By John Tabita

Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results

By John Tabita

Okay, so my title’s a bit of a cliché, but you know how it goes: If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got. Assuming you’ve followed my Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers series from the beginning, you now realize the first step to doing different things to get different results begins when you take full responsibility for how you allow clients to treat you.

Hey, no condemnation; you were naïve and excited about freelancing or starting your own business. I was, too. But that naivety led to some bad decisions. And those decisions developed into habits, and then into a workflow. Waiting weeks and months to get paid because the client never provided content became “standard procedure” for me. Perhaps for you as well.

By now, you’ve learned a better methodology, such as:

  1. Disqualify prospects who aren’t serious by having a preliminary fact-finding conversation before you rush off to meet with them
  2. Refusing to give away free information by discussing the WHY and the WHAT, but not the HOW
  3. Closing business on a verbal agreement, then writing a proposal to finalize it
So before we move on to Action Step #4, let me just say that I’ve never actually owned a farm; but if I did, I wouldn’t want to give it away …

Action Step #4: How to Quote a Price without Giving away the Farm

Now it comes down to the wire. Your soon-to-be-client had agreed to hire you, conditional on price. But how can you give an accurate price without knowing all of the technical details of the site? After all, you want to be sure you don’t short-change yourself by leaving something out. As web strategist Joel Hughes recently commented to me on Twitter: “a fixed price with a shallow spec is a big problem.”

So, motivated in part by self-protection and the need to “wow” the client, you end up writing a comprehensive project plan. Even if you use hourly billing to avoid becoming entangled in scope creep, you’ll still need some type of project blueprint.

If you are providing a fixed quote, don’t do so unless all aspects of the project are discussed, agreed-upon, and completely documented. That’s a given. Yet, that creates a new set of problems; namely, how do you prevent your prospect from stealing ideas from your incredibly detailed (and incredibly free) project plan? Or worse, handing it off to a cheaper competitor? I once thought this didn’t happen very often, that it was the exception rather than the norm. But after reading many of your comments, sadly, I’m finding it’s not.

That’s why I keep pounding into your head to discuss only the WHY and the WHAT, not the technicalities of HOW. Yet, the client did reveal many of the technical details when he told you WHAT he wanted. You merely didn’t reveal HOW you were going to create it. (And just because you’ve taken copious notes during the entire meeting doesn’t mean you must turn those notes into a document and hand it over to the client.)


Agree First, then Document

Here’s how it works. Suppose my prospect tells me he wants his visitors to be able to search for time-share condominiums based on location, availability, number of rooms, and other such criteria. I’m going to write down everything he says and ask follow-up questions so I can translate that information into geek-speak—meaning, I know that entails a database-driven website, some back-end programming sprinkled with a little JavaScript and CSS, and a user friendly-way to search and filter the results.

I gather just enough data to allow me to work up a price. Later, I can turn that into a written plan … but not until he agrees to the price. So the proper order is: discussed and agreed-upon, then documented and finalized (meaning, he signs it and gives you a check).

But we get into trouble when we arrange it like this: discussed and documented, then agreed-upon and finalized. That’s backwards. Get your agreement before your documentation. Make sense?

Not every project requires detailed documentation. A basic static site can be scoped out in a two-page “executive summary,” but overly-complex sites will require more. In many instances, we found it effective to charge for the project plan—much like one would pay an architect to draw up floor plans for a house. Clients who needed a site this complex understood the architect vs. builder analogy and didn’t have a problem paying for this phase; especially when we made it clear they were free to take our blueprint to another developer. (None did.)

You Closed the Deal; Now What?

You did it! You closed a deal without having to write the equivalent of War and Peace to do so. The hard part’s over … or so you think. If your contract isn’t air-tight—dare I say bulletproof—you’ll find yourself rowing a sinking ship you’ll soon wish to abandon. We don’t want that to happen so, starting next week, we’ll make sure you’ve crossed all your I’s and dotted all your T’s.

Next week: Get Paid! Even when Your Client Keeps Delaying (also known as Action Step #5)

Questions? Comments? Fire away!

Image credit

It’s not too late to get my free guide, 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling. Just follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you a link.

This is part 6 of the series Putting a Stop to Abusive Client Behavior:

  1. Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!
  2. Stop the Abuse! 7 Steps to a Well-Trained Client
  3. Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious
  4. Stop Giving Away So Much Free Information!
  5. Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business
  6. Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results
  7. Stop Waiting to Get Paid! How to Collect Even when Your Client Delays
  8. Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already
  9. Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep
  10. Stop Making Endless Design Changes
  11. Stopping Abusive Clients: The Complete Process
  • “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
    – Einstein

    This is true in the most part, but sometimes it takes time for things to materialize, and it’s best to wait a little prior to giving up on a path, or maybe you can open two or three routes to your business and see which one flourishes.

    • Absolutely. You can do the wrong thing and fail repeatedly. Or you can do the right thing, but do it wrong … and fail repeatedly. Figuring out which may take some time and experimentation.

      If others are doing something successfully and you’re not, chances are you’re just doing it wrong. So trying something entirely different isn’t the change you need to make. What needs to change is how you’re doing it.

      For instance, networking meetings may be the right way to get new business, but you need to built relationships and trust. So if you go in trying to hard sell everyone, you’re doing it wrong.

      Conversely, you can stand on a street corner with a sign advertising your web design services, and no matter how many fancy techniques you use to twirl your sign to get more attention, you probably won’t get any customers … because you’re doing the wrong thing.

  • Simon

    After many trials, I end up with a method not so far from yours… I like this series and agree with most of your conclusions !

    My main issue right now isn’t closing deals – it’s dealing with planning and deadlines ! (meaning, working on differents projects at the same time without loosing too much time ^^ and having clients noticing delays) while chasing new clients… Managing time. Would be very interested on your thoughts on that !

    • That’s the challenge we all struggle with as sole proprietors. On days when I had a client meeting, I was generally too wiped out to do any production work afterwards. So those became my marketing days. I found that I did my best production in the evenings, when there were no outside distractions.

      One of the things I’ve learned is that so-called “multi-tasking” actually makes you less efficient, not more, and that time blocks of focused worked are better. Check out Pomodoro Technique for some ideas on how to do that.

      I also wrote an ealier SitePoint article on the topic that might help:

      Freelancer, Manage Thyself!

  • “crossed all your I’s and dotted all your T’s” – that’s strange – I’ve always dotted my ‘i’s and crossed my ‘t’s!

    On a serious note, though – loving this series on dealing with clients. I’m new to the freelance world, so it’s good to find out this information from other people’s experiences.

    • “crossed all your I’s and dotted all your T’s” – that’s strange – I’ve always dotted my ‘i’s and crossed my ‘t’s!

      Ah, attention to detail. You show promise, young Padawan.

      I was wondering who would be the first to spot that …

  • Good article, and I loved the architect vs. builder analogy! I believe I have lost a potential project where I gave away to much information, where instead helping them build a “blueprint” would have been better.

    Good series!

  • EM

    I think insanity is setting a fixed price for any project that will involve designing and building websites and I have vowed never to do it again. I encourage you all to do the same.

    Name one other discipline in which one would talk to a client once or twice, get a bullet list of wishes and ideas for a project that could take weeks or months to bring to completion and then provide back a fixed price for said project.

    Could you imagine, for example, an architect or general contractor working this way, giving a fixed cost for building a house that hasn’t even been put into a blue print yet? Never. Yet, even though we’re working in a digital landscape and don’t have the material costs of an architect or contractor, our projects and client interactions are really very similar.

    But here’s how a contractor works: when a contactor’s client wants a window moved two feet from where the designs put it, the contractor doesn’t bat an eye. He writes up a change order – with the cost for the change. He asks the client to sign it and, if the signature is there, the window is moved – and the client is billed for the change. No muss, no fuss. Or, when the client sees the cost, perhaps he decides to reprioritize – maybe that window can stay just where it is.

    The difference between that approach and the way we approach business is that the contractor has set the expectation that both his time and materials cost money and that he is working to stick to the design and the budget and that the client needs to do the same if he wants his house built on time and on budget. It’s a partnership, not an indentured servitude. The client understands this at the outset of the project and because of this, the client has a stake in maintaining the budget and the timeline.

    The way I approach projects now is that I define a potential range for the client for what their website could cost and how long it will likely take, based on the wishlist and ideas. I make it clear that the number is not a cost – it is an estimate of the budget they should be prepared to spend. The actual cost could be higher or lower, depending on what *their* priorities are and what unknowns are confronted delivering the project.

    My projects have one fixed cost and that is Phase 1, the discovery and documentation phase. This is the complete “what you want and how it could work” phase and involves little risk of scope creep. The outcome of that is a clear understanding of the scope of the project and the approaching to achieving it. It defines a tight budget estimate for the next phase, which is the architecture and design phase. But from that phase forward, the project is a time and materials project.

    After architecture and design, a budget estimate and timeline is set for the build out. This is the point where the client comes to terms with their wishlist, their priorities and the real potential cost of the project. If the client wants to, they can take all the deliverables up to that point, including detailed scope, wireframes, designs, and they can get quotes from other developers. It’s Ok with me. If by that point the client doesn’t have confidence in me to deliver, then it will work out well for everyone if they move on.

    Approaching these projects any other way is madness, really. Fixed cost projects put you in a position where you need to justify why you can’t deliver on the clients expectations, even though the expectations can’t be fully understood until you’ve set your fixed price and started the project.

    But here’s the challenge with working this way: we, as an industry, have set the expectation that we will give fixed costs and we stick to them even if we sink our own boat doing it. This is noble, but its assinine. But many prospects walk away when you won’t give them a fixed cost, because some one else will.

    I suggest we all stop doing that.

    And Einstein never said the “definition of insanity” thing. It came from a Narcotics Anonymous book in the early 1980’s.


    • Yes, a builder would be crazy to quote a fixed cost for building a house without seeing a blueprint. But as a client going to a builder with a blueprint in hand, I would expect that builder to give me a fixed price, not bill me by the hour. I’m sure there are web clients who feel the same. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method. Ultimately, each person must decide how to they’re going to bill.

      I had great success with fixed billing, both when I was solo and when I had partners. We made sure our project plans were very detailed so that scope creep wouldn’t be a problem. For smaller projects, “one or two conversations” generally sufficed; but for larger projects, obviously, more discussion was required.

      That’s not to say that we didn’t have to put our foot down from time to time. But our clients didn’t have a problem when we did, because we had set expectations ahead of time.

    • Pete

      Your suggestion on quoting assumes the client already trusts you. Fine for existing clients, but not good for most new ones. I wouldn’t trust a developer that gave me a ‘flexible’ quote unless I knew him or her well…the possibility of a cost blow out is too high. This is not rocket science, or brain surgery: we’re not doctors who can never give a guarantee of health – it’s web development, and most clients want a firm quote, at least somewhere in the process before they commit. I think that’s reasonable: and I ensure I fit in with this need as it’s genuine. The trick is to scope out what’s covered in that fixed price, and leave room for flexible hourly pricing if scope changes.

  • Lamont

    I LOVE your articles, but my question is how to target that small minority of people out there, business professionals, who actually want websites and are open to paying for them.

    • That is the $10,000 question. Generally, a combination of prospecting methods will get better results than just one. For example, you could cold-call and join a networking/lead sharing group like BNI. Cold-calling’s rough, but will get faster results. Networking groups are more long-term/relationship-building, but can help get the referral ball rolling.

      Picking the right target is key. “Small to medium-sized businesses” is too broad. Consider focusing on a niche. (For example, I know someone who targets business coaches.) If you do, you can get involved in their industry associations and become the “go-to” expert in that field.

      Another way is to target by “firmographics,” i.e., business size, annual revenue, number of employees, etc. A business with $3 million annual revenue will be “open to paying” more than a mom-and-pop shop. The trick is to find businesses large enough to have a marketing budget, but small enough that they have no in-house marketing staff.

      Hope that helps.

Get the latest in Entrepreneur, once a week, for free.