Over the past year – I have been really trying to tighten down a lot of processes/functions in my company – and wanted to talk a little bit about managing what I call “pre-contract” time. When potential clients first contact us – I generally spend thrity minutes to an hour getting the initial project information. This includes having an initial call to gather existing documentation, mockups, timelines, and other other project details. After this – I generally write a follow up email and either put everything in my notes in writing or have the client email me a list of what they went over. Either way – the important part there is that everything is in writing.
I generally also take this call without any other people from my company – as I want to make sure I am not wasting others’ time. Once the initial contact is over – I either send over a contract with work specifications or if need be – I will set up another call with whomever from my team is needed to help move the process along (sometimes design, other times other developers). Some clients are very respectful of time as well and make sure to have an agenda or at least questions ready. The second call generally is a little longer and I usually plan for 45 minutes in order to get the new people on the call on board and questions answered. Overall – I generally think it is reasonable to give pre-contract projects @ 2 hours (on average) of time if it seems like it is going to go somewhere. In two hours – the client should be able to clearly explain the project, follow up with questions, and then get ready to move into the contract phase of a project.
I do not like to rush the process – but my goal is to make sure everyone is respectful of each others’ time.
Recently, I had a potential client call us and request a full demonstration of WordPress – with notes – in front of their board – in order to decide if they want to go with WordPress – and then possibly use my company – all unpaid. That is what I would call disrespectful. It is one thing to want a demo – I would be happy to do that and have done that as a paid consult. Asking someone to do a demo of open source software, prepare notes, do the demo in front of their board of directors, and field questions was a bit too much for me. Perhaps if the scope of the project was something big and exciting – it might have been worthwhile. This request did set some alarms off. If they thought this was reasonable – what else was to come? Phone calls at 2am, frantic emails on Sunday? You can tell a lot from people in this pre-contract stage and sometimes you just need to say “sorry – I think we will pass” because doing that will be a lot easier than working with a difficult/non-respectful client.
As Thomas Jefferson said:
Never trouble another for what you can do for yourself.
On the other hand – we have really focused over the last two months on streamlining the pre-contract phase in order to save time for both us and the clients. I have put together a new contact form which has more specifics on it to collect more data on the initial contact. I am also in the process of putting together three more specific forms (design/logo specific questions, custom development specific questions, and maintenance/support specific questions). These forms will help us pinpoint pre-contract questions/red flags, as well as provide more written documentation – thus saving some time later down the road. Writing things out makes the client really think about what they want and will help us ask more precise questions.
Potential clients need to also realize that you are available for paid consultation. If they are not knowledgeable about a specific aspect and they want you to do their project planning, marketing plan, and spend time working on a design before a contract is in place – this is a huge red flag. While I am always willing to help people – there is a line between gathering project information and actual project planning/consultation. It is your job to politely tell them you are happy to help, but this is a service your company offers for x dollars. Most lawyers bill by the minute for advice. Although I do not bill by the minute, I appreciate that they know their time and advice is worth something.
To the point – I like to work with people who respect your profession and your time. If they respect what you do – they should know that time spent performing something should be paid. If you get a potential client who wants you to invest a lot of time up front – make sure it is worth it.
To sum it up:
- Try to set call times (both start and stop) (I have been on “introductory calls that have lasted over 2 hours – and ended up not even working on the project). Find an appropriate amount of time to spend with clients that will both promote new projects and that will not take too much time away from existing projects.
- Make sure you have a checklist of questions to ask about the project to prompt the clients to give you the information needed in order to give them a time/cost estimate
- Instead of spending multiple hours on multiple calls helping the client figure out how to plan a project – tell them the estimate is free, but if they need help putting together a project plan or specifications – you are happy to help but for x dollars
- Make sure you are comfortable with clients before signing a contract/give them any more time
- If you have doubts about the client, or there are any red flags that go up at any time – go with your guy instinct and save yourself the time/effort before you get into a contract with them (It is ok to not take on a client)
- Put together time saving forms to help gather the common questions/responses you need in order to begin a new project.
- Make sure your existing clients are being taken care of before addressing new potential clients (within reason).