10 Must Have Tools for Communicating with Clients

By Josh Catone
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Communicating your clients is a necessary evil of contract web development, design, programming, writing, or any other freelance art form. Some clients are great — they communicate what they need very clearly from the get-go and things go smoothly from spec through to delivery. Others, though, will make you want to pull out your hair in frustration. Our round up of ten must have web-based tools below will help you communicate with either type of client, and generally make things easier on you and help you keep your sanity. As always, if you have any other suggestions for apps that you use, please let us know in the comments.

Backpack, a great application from 37signals, is probably where you should start. It’s a must have too for any freelancer’s arsenal that allows you to keep everything together. You can organize all the details of a client project on a Backpack page and then share that page with your client to keep them in the loop about what’s happening. You can even give them edit permissions so they can make changes or give you feedback as the project progresses.

A Y Combinator startup from a team of ex-Googlers that launched today with a good deal of fanfare, EtherPad enables dead-simple collaborative writing. Users can write together on the same document, in real time and see what every other party collaborating changes as they change it. It’s a great app that can be used along with Skype for hashing out project specifications with clients. Make sure you have all the details right from the start and avoid headaches down the road.

Sometimes, you need to share more than a simple text document with a client. Maybe you need to walk a client through changes made to their app, train them up on how to enter content into that new CMS, or show them a presentation of logo design pitches. Whatever the reason, when you need to demo something, you need Dimdim, a robust, open source screen sharing and web meeting application.

Often times, during a project you’ll need to send files back and forth with a client. Email is no good for larger files, and a private FTP server might be over your client’s head. We like senduit for passing files back and forth. It’s super simple and has a generous 100mb limit. Files are destroyed after a set period of time (30 minutes to one week) so you don’t have to worry about private client information leaking out.

When you’re working with multiple clients, it is easy to lose track of what needs doing. RememberTheMilk is one of the original to-do list web apps and remains one of the best. It’s simple, easy to use, works across a variety of platforms, and lists can be shared with clients so they can be kept abreast of your progress or add or clarify items if necessary.

One thing you’ll definitely want to take pains in communicating to your clients is how much you work you’ve completed and how long it took you to get it done. We recommend Harvest, a time-tracking application that also handles the invoicing and billing of your clients. If you make it a point to tie time tracking into other client communications, they’ll never expect that they owe you less than they do.

Faxing maybe a fairly old school method, but sometimes it’s still necessary (as in, for faxing signed contracts). If you only fax very occasionally, it might not make sense to invest in a fax machine. Instead, use FaxZero to send faxes for free. If you need to receive them as well, use jConnect to do that for free.

Now that you’re doing all this communicating, you’ll need to keep track of who you’re communicating with, what was said, and who needs to be called back. Highrise, another application from 37signals, is great for keeping track of everyone. It’s a customer relationship manager and address book tool that’s designed around the concept of tying tasks to people (i.e., “I have to reply to an email from Professor X, re: my beef with Wolverine”).

This one is for designers. Emailing concepts back and forth with clients, and waiting on their reply for feedback is clumsy. It leads to confusing emails like, “I like this part of Concept A, but this part of Concept B. If you could merge Concept A with Concept C, and use the colors from Concept B, I think we’d be closer.” Ahh! Enter ConceptShare, a web application specifically created to get feedback on designs, keep it organized, and make it easier to collaborate on design projects. Keep your client involved in the feedback process every step of the way and eliminate headaches (and up your chances of scoring repeat business!).

For those who work on large projects, senduit might not cut it for passing files back and forth. If you’re buried in files from clients, you need an asset management application like Fluxiom. Fluxiom is a super slick web-based asset manager that great for working with large, sprawling projects that have a lot of pieces to keep under control.

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  • seve

    I have been using Protonotes and have found it to be extremely useful.

  • Thanks, seve. That’s a new one to me. Looks very useful. I’ll have to take a closer look.

  • Aileen

    Just wanted to let you know the links to each of these recommended tools don’t work – you might want to fix them up.

    Great article – very helpful!

  • Broken Links

    It looks like whoever wrote this article left off the : in all the links causing a 404 error.

  • antiquerze

    Josh, the links on the images are not working for me, could you check please?

  • I’m interested to learn why you are recommending EtherPad as a must have communications tool. It’s brand new. Do you have direct experience with this tool as a communication medium between you and any of your clients?

  • Thanks folks, links fixed.

  • Josh, thanks for including Dimdim in your list of “Must Have Tools”!

    Kevin Micalizzi, Community Manager
    Dimdim Free Web Conferencing / http://www.dimdim.com
    e: kevin@dimdim.com / twitter: @meetdimdim

  • Good list, only problem is once again everyone is saying keep your work and business entirely online.. what happens when the internet is down? There is still something to be said for local setups.. really, there is.

  • @somecallmejosh: Technically, I don’t do any freelancing anymore (I work full-time for SitePoint), but I do still often find myself in the client roll. I tried EtherPad out today and was very impressed. I’m planning to use it along with Skype to flesh out project specs with people I work with. We found it a lot easier and more fluid than our old method of talking on the phone while sending text files back and forth over IM, or doing it via email.

  • A nice list of tools, but, honestly, think how difficult it’d be trying to use them all at once. I have not used it in a while but Microsoft Groovy has a lot of the features outlined here.

  • Robert Stanley

    Excellent list! I would add Skype to that list due to its flexibility and cost effectiveness.

    Rstanley – http://www.highfade.com

  • Tony Oravet

    We use DimDim for our client meetings and we love it.

  • Mike M

    Great article, very useful list.

    Online apps are becoming more accepted and the benefits are very real.

    I do agree with Dean C that there could be difficulty in deploying all online tools at once…but most likely, different business units would be using different apps – so it does not come down to just one person.

    Another great app our ad agency uses is inMotion (http://www.inmotionnow.com). We use it to collaborate, track and get reviews/approvals on all our creative work. Great tool. Very well thought out, especially in terms of creative workflow.

    Fresh books (http://www.freshbooks.com) is still another. We’ve used that with success as well. Not so much in the creative department, but rather in accounting and traffic.

    Different departments benefiting from web-based apps.

  • I’m a logo designer and I built my system from scratch to handle projects/clients. The only communication I’ve ever needed is a simple textarea with comment listings above them.

    Having the bells and whistles is often times very unnecessary.

  • wow thanks, great list!

    Theres some gems in this list, though for most of these tasks I like to build in my own Drupal project management installation. Basecamp and backpack and other off=the=shelve solutions are often too inflexible too fulfill my needs efficiently.

  • aweb4u

    I use taskbin.com a lot. It lets you quickly create a list of tasks and set priorities for them. Then you can tick them off as you do them.

    Also allows you to share tasks with others in your team and add tasks to each others lists.

    And it’s free!

  • b. video

    Ohh that is an amazing Tool List…
    I am using highrise and etherpad

  • Aaron

    I think Jing should definitely be on this.

  • Jerry

    I’ve been using TAROBY http://www.taroby.org to collaborate with my clients. Taroby, being a collaboration tool for teams, provides a platform for my clients and my team to work together very well.

  • Paul

    I would choose Yugma as a conferencing setup in a second over DimDim. Having used both, Yugma is faster, more robust (you can host from a Mac) and their customer service is excellent. And if you have needs greater than their free versions allow – the prices are cheap!

  • Thanks for the great list Josh!!!
    I’ve been using Taroby http://www.taroby for communicating with my clients. Taroby, being a Collaboration tool for teams provides my clients and my team a platform to work together very well on various projects. Taroby brings in the concept of “Team Inbox” where every member of the team shares the team the same account with some access restrictions. Taroby also has some CooL features like unified messaging, calendar, calculator,and more…
    Check it Out!!

  • saulyx

    Awesome, thank you so much!

    Keep them comming :)

    – Saulius

  • Sal

    We use DeskAway to manage team and client collaboration. Works like a charm.

  • noozzer

    Ohh that is an amazing Tool List…
    noozzer .

  • Jimmy

    Great List… Thanks

    Here is one new and valuable web based invoicing system http://www.winkbill.com (Winkbill is a web based invoicing service designed to provide effort-less and hassle-free billing solution. The application can be used for any product or service. You can easily create, send, and track all your invoices online.)

  • Louise

    Another tool that might be helpful is Secure (encrypted) Messaging.
    I work for Passpack – we are an online password manager and much more than
    that – we’ve even made it possible to send your password entries.


  • @Paul: You said,

    Having used both, Yugma is faster, more robust (you can host from a Mac) and their customer service is excellent. And if you have needs greater than their free versions allow – the prices are cheap!

    I can’t comment on your feelings that your Yugma experience was faster as I didn’t participate in your conference.
    I don’t follow how you find Yugma more robust or cheaper. What features are you making the robust-ness comparison on? Dimdim supports hosting meetings and sharing your desktop on a Mac.
    For a price comparison:
    Yugma Professional for 100 attendees is $699.50 per year
    Dimdim Pro for 100 attendees is $495.00 per year.
    I’m biased about support as I haven’t worked with the Yugma team and I think the Dimdim team is great and work them daily.

    @all: loving all the tool suggestions, keep them coming! I’m keeping a list of tools to explore as the comments come in.

    Kevin Micalizzi, Community Manager
    Dimdim Free Web Conferencing / http://www.dimdim.com
    e: kevin@dimdim.com / twitter: @meetdimdim

  • QuaffAPint

    For transferring private things, such as passwords, I’ve used the free, encrypted whisperbot.com.

    Just my 2c…

  • “Remember The Milk” is AWESOME! I started using it two months ago and wouldn’t want to be without it now!

  • Martin

    We have been using Harvest (http://www.getharvest.com) for time tracking.

    For project management we use Basecamp and for client approval of artwrok and design we use ProofHQ (http://www.proofhq.com). ProofHQ and Basecamp are nicely integrated, so you can send proofs to clients via ProofHQ and track responses in Basecamp.

  • Dima

    smartsheet.com – allows to do detailed project planning and in general maintain lists of things

  • Katrow

    Definitely suggest Yugma for desktop sharing. No lag time with sharing applications, great for tech support. Reduces time spent on the phone with my parents helping them with their PC problems.

  • Andrew Donnelly

    Hi Josh,
    Would you be interested in taking a look at Mikogo, a free online meeting tool? http://www.mikogo.com
    This is a freeware screen sharing tool where your invited participants can view your screen actions live over the Web. Features, all for free, include: switch presenter, meeting scheduler, application selection, recording, file transfer, remote control, whiteboard, and more.
    Great collaboration tool, simple to get started & very secure to use. Ideal for Web presentations, online meetings, remote support, group collaboration, sales pitches, trainings, etc.
    Take a look at our homepage and feel free to contact me if you would like further info.

    The Mikogo Team

  • John

    There’s also 2large2email (http://www.2large2email.com/). They’ve got options for corporate users to send files of up to 2gb in size easily via the internet.

  • Sam Kidd

    Nice list there with some great software in it.
    I hope to see our software http://www.TeamworkPM.net being added to lists like these one day.
    We built Teamworkpm to keep track of our own customers inside our office here at Digital Crew but have now released it into the real world for others to use.
    TeamworkPM is an online Task and Project Management app.

  • Rebecca

    Paul and Katrow:
    Rebecca from Yugma here. Thanks for the Yugma shout out! We pride ourselves in offering fast and reliable service and we really appreciate our user’s support; we couldn’t do it without you! If you haven’t already, go and check out our new website, (www.yugma.com).

  • Richard

    Hey you guys missed off the most important tool:

    Make The Tea

    We simply couldn’t survive in the office without it :-)

    Marketing Manager
    Toolkit Websites

  • http://www.TeamworkPM.net is a great tool, I am testing it right now. Finally a tool with some multi language support.

  • James

    http://www.GotFreeFax.com is another website that lets you send free internet fax to the US and Canada. No Ads added to fax. You can either use its online rich text editor or upload a PDF/Word file to fax. Free service has a daily limit on total number the pages you can send.