting the right expectations up-front, being clear on timelines and deliverables, and providing the client with tools to help them create and submit their content, see tip 3. If throughout the project it becomes clear that the client is struggling with the content there are a few things you can do to help: show them examples of other websites in their field that have well presented content, or share websites from your portfolio to highlight certain aspects of good content, like a well written about page for instance. You can also offer to write content for them if copywriting is one of your skills and services (make sure you charge extra in this case) or recommend that they hire a copywriter, see tip 5.
Don’t be afraid to be firm with your clients. If the client is just not cooperating and continuously failing to follow through on their deliverables, then they need to understand the consequences: this could be a delay to the launch of their website or, in worst case scenario, the cancellation of the project. Thankfully I only had to do the latter a couple of times when it transpired that the client had no idea what they wanted and despite my best efforts to help them we just were not getting anywhere. In one case I refunded the deposit because we never even started, the other time I retained the deposit because I had already done a fair amount of work on the site. We do not have to work with clients who don’t respect our process or honor their own responsibilities. Also: make sure you have a respective clause in your contract that covers delays and potential cancellations.
Tip 3: Provide clear instructions
The more information and structure you give to your client, the easier it will be for them to submit timely and good quality content. Here is what I do and all these steps are handled via a workflow I set up in 17hats:
Once a client has accepted the project and paid the deposit they receive a PDF from me which contains detailed guidelines on how to prepare and submit their content. In these guidelines I offer writing tips (similar to what’s in this blog post regarding About pages) and also instructions on how to find and prepare images.
This is where I find out more about the client’s styling preferences and where I also ask them to share websites they like and to pick a few templates from the Squarespace template store. All of this not only helps me make design decisions but it is also an important step towards focussing the client onto their website and their content.
I used to ask clients to upload Word/Pages documents into a dedicated dropbox folder that reflected the pages structure of the client’s website and in some cases I still do that, for instance if a website has a lot of pages. However, last year I created a content questionnaire in 17hats for websites with up to six pages and this has resulted in much more timely content submissions. I am not sure why this is, maybe the process of ‘responding to questions’ helps clients approach content creation in a more structured way. This questionnaire also includes things like the 155 character Google description and page titles. 17hats allows clients to save the questionnaire so they can keep coming back to it until they are done.
Tip 4: Automate your workflow
I use 17hats for this but you can also use Dubsado, Asana or Trello, whichever program you prefer. Automation not only makes my workflow easier to manage, it also adds an ‘official’ component to it that clients seem to respond to. As one of my BizBox participants mentioned in this morning’s call: “When my client received the Asana reminder they immediately contacted me apologising for the delay and that they will get to work on it right away. By the afternoon I had the content for the page in question.”
My own workflow looks something like this:
Client accepts project and pays deposit.
They receive a thank you email with next steps and a link to the design questionnaire.
Once they completed the design questionnaire they receive an email with the Guidelines PDF and a link to the content questionnaire.
A week before the project is due to start they receive a reminder about the questionnaires if they have not completed them.
On the day the project starts they receive another email about what to expect throughout the project and any timelines, such as feedback deadlines etc.
All of this is automated but I also keep an eye on it and intervene manually where needed.
Tip 5: Work with a copywriter
When I first started designing websites professionally I did my best to work with what I got for content. A lot of my early clients already had websites which helped a lot, and I used my own copy editing skills to adapt that old content to the needs of the new website. However, I was also still learning and had more time for each project in the beginning so I put a lot more of my own efforts into the copy (read: scope creep) than I was able to once I got busier. Eventually I made the decision to start working with professional copywriters and that was a game changer. Because despite our best intentions to help our clients, or their best intentions to submit good content, writing great copy is sometimes best left to the experts.
I used to work with a couple of wonderful copywriters and included their services as add-ons on my Services page, thus setting the expectation that good content is as important as beautiful design. I also made sure to talk to potential clients about using a professional copywriter if there was any indication that writing their own content might be a challenge for them. I highly recommend to any web designer to find and work with at least a couple of great copywriters, this will not only make your life a lot easier but more importantly ensure that your clients get a professional website that not only looks great but also reflects their business and gets results.
As for the client potentially needing to pay for a copyright service in addition to the website design I have found that this has never been an issue as long as I was clear on the importance of good content from the beginning. In fact, some clients were relieved when they realised that they could hire out this part of their website as well, and that they didn’t have to stress about writing all of the the content themselves.
Here is an example of my most recent website where the talented Shaundra Taylor wrote the copy. I always adapt the text to accommodate design choices and content flow but having Shaundra’s excellent copy gave me a great foundation to work from and she loved seeing what I created from her words. You can contact Shaundra via LinkedIn.
Conclusion: It does happen that a client is not ready with their content despite their best intentions and our best instructions and communication efforts. I have rescheduled projects as a result of this, or refunded the deposit and offered to the client that they can hire me again when they are ready (and if my prices go up in the meantime they have to pay the new rates). However, since implementing all of the above strategies the process of getting content from my clients has become a lot more streamlined and efficient, my clients really appreciate the structure I provide and reward me with timely and good quality content.
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