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When a new client has a project for you to work on, what happens next? Do you have a set process you follow? And, if so, is it written down anywhere? Or do you just go along with what you generally know you need to get started?
Whichever path you follow, that’s your client intake process. That may sound like a fancy term — more like something that a big agency would use than an individual freelancer — but considering that how you handle the first steps of your work with a new client can determine just how quickly you can complete a project and how happy your client will be with you, an intake process can be very important.
What Goes Into a Client Intake Process
The intake process is your opportunity to get everything you need to actually complete a project. In an ideal world, you shouldn’t need to contact a client after the intake process until the project is done and ready to go. Of course, it’s rare that a project goes that smoothly. You should treat your intake process as the best chance you have to ask your client questions.
There are a few different forms your intake process can take. One long call (preferably recorded), where you ask a ton of questions and take notes on the answers is a popular choice. That approach does require a checklist of questions you can work your way through, along with some follow up to get any files or resources you need.
Personally, I’ve found that since I needed to create a whole set of questions anyhow, it made sense to go a step further and turn them into a questionnaire that I can email to a new client right off the bat. It also makes updating my information a lot easier when a client needs a new project completed.
In order to work with a client effectively, there are some answers that you should have, no matter what type of freelancer you are:
- All of your client’s contact information (not just her preferred method of communication, because that won’t do you much good when an invoice is late).
- The stakeholders in the project and who gets to make decisions.
- Invoicing processes and procedures, for example, if a purchase order needs to be included on each invoice.
- A description of the project, as the client sees it.
- The specific end results the client is looking for with this project.
- Examples of similar projects that the client likes (one of the fastest ways I’ve found for focusing on styles and approaches that your client is likely to approve).
- Access to logos and other standard files that you need in order to be able to do your work.
- Passwords and permissions for websites or other secure systems that are appropriate for you to access.
- Time and budget constraints.
Hopefully, you expect your clients to sign a contract and submit a partial payment upfront. Those items also need to be a part of your intake process — you shouldn’t move forward without at least a contract in hand and preferably a little money in the bank. You can put together a nice professional package, including a questionnaire, an invoice and a contract, with minor changes made for each new client.
Getting Your Client’s Buy-In for Project Intake
You would never ask a client, prospective or confirmed, to look through a less-than-professional portfolio. You know that if you don’t take the time to present yourself as a professional, it’s a lot harder to get work.
If a client feels that you’ve handled a project anything less than adeptly, she won’t bring you work in the future.
But the entire project you work on with a client is effectively chance after chance to prove your professionalism. If a client feels that you’ve handled a project anything less than adeptly, she won’t bring you work in the future. And if you aren’t professional throughout, she’s not going to feel comfortable giving you a testimonial or recommending you to her connections.
A professional approach to getting the information you need, rather than asking for details as they occur to you, is one of the easiest ways to set yourself apart. Presenting them with a easy-to-follow process that makes it clear that you’re going to get them from idea to finished project without too much stress is a sign of true professionalism.
Generally, if you present something like a preliminary worksheet and some basic paperwork that look standardized and well designed, your clients will fill them out as a matter of course. They will feel just a little relieved by the process, as well.
Occasionally, you may find that a client feels she’s too busy to do this sort of paperwork. You may need to take some time to explain that you’ll need this information to get started on the project (and that includes any preliminary payments you require).
Depending on the type of work you do, you’ll probably find that you’ll need to schedule a follow up meeting once you have all the details in front of you. It will be a matter of your workflow, but you may respond to the initial information with a formal proposal — or the intake process may be triggered by the agreement of a client to your proposal. The exact order of events will depend on how you want to operate and what information you need at each step along the way.
Using Your Work Intake Information
There’s no point to collecting information if you aren’t going to use it. You need a way to quickly move an individual client’s answers into a system where you can get full value out of it.
You need a way to quickly move an individual client’s answers into a system where you can get full value out of it.
As a writer, I find that the first option works a lot better for me: I create my own set of writers’ guidelines for each client, not unlike what you would find on a website that accepts freelance work. On other types of work, the task-based approach can be a better fit.
On a web design project, for instance, knowing where specific images are saved is only important when you’re working on a specific task that requires you to use that image. Your approach to project management may make one option or the other the clear choice for you. Otherwise, you may need to try each option out and see how they fit in your workflow.
Don’t be afraid to tweak your intake system as you run more clients through it. You may discover that there are more questions you need to ask (after all, no freelancer ever went wrong by asking for more information). But just like with any business process, you may find ways to accomplish tasks more efficiently and effectively as you go along. That can usually take one of two forms: First, you can create a reference document that allows you to go back and check different details as you work. Second, you can break those details up and associate them with the tasks that make up the whole of the project you’re working on.
The Power of a Client Intake System
One of the greatest benefits of a really good intake process is seen when you hit the point where you have too much work to handle on your own. If you want to subcontract out a portion of your work or bring in an assistant, you need to have a system for handling every step of a project — anything that isn’t purely creative needs to be written out if you want to hand it off to someone else.
The intake process can be something that’s easy to hand off, provided you have every step clearly laid out, so that an assistant can just follow along. This is one of those cases where having a questionnaire for your clients to fill out, rather than an approach that relies on more interaction, is beneficial: your clients want to interact with you, not an assistant, but no one’s going to particularly mind if they need to just send a questionnaire off to an email address that doesn’t belong to you personally.
An assistant, particularly a virtual assistant, can take a completed intake form and have all of your files and notes set up before you even start working on the project. She might set up templates, based on the information in that questionnaire and guidelines you can provide, schedule any follow up conversations that need to take place with the client and even nag your point of contact about sending along files. If you’ve got everything in your freelance business systematized, she may even be able to prep your invoices and have them ready to send out the minute you complete the project.
A good client intake process can make every other part of a freelance project go much smoother.