Tools of the Web Design Trade, Part 2: Building Trust

In the previous article, I said that this article would be about the resources and processes of web design. What I hadn’t really considered was just how involved the process is, so I’ll just address the initial stages of the process in this article, specifically how to build trust with people and ultimately turn them into clients.

Keep in mind, my goal here isn’t to write the ten commandments of web design. My aim is to help those just getting started in the trade by sharing with you my experiences and hopefully turning up something valuable. I’m also attempting to keep this short and concise, highlighting tools and resources that I’ve found useful.

The Web Design Process

The better part of design is art, and art often eludes process. Still, this is a business, and as with any business, there are patterns or frameworks we can erect to facilitate growth, minimize obstacles and stimulate creativity. As I often tell my clients: Creativity thrives under limitations.

The process begins when a prospective client contacts me, interested in work. Actually, I think I’ve jumped too far ahead. You’re probably asking: “Yeah, all of these resources are great, but how do I actually get work?” Well, let’s start there.

Getting Work

Portfolios: I can’t say nearly enough about the importance of a portfolio. The design trade is all about the emotion of finished product; without it, hiring you is a guessing game. People need to feel your vibe. You don’t have to go crazy, but at least put something up. You can use a CMS like WordPress or Movable Type to build a portfolio, or you go even simpler and use SlideShowPro to create a slideshow of your portfolio images. And you don’t even have to put up all of the work that you do; just showcase the work that best represents what you do or what you want to be known for. Anything is (almost always) better than nothing.

Networking: Another crucial part of building your customer base is trust. A portfolio helps, but the most compelling way to establish trust with people is a positive endorsement from someone that they trust. I’ve never spent a dime on advertising and I have more work requests than I can handle, primarily because I establish strong relationships with my clients and make them feel as warm, fuzzy and successful as possible. People love to tell their friends about their successes, and you want to be a part of that story!

When I first started my web design business, I set out to accomplish two broad goals: get good at a specific tool and interact with people pioneering that tool. I chose Movable Type as the tool (for reasons I won’t get into here) and began to interact with Six Apart’s Professional Network. My design skillset was a welcome match to ProNet which was largely a community of developers. Specifically, I began doing design work for some highly capable developers at minimal cost. The results? Happy movers-and-shakers were recommending me to their friends, my design work was gracing several highly-trafficked sites, and I was beefing up on my weakness by watching talented developers at work.

If you’re just getting started, all of this talk of networking might seem so insubstantial; it’s not. The up-front benefit may be insubstantial, but this is a loss leader—an investment that costs you now but ultimately pays off.

There are some very practical ways to build this network of trust:

  • Feature testimonials on your site.
  • Offer referral bonuses.
  • Give clients a discount if they link to your site in their footer.
  • Work with established companies and individuals to build your portfolio.
  • Get listed on trusted work boards and display official certifications.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep!
  • Be Honest.

Processing Work Requests

Once the requests for work start coming in, they’ll come in all shapes and sizes. You’ll need to decide several things up front:

What kind of work do I do? Obviously, this question is harder to answer when you’re first getting started; but if you don’t know, how will your client? This is something you ought to clarify on your site; Dave Shea has a killer example of this. If someone wants to hire you to do something you either don’t know how to do or don’t want to do, be honest. You can still give them warm fuzzies by suggesting someone who does do what they’re looking for. (Another benefit of networking.)

Do I have time? If I had it to do over again, this is the one thing I’d do differently. In the beginning, all you’ll have is time; but you probably won’t have a good idea how long something is going to take. Time yourself. Seriously, record a log of everything you do and after three months, group together common activities and average out the time they take. As you get more competent and more people are asking for quotes, this becomes especially important for the sake of scheduling. You can’t promise a month and take six—not and give warm fuzzies anyhow.

Is this a client I want to represent? When you first start getting requests for work, it’s exhilarating. You’ll do a dance and call your friends. Keep in mind, however, that the type of client you take on not only impacts your reputation, but also breeds more of the same. After redesigning Simply Recipes, my inbox was full of food bloggers looking for a redesign.

How much should I charge? Probably the most difficult question to answer, and one I could spend an entire article on but won’t (especially since Chris Pearson thoroughly addressed the issue). Here are a few pointers for deciding what to charge clients:

If you are an independent contractor, you have to factor in non-billable work. It takes time to write up invoices, do your taxes, read articles on design, stay up with the latest technology, update your portfolio, &tc. You can’t directly bill for those things, but they’re an important part of what you do, so you need to consider them when coming up with an hourly rate.

It always takes longer than you think it will. Scotty taught us this principle, didn’t he? Tell the captain it’ll take four hours and deliver it in two. Come up with a time estimate and then double it before handing it to the client—if it takes less time, you’re a hero. If you tell them two and it takes four, you’re now a liar, a sincere, well-intentioned liar.

Responding To Work Requests

Define the project. The first step is making sure that both you and your clients are on the same page with their design. The best way to make sure that happens is to ask them specific questions about the redesign. I use an adapted version of Web ReDesign’s exhaustive client survey. This not only helps them think through what they want and gives you a clearer picture of what they need, but it also helps filter out trivial time-waster requests that go nowhere.

Provide a timeframe. Milestones that are set up front are usually not hit, especially for complex projects; there are so many factors you just don’t know yet. But having an up-front goal, at least for the first few steps, gives your client a better idea of how to plan and helps you better balance your schedule. Basecamp makes this easy by offering a feed of your project milestones that can be imported into Outlook or iCal. Also, make sure you both know the difference between soft and hard milestones and have decided which are which in your project timetable.

Make your proposal specific. Even the most understanding clients get upset if you charge them for something they thought was included in the proposal price. Setting expectations up front is extremely important. You don’t have to write a novel, but be as specific as you can when telling them what you’re going to do for a certain price. Some clients treat draft revisions like free refills at Burger King, so it also helps to protect yourself by stating in your proposal that any departures from this proposal will be billed at your hourly rate.

Sometimes it’s just easier to see an example, so I’ve created a sample proposal that may be helpful to those just starting their own web design business. (The pricing is just arbitrary.)

Sample Web Design Proposal (.pdf/54k, 7/29/08)

Don’t start working until you’ve got money. You’ve already entrusted them with an hour or two of your time talking with them and writing up a proposal; now its their turn to entrust you with a portion of the payment. Fifty percent up front seems to be common practice. (I often use PayPal for this, though it does eat a chunk of your profit.) Now let me qualify that statement. I often start work immediately before receiving anything from a client, but it’s usually a client I’ve worked with before or another developer I trust who hasn’t gotten paid from their client yet. But those are exceptions; when you’re first starting out, a percentage up front should be your rule.

Next Up: Tools of the Web Design Trade, Part 3 — The Design Process