The reality of any design business, or service business in general, is that you must pay as much attention to the business end of your efforts as you do to the service end. Failure to do so exposes you to liability issues, profit loss, headaches, dry mouth, wasted projects and more. While you may be a creative design god, a visionary, genius-it doesn't mean you are running your business as effectively as you can. If you've ever watched a profitable project slip away because the edits just wouldn't end; if you've ever let a client push you around and make you feel uncomfortable; if you've ever found yourself wishing you had more legal protection for the work that you do, then this article is for you.
This list of steps will separate your design business from the amateurs:
1) Spend time interviewing the client about the job. Not only will this help you determine first hand what the client's needs are, but also it will help the client view you as a professional. A good first impression will help you later on when it comes time for payment.
2) Put together a work order based on what was discussed in the interview. This will be your proposal to the client to begin working on their project. You will need to spell out all of the terms, delivery dates, number of pages, editing guidelines, deposits and payment terms. You also need to include all of the options discussed in your interview with the client. A formal proposal says that you are a professional.
Your proposal should contain no less than the following:
Site Specifications and layout
Development Guidelines (include milestones and number of drafts)
Payment terms and conditions
Storyboards, diagrams, or examples
In considering each of these elements I cannot stress enough the following point: Leave nothing open-ended! Even if "open-ended" is a vital part of the contract, as in the case of an ongoing relationship for maintenance and updates, you need to spell it out!
3) Never work without a deposit. Go look at the Golden Rule again in case you forgot. A deposit does two things for you.
It helps separate the serious clients from those who are not. A client is less likely to pull out of a project if they've made a financial commitment.
See the Golden Rule.
4) Have a pricing strategy. Know what your time is worth, how long it takes you to do certain tasks, and the value of those tasks in the marketplace. Communicate them effectively to the client, impress on them which tasks are time consuming, and how this will impact pricing. Your client is likely to be a professional, and they will understand that time is money. They understand that their own time is money. They should understand the Golden Rule and so should you.
Developing a spreadsheet or other form which allows you to track changes to a project as you go helps in the long run. It will not matter whether you charge per page, per project, or a combination of both, because you will know how to price what you are doing for the client.
5) Test early and often - don't let your credibility erode by forgetting little Q/A issues such as Browser Compatibility (read: Netscape), plug-in issues, load times, and screen resolution. Do as much of this before the client sees it. If the first impression of your creation is a good one, then it will be easier to get paid than if the client could not view the site correctly the first time around.
6) Have a final invoice - make sure it reflects the work order to the letter. Any agreed upon changes must be billed with the approval method clearly outlined. Attach any copies of emails, faxes, or other communications regarding changes to your site. Your contract should outline the terms of payment, and definitely detail a "late payment" policy. Just slap a statement on your invoice which reads "18% APR for accounts more than 15 days past due" and see what happens. You should always have a plan to enforce non-payments
Whether you are a freelance web designer, graphic artist, desktop publisher, or programmer you take on a great deal of responsibility every time you accept a new contract. Having ironclad contracts, invoices, and work orders can go along way in protecting your interests early and often, before trouble starts.
Putting these steps in place takes time and a little money, but you don't need to hire an attorney, an accountant or a business manager to increase your sales and efficiency. Just remember the Golden Rule. Your time is valuable; don't let the client take that from you.
A good resource for many of the things I've mentioned above is a company called Proposal Kit; you can find the product here. I purchased their "Professional" package for our business and we've been extremely pleased with the results.