In this article I’m going to break down the stages of client communication and list tips to help you level up how you communicate.
Whether you’re working in an agency or running your own design business, communication with clients, stakeholders and colleagues is probably the most important element of your success.
Over the last 12 years I’ve run 2 design agencies and worked with many different clients and colleagues from Fortune 500 VPs, C-suite execs to small startup founders.
I would attribute 99% of issues over that time to bad communication.
The Importance of Clear Communication
David Ogilvy famously encouraged all employees to read “Writing that works” by Roman-Raphelson 3 times.
He knew the importance of clear communication.
Calls (phone and video) and emails are the obvious forms of client communication. You may also use asynchronous communication tools like Loom. But consider the other ways you communicate with clients - your portfolio/website, your social profiles, your blog, various directories like Behance and Dribbble and your asset listings if you’re selling Envato products.
If a potential client looked at all of these, do they align? Is it clear what service and value you’re providing? Is the messaging consistent across every platform?
The Stages of Client Engagement
Clear communication should apply to every stage of client engagement. There are 3 clear stages you’ll face:
1. Communication Tips Before the Engagement
Make Your Value Clear
A client may find you online, or be referred to you, or you may reach out directly. Make sure your website doesn't say one thing and your profiles/bios say another. A client will only reach out if they are fairly sure they know what it is you provide.
If a client needs a logo, why would they choose to go to someone that doesn’t specialise in logo design? Focus on one thing you do well, and communicate it everywhere.
Consider that a client may have been sifting for a week or more to find a good designer. That’s potentially hundreds of portfolios before they get to you.
If you’ve communicated what you do effectively on your site or portfolio, what action do you need them to take to start off the process? Should they book a call? Email you? If they email what should they include?
Remove guesswork, it’s a barrier.
Acknowledge a potential customer’s email as soon as you can. Even if you don’t write a full response. If you followed the previous step and made it clear how to engage, this email should include everything you need to make a judgement call as to whether you can (and want to) help them.
If you can’t help them, refer them to someone else in your network that can. Don’t burn a bridge — if you’re helpful and clearly outline why you can’t help, and what you could do to help instead, they may refer you in future.
If you’d like to proceed, then it’s worth setting up a call. I recommend using Calendly to avoid the ‘finding a time’ back-and-forth. You can set up automations so that when they choose a time, it’ll ping them an email with an agenda for the call.
Always try to set expectations and remove guesswork. Here’s the automatic email a client gets when they’ve booked a call:
This process provides a Zoom link and adds it to our calendars.
First Video Call
The goals of the first call are:
- To build rapport. It might feel unnatural or fake at first, but comment on their video background/tie even the weather, keep it light to break the ice. Read the tone of the virtual room and avoid being controversial.
- Identify if you want and are able to spend a month or more helping this person
- Find out their budget and whether it is realistic
- Find out rough timeframes
The first call is not a time to hard sell.
Not a natural talker or nervous? Before the call, have a past project to hand that you’re proud of and can talk enthusiastically about. If time, walk them through it, talk about the challenges and successes.
Second to third call - it takes time to build trust virtually so depending on the size of the deal, sometimes you’ll need 1-3 further calls. For example, if you’re talking to a gatekeeper, and it goes well, you’ll get through to the decision maker on the second or third call.
After calls, write a follow-up email confirming what was discussed, use the same language they used to describe their challenges. This provides a written record of what was agreed upon which can be referenced later. Always offer next steps or action points.
For a first call, this might include typical processes like deposits and paperwork, but don’t be pushy. Something like:
Contracts / Paperwork / Deposit
If you like the client, and they’re ready to proceed you should have a contract or Statement of Work at the ready. I’d advise taking a 50% deposit upfront. For larger companies, you may need to go through their legal team who may flag any changes to the contract. They may even send their own.
2. Communication Tips During the Engagement
The paperwork is signed, the deposit is in your account. Time to kick things off.
You’ll likely have some kind of project management tool. Notion/Trello, whatever works for you, invite the client with an email. Explain what the benefit is to using the system, or they’ll likely ignore the invite.
No one wants to learn a new tool unless there is a benefit.
Set expectations about check-ins. Daily/weekly/bi-weekly. Whatever makes sense for the project. Make it clear how you’ll keep the client updated and how often.
If the process is similar for every client. Take advantage of templates — so as soon as they login to your system, all the information they need is there. We have a few different templates depending on how the client has decided to engage, this is our monthly subscription Trello template:
You’ll probably also have a discovery session (which needs its own article) but the most important thing is to involve the client and stakeholders as much as possible, and ask all the stupid, basic questions at the beginning of the project.
There is nothing worse than being caught out by a simple misunderstanding halfway through a project. So assume nothing and ask a lot of questions as early as you can.
Deliverables and Feedback
Never just send a design file as your first deliverable. Always do a design walkthrough, even if the work is unfinished. Demonstrate your thinking and the direction you’re headed. This works in your favour because the client will feel they have some ownership over what has been created.
I used to do these live with the client. Now I’ve moved to using async comms using Loom. Here’s why:
- Live design walkthroughs mean finding a time you can both meet. This is disruptive to both of you, especially if you’re in different time zones.
- Live walkthroughs mean the client taking in a lot of information in a small amount of time. They’ll forget a lot of what you say, and focus on lots of different things.
- Instead: record a Loom walkthrough. Send it, and ask for feedback on specific areas where their expertise would be useful. They can comment throughout the video, watch, re-watch and digest. All at their own convenience.
The only time you really need live communication is first calls and at stages where ideation is needed. Async comms saves so much time and clients thus far have loved it. Loom wrote a great article on when to use async and why.
3.Communication Tips After the Engagement
If you’re not checking in with past clients after the first month to see how things are progressing, you’re missing out on a source of more work. Always follow-up and try to keep in contact (assuming the project went well!).
Even if they don’t have anything to work on directly, they may know someone who does so it’s worth keeping your name in their subconscious.
How do you ask for a referral or follow up without sounding pushy or annoying? Here’s an example of a follow up that generated a new project with a client’s colleague:
4 Bonus Communication Tips
1. Set Expectations Early and Often
Although it’s easier to let things happen and deal with the ramifications later, this can erode client confidence and make your job harder in the long run.
A client shouldn't have to ask what to expect next. Especially things related to your process or milestones.
2. Never Make Assumptions
As a pro you’ve been through the process a lot, so it’s easy to gloss over things that seem obvious to you, but remain ambiguous to the client. Always read back something you’ve written or created and make sure you’re not making assumptions about the recipient's knowledge.
3. Show, Don’t Tell
Wherever possible, show exactly what you mean. This might be a video walkthrough or a quick screen grab with annotations. This can save a lot of back and forth and immediately make your communication clearer.
4. Consider Their Personality
Some people like sharp, short communication. Others need more detail. Two ways that’ll help you with this:
- Learn who you’re dealing with (use LinkedIn profiles, or something like CrystalKnows)
- Within emails, create a summary at the top, with a clear action point for them if required. Follow below with the full detail. This covers most people.
I hope you've found some of these tips helpful. Feel free to reach out on Twitter, I love hearing from other designers!