Often times a business approaches me with a set of project asks and requirements. Maybe it's a prospective client that says they need a WordPress website or a mobile app designed. Perhaps it's a project manager that is passing along vague business requirements from the higher-up founders that were derived in isolation during company meetings.
Whatever the case, your job as a freelance designer is to listen, research and ask the right questions in order to get at what the client truly needs so that you can present your most effective solution convincingly.
Until we fully understand the client's needs and goals, we cannot know the proper solution or implementation.
As freelancers, we usually don't feel that we have the right to question the client, especially a prospective client that is waiving a shiny new project right in front of us.
They say they need a website and that it should be done just so, and for just this amount and we are usually very preoccupied with proving that we can fulfill their request.
Although we may succeed at this first step, we often later come to find ourselves in situations that are difficult to maneuver and result in things like scope creep, extended project times, unpaid invoices and difficult client/freelancer relationships. But why is this so often the case and what can we do about it?
Understanding Need vs Solution
When pitching to a freelancer, businesses often conflate solutions with needs or problems.
The business might say to you "We need a new website". But is that really what they need?
A need is the thing that the client is trying to accomplish
A solution is the means through which that thing gets accomplished
The website is just one example of a possible solution, but in order to decide if that's even the right one, we have to dig deeper in order to get at the real need.
As freelancers we often don't even recognize that there is a difference and even when we do, we tend to not question it because of 3 main reasons:
1. We are afraid of not getting the job
Designers, especially freelance designers often come from a place of lack. We don't have the luxury or income stability to challenge something that comes our way...or at least we feel like we don't.
We are concerned with landing the gig or with how much money we can get from the client and so we decide to become "yes" men/women and say "Sure yeah I can build you a flash website that has a custom shopping cart system". Even if we know that's a terrible idea, because we think that if we tell them as much, they will just find someone else who will do it; which indeed may be true, but do you want to be that person that fights with the business team and the devs to design and implement a horrible idea everyday for the next 3 months?
2. We are insecure in our skills or knowledge
We might not speak up when we think what the client is saying is subpar, wrong or unethical. This comes from insecurity (which we freelance designers tend to be brimming with). We tell ourselves that the company knows best, despite our experience, our authority and our gut.
Sometimes we just think we can't possibly know better than they do, even if we might. Remember that your opinion, thoughts and suggestions as a professional - when presented mindfully and authentically, are absolutely worthy. Even if they are rejected, the practice alone of defending and communicating our ideas in an objective and well thought out manner is a valuable and crucial skill to develop.
We need mistakes to grow, mistakes are like investments in our future. It is the rich soil from which we will reap great benefits and wisdom as we move forward in our career. Even though you might not be able to see the tree from the seed you are planting right now, one way to increase our skills and knowledge is by failing and learning from that failure.
Mistakes are like investments in our future.
3. We haven't taken the time or initiative to do our own research
Research is important. Jumping into a solution too soon without deeply understand the problem and the experience of your client may save a little time in the beginning but always causes headache and poor outcomes in the long run. If you take the time to think deeply about the client's problem and all the possible solutions and strategize about how to balance the varying needs and requirements of the project, you open yourself up to arriving at conclusions and possibilities you may not have thought of at first or may not have even been asked of you. That's the magic of what we do.
4. We are not confident in our business skills
Being a freelancer means being a business. It's important that you understand the essentials of running a business. That means having a business plan and a business model, setting up your business correctly and drawing up agreements and contracts, understanding good bookkeeping practices, accounting, invoicing and taxes, and learning how to conduct and optimize day-to-day operations for your business. You'll most likely need some help along the way so plan out what you need and then invest in services and professionals that can help you set things up the right way.
How to figure out the real problem
Recently I was approached by a client that said "We need a WordPress website and mobile app where people can take a skills test and then watch a series of videos and then take a pass/fail exam".
Here is an example of the conversation that unfolded:
I recognized this as a solution and not a need so I ask..
Me: What is the goal here?
Client: We want to see how much a user understands about a topic. We need it to live on the web and be able to link people to it and it needs to be viewable on mobile.
Me: What are the budget requirements?
Client: About $2500.
Client: We also want to publish a bunch of white papers down the road.
Me: When will you be publishing these?
Client: Well we don't have any now, probably in the next 6-12 months.
Me: When do you need this website implemented by?
Client: 2 weeks.
Me: Well based on your budget, time constraints and present needs. I don't think you need a website at all.
Me: It seems like the most affordable and simple solution would be to implement a Typeform.
I will create a quiz, that will trigger a series of videos once completed and then trigger a final test.
You will receive all the aggregate data to process how you see fit.
It's also very easy to manage and update. With very little learning curve and technical know-how. I can walk you through how to do this.
It's mobile-friendly and your users can access it from anywhere without having to download and install an app.
Since you don't have any white papers to publish right now, we can revisit the website at a later date and simply link the Typeform with your informational site.
I've bolded the items that really sell the client on my solution. Mainly, I address all of their actual needs, I tell them it will save them money and that it is easy for everyone involved. I also make sure to let them know that I will be there to walk them through it all.
How to come up with the right solution
So first, I noticed that they told me what they wanted but didn't tell me what the purpose of the project was. That was the first red flag. So I clarified by asking what their goals are. The real need was that they wanted to test their users NOT that they needed a website. A website is just one possible solution to the need.
Second, I needed to know if their big-picture idea had the needed budget to go along with it. So I clarified. Often times, clients just don't know what costs to expect or what the value of your work is, so you also have to do the ground-work here of painting a picture of other potential options and showing them your worth of your proposed solution. Sell them on your problem solving not just your services.
Next, is there anything else that they are leaving out that they may need or something they might be forgetting about? They mentioned that they want to publish papers. Again, is this a need or a nice-to-have? Turns out it is not a current need.
How much time do you have to create this for them? Ask.
Mindset that sets successful freelancers apart
My gut told me from the start that a WordPress site and mobile app sounded like overkill. But I had to do my research and rely on my experience to back that up with clarifying questions in order to verify my assumptions. Once I did that I had to by-pass personal bias that said "But you could probably make a lot more money if you just build a WordPress website."
My empathy and compassion center knows that there is one perfect solution for them and for me and so I let that guide me. Knowing that there is no lack and that if more money is needed (not just wanted) during this project, my honesty and integrity will attract that to me, maybe in the form of on-going work from the client (which I proposed in the form of a website at a later date) or referrals.
I know that the solution they think they need is outside of their budget and time restrictions (as well as my bandwidth and motivation) and so I came up with something that would satisfy the needs of all of us. There are many solutions, but usually only one perfect one.
No need for a $8000 WordPress site. This is how I, as the professional that I am, recommend and propose we do this.
When you start to see your skills as the means, not the solution to your client's ask and use their requests as a starting point to dive deeper and ask more probing questions, you start to reveal what is best for both you and the client and that's how to ensure your freelance projects go right.