Asking clients the right questions

Rarely do you just manage a project in isolation. To some extent, you’re also managing the client. As an added consequence, you’re also managing their expectations. So are their any questions you ought to be asking your client before, during and after a project?

A while ago, I read 14 questions to ask your clients before and after a project, which I encourage you to read if you’re either a freelancer or aspiring project manager, or someone like me, a Jack of all trades. I decided to follow the article up with some insights of my own, gleaned from managing clients, their projects and their expectations.

But first of all, I’d like to add some questions of my own.

What do you need your website to do?

A stupid question? You’d be surprised. In the past, I’ve talked people out of having a website and told them to concentrate on the marketing methods that are proven to work, rather than experimenting with one that most likely won’t earn them a penny or raise their profile.

People still believe that “If we build, they will come” and that is not often the case. Sure, if you’re a hugely popular brand name, or you intend executing a marketing campaign to promote your website, I can help! But if it’s just a brochureware website, made up of few web pages and bunch of images — all of which you’re unlikely to update on a regular basis — there are better ways of marketing your business.

The needs of the client come second to those of their customers. The odd few people don’t like to hear that kind of talk because they have all kids of ideas about what they want, which don’t always align with what their customers need.

Are you sure?

This is an open ended question, applicable in so many ways. But don’t be afraid to ask! So many will shy away from second guessing a client. It’s not a requirement of the client to know exactly what they need. But once we’ve finally figured out what it is they do need, it is incumbent on them to pay for the whole of the journey, not just the getting there. By asking the right questions at the right time, you can avoid a lot of hassle for yourself and your client. Chances are, all of this stuff is new to them, so be their guide.

Be brave and ask.

Do you have the funds to see this project through?

Don’t be shy! Money is not a rude word. Be up-front and ask the client if they have the funds to meet with the project. Sometimes, the needs of the client exceed the budget and they will probably hope you’re going to come down on price.

It’s essential you have a process in place. If you’re dealing with a project that’s likely to be worth several thousand in web design and development costs, for example, you need to break the project down into smaller, deliverable parts, each of which being billable. This will ease your cash flow and help ease things financially, should the client pull out part way through.

Where do you want to be in 3-5 years time?

I first put this question to a friend of mine, not realizing at the time just a how powerful a motivator that question would be to her. It wasn’t until some time later that she thought about where she’d prefer to be and how that realization simply didn’t match her present direction in life. I change her life with a single ten word question.

You can write up all of the marketing and business plans you like, but just thinking about where you want to be in three or five years time is something totally different. And it’s not until you do this that you begin to appreciate what resources you’ll need access to if you’re going to make your dream come true.

Once you have a clearer thought in mind, the next thing to do is to put together a series of realistic, achievable strategies to help you get there. This isn’t just about having a bigger website, or just getting more clients / customers. This is about building sustainability into everything you do.

And now I’d like to expand on some of the questions in the Design Reviver article.

What is your company’s reputation?

I suspect many companies probably couldn’t answer this question. Many wouldn’t really know how to quantify any kind of sentiment amongst their customers, other than asking them directly, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Of course, reputation is action after the fact. What you really want to be doing is managing your companies brand right from the outset, mitigating some of the problems your reputation may inflicted upon it later on.

So what can you do to measure the value of your reputation? Well, this new social web offers many tools to monitor things like customer perception, for example.

Google Alerts is a free service that allows you to track certain keywords, such as your company name, which will offer some insight into what people may be saying about you.

Then there’s Twitter, which allows you to search for keywords and save the searches, functioning in much the same way as Google Alerts, but within Twitter itself.

What is your target audience?

Sometimes, this kind of question can have unexpected consequences. Be careful how you interpret their answer, because “target” can often be misconstrued as “idea”, and the ideal customer isn’t always the same as the ones they already have. In chasing down the ideal, there’s a danger of neglecting the needs of those they’re currently servicing.

It’s certainly a question that needs to be asked, but any provisions you choose to make, with respect to your website being re-design and / or re-developed, should be done so with an eye towards maintaining the same level of service your current crop of customers and come to expect.

Do you plan on having any revisions and updates done to this project?

This is a question I don’t actually ask in this way. The question arises as a result of establishing the clients broader needs. If it’s web application project, like To Book, then we build a series of plans, covering short-, medium- and long-term needs.

Building a website (and even more so a web application) is like building a house; it’s essential you get the foundations right at the outset. In most cases, I start by planning and then building a framework.

If a framework was a house, it would be the foundations, the wiring, the plumbing and the locks for all of the doors and windows. The actual plans, as well as the building materials are for the developers, like myself, to decide upon and ultimately build on top of the framework.

By establishing all of these things at outset, and by agreeing on what features are to be included and then expected one, two and then three years hence, I can get the foundations of the website in the right shape from the outset.

After all, there’s no point putting the foundations down for a bungalow if the client wants a four story office block in three years time!

Conclusion

Simply accepting a brief from a client is just negligent. You have a duty to ensure their expectations are realistic and achievable, or you’re just creating problems and storing them up for later on. Don’t just say “Yes!” to everything if you don’t agree or think / know there will be problems. If required, say “No.” and propose an alternative.

But above all, be brave and ask questions.

5 Responses to “Asking clients the right questions”

  1. Good article Wayne.

    However, I must admit the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I read about the ‘big design phase’ happening up front.

    While your client might not want a bungalow now, and might even agree with you that they will eventually need a four-story office block … what happens when they realise six months down the line that they don’t want the office block after all, but an estate of bungalows linked by underground tunnels instead?

    Doing too much design up front can be considered a high risk approach. Unforeseen requirement changes happen. They always have, and always will.

    By taking a more iterative approach, you could minimise risk to yourself and your clients by only introducing the features they really need, as and when they need them.

    I wrote a post about this on my blog article Dam the waterfall: get Agile recently.

    Perhaps you could offer your clients the option of which methodology they would rather you use on their project: Waterfall or Agile?

    It’s something to think about.

    • Wayne Smallman

      Hi Brian!

      I had to re-read what I wrote. I make no mention of any big design phase, and what I do explain does suggest an iterative approach.

      This article is in no way an expansive insight in project planning. That’s beyond the remit of article.

      Clients are entirely within their right to change their minds, there’s no contesting that. But if they do — and in a way that totally changes the course of the project — they have to accept their accountability in that regard. You can’t account for every eventuality, no matter how well you plan a project.

      That aside, thanks for the comment all the same. You’ve certainly gone where I didn’t intend, which is great!

  2. Try iterating more frequently with smaller releases – your clients will love it because they’ll get what they need faster, with less risk. You’ll love it because you’ll get paid more often!

    Win-win!

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