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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