There was a time, early in my freelance days, when I gleefully accepted any client who came a-knockin’ at my door — no client screening or preliminary fact-finding recon necessary. However, I quickly learned that it pays to be selective, and moved to using a rigorous screening process early in my onboarding process.

Providing a finely tuned and comprehensive questionnaire allows prospective clients to work at their own pace, pondering the questions over time, while formulating their responses.

Trust me, working through this exercise at the start saves time and aggravation down the road. If the prospective client answers all questions to your satisfaction, in addition to confirming the right fit, you’ve assembled much-needed information for your proposal. Useful questions not only gather information, but raise red flags to seriously consider.

Ask these client-screening questions

Here’s my starter list of 14 key questions for your “new client” questionnaire; take the time to customize and add your own questions.

  1. What is your budget?
  2. What is your target launch date?
  3. Would you describe your business or organization?
  4. Why is your current site no longer meeting your needs?
  5. What motivates your target audience’s buying decisions?
  6. What makes your products and/or services unique?
  7. How will you measure the success of your new site?
  8. What is your call To action?
  9. How will you attract visitors to your new site?
  10. Which features are needed for your site to be successful?
  11. Do you have established branding, messaging or style guidelines?
  12. What do you like/dislike about your top competitors’ sites and messaging?
  13. What are three of your favorite sites, and why do you like them?
  14. Which additional services are required?

Let’s dig into each question in more detail, noting the red flag alerts.

1. What is your budget?

While a limited budget is not necessarily a deal-breaker, it’s best to confirm early on whether the client can afford your fees. A gap may be resolved by negotiating a reduced feature set, or taking a multi-phased approach to defer some work while still launching a scaled-back version.

Red Flag Alert: A wide variance in expectations could be enough to say, “Whoa! Stop right there.” Maybe the client is merely unaware or uninformed — but if a mismatch still exists after an enlightening discussion, it may be time to part ways.

2. What is your target launch date?

Fortunately, clients generally have reasonable timeframe expectations. With an existing site and launch date flexibility, there’s usually a way to arrive at an acceptable timeline.

Red Flag Alert: Clients with unreasonable timeline expectations and hard deadlines can put you in a corner when it comes to delivering. Have a “rush fee” policy in your back pocket. A client approached me on Friday, needing a site before their Monday radio show guest appearance. My rush fee was reasonable compensation for scrapping weekend plans (and frankly, she was out of options). Fortunately, the unexpected fee  sometimes encourages them to rethink and relax schedule requirements.

3. Would you describe your business or organization?

In addition to the typical profile details (legal entity name, contact info, etc.), it’s critical to know the organization’s history and direction, and I want to be reassured they have a clear understanding of their mission, vision, and values. I find it helpful to understand how their history has shaped their business’ evolution and path forward.

Red Flag Alert: if they can’t articulate these crucial business attributes, you’re in store for unexpected rework and path-changing while they figure it out.

4. Why is your current site no longer meeting your needs?

For existing sites, I always want to know what is prompting a redesign. It may be a technical imperative in order to accommodate a needed feature. Perhaps an outdated design needs a makeover. Or possibly the site’s look no longer matches the organization’s brand identity. Understanding what is lacking in the current site helps clarify the new direction.

5. What motivates your target audience’s buying decisions?

Every marketing course pitched to business owners starts with audience definition: not just pinning down demographics, but acknowledging their audience’s biggest problem, why solving it is so important, and how they provide an effective solution to that problem.

In addition, they should know what motivates buying decisions — whether price, quality, delivery speed, location, breadth of options, customization, unique results, or special access to products or services only available through one source.

Red Flag Alert: No ifs, ands, or buts about it — without understanding their audience, it will be impossible to build an effective site.

6. What makes your products and/or services unique?

It’s imperative that your client can express their unique selling proposition (USP) — the compelling reason that potential customers choose them over the competition. The site’s messaging and positioning must be consistent in presenting that value, demonstrating that the client and their customers are like-minded in approach and objectives.

Red flags can be avoided in this case, as it’s a coachable situation and can be resolved through discussion.

7. How will you measure the success of your new site?

Clients sometimes (mistakenly) assume a new site will address revenue underperformance. You’ll want to set expectations based on current site performance, and create a plan specifically addressing the success factors they seek to optimize. The best success measures are based on quantifiable values, such as increases in inquiries, visitor traffic, frequency of site visits, sales, donations, event registrations, volunteers, referrals, positive reviews, or social media engagement.

Red flags can also be avoided in this case, through coaching and discussion.

8. What is your Call To Action?

Savvy business owners know precisely which next step they want visitors to take, and this means having a clear call to action (CTA). There might even be multiple CTAs, depending on the target audience profiles. Possible CTAs include setting up a consultation, downloading a lead magnet, making a donation, subscribing to a mailing list, or registering for a class, webinar, or event.

9. How will you attract visitors to your new site?

We’ve all encountered the client smitten with the Field of Dreams philosophy: “If you build it, they will come.” And they assume a first-page Google listing is enough to bring in loads of traffic (if they can achieve a first-page listing, that is). Pragmatic clients acknowledge the value of a multi-faceted approach to attracting visitors.

Red Flag Alert: While you can also brainstorm with the client on this topic, I would not move forward until the discussion is had, and a plan formulated.

10. What features are needed for your site to be successful?

Beyond text and images, additional features present widely varying requirements, impacting both price and schedule. Before completing a proposal, you’ll want to know if the site includes forms, live chat, galleries, ecommerce, directories, calendars, or other interactive functionality. Fortunately, clients often arrive with too many feature ideas, and you may need to reign them in!

11. Do you have established branding, messaging or style guidelines?

Clients must acknowledge that a brand’s personality is key to building a site that’s on-message.

Red Flag Alert: If no branding exists, the client must develop it on their own. They need to hire another resource or work with you to create it before a site can be built. Depending on the path chosen, it may need inclusion in your proposal, and will probably impact the schedule.

12. What do you like/dislike about your top competitors’ sites and messaging?

No site should be designed without a clear picture of the competition. It’s possible that competitor sites can provide inspiration during the design process, especially the messaging around their USP.

No red flag here: if they don’t already know the answer, they can get started with the homework!

13. What are three of your favorite sites, and why do you like them?

I want clients to love their new site, so I’m anxious to know what appeals to them, even on sites outside their market space. I want specific feedback articulating what they like — whether it’s the visuals, organization, tone of voice, or some other aspect — so often circle back for clarification.

14. Which additional services are required?

Many people assume their web pro will handle all other services required for  a complete site, including content creation, photography, SEO, branding, logo design, social media setup, print collateral, and post-launch maintenance. I’m explicit in what I cover, so they’re prepared to line up these other resources, and understand the budget implications. I rely heavily on referring to my cherished cadre of Power Partners — folks I trust and work with regularly to provide complementary services.

Red Flag Alert: As long as additional service needs are understood, all is well. The concern is their assumption that these items were included without additional cost.

Conclusion

Before taking on any web project, it’s critical that both the client and the designer have a clear understanding of the parameters around what needs to be done when, and by whom. Starting with a clear list of questions in a “new client” questionnaire brings to light unexpected red flags, leads to a more accurate proposal, confirms and clarifies expectations, and ensures successful results.

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