What determines the success of any project isn’t how good your work is; it’s how well you communicate with your client.

No, seriously.

Think about it like this: you’ve just done the best work of your career designing a logo, programming an application, or writing homepage copy for a client. The work is the culmination of all your skills, expertise, knowledge, learning, and passion. But then, you show your work to the client and they hate it. Not only that, but they tell you it isn’t at all what they wanted, it needs to be redone from scratch, and they want to have a call with you at 7am today to discuss it (it shouldn’t take more than a few hours).

Ouch. But I’ll never say I told you so, because we’re all vulnerable to this outcome when we don’t communicate effectively.

Regardless of how good your work is, you must understand the client’s needs and express why the work you’re showing them is what’s required to meet their goals. Otherwise, it’s all for naught.

If good communication is the foundation for a successful project, what can you do to make sure it’s happening?

Set expectations

If both parties aren’t totally clear on deliverables, process, timeline, and who’s responsible for what—in writing, before there’s money on the table—you’re basically diving into water of unknown depth. You also need to establish how knowledgeable a client is with what they’ll be responsible for. For example: if you’re building a website for them, do they know how to use a CMS? If a client doesn’t really understand what you do, you’ll want to teach this to them at a basic level (otherwise, they won’t value what you’re providing).

Establish your expertise

It’s not enough to tell a client you can do the work. You have to clearly explain why you’re the person to do the work, how you’ll solve the problems they’ve got, and what you’ll do to get them to their goals. Do this as early as possible so they begin to think of you as the expert instead of just a hired gun.

Clearly define goals and successes

What are the goals of the project? How will success be measured? Regardless of what you do, communicating this becomes fodder for any discussion during the project. Clients want outcomes above all else; nail down exactly what that means.

Weekly check-in’s

For extended projects, check in at least once a week. Establish where things are at, what’s been finished, what’s outstanding, and what’s required of the client right now or the following week. This keeps things on track, and if something’s going off the rails, it’s best to course-correct as quickly as possible.

Stick to the scope

If a task/deliverable is not listed in the deliverables, then it’s not something you should do for free. Be kind but firm if a client asks for something outside of the established scope. Sometimes it’s a simple mistake of not knowing any better and sometimes it’s just trying to get more than what’s paid for. Make sure there’s a plan for post-project, too; if the client wants to you to do more work after the current project is done, how does that work? Set a finish-line for every project, not just so there’s a clear end date and clearly defined end of work, but also so there’s the opportunity for future work (per-project, on retainer, etc).

Set boundaries

If the project requires a lot of instant communication, let the client know when you’re generally available and when you’re not working. For example, you might establish your working hours as 10am–5pm PST, Monday through Thursday. If they email or contact you outside that time, you’ve already told them you’re not available. Know that if you answer emails or calls outside those hours, you’re showing them that you aren’t respecting your boundaries, so they don’t have to either.

Re-iterate their requests or ideas in your own words

When a client asks for something that is within the scope, confirm exactly what they want in your own words. This gives them a second chance to make sure it is in fact what they wanted. This avoids misunderstandings and also avoids flakey requests (since they get a chance to change their mind).

Speak up for your expertise

You don’t have to be confrontational, but if a client asks for something that you know isn’t correct or won’t help them reach their goals, let them know. They’re paying you because you’re the expert and expert opinions matter.

Actually listen

It’s amazing how much more you will learn from the client about how to do a great job for them when you listen to what they have to say. And more, listen to what’s beneath what they’re saying, because they may not have the language to describe it. For example, if a client wants a 100-page PDF for their newsletter signup bonus, what they’re really after is more subscribers, which in turn will funnel to sales of their products. Use “why?” to dig to the essence of their needs.

Even with perfect communication, you can’t guarantee a perfect response from every client. They can miss deadlines, or worse, stop communicating entirely. In those cases, you have to remember that even if they aren’t being professional and holding up their end of the project, you’ve still got to be civil and helpful.

Most of the time, I’ve personally found that if a client is unresponsive or missing deadlines, it’s because of two things: 1) there’s something personal going on in their life (and there’s nothing you can do about that), or 2) they are confused, stressed, too busy, or don’t know how to do what’s required of them. In that case, the best thing you can do is offer to help—not by doing out-of-scope work, but by explaining something again or offering to source out what they do to a different person. For example, most clients of web design projects drag their feet on adding or editing content for their site. If that happens to me, the first thing I do is suggest a great content writer, copy editor, or virtual assistant to help them put their content in their website.

Those who aren’t stressed out during every project because their clients are asking for “wrong” or “silly” things know that good communication from start to finish is what makes projects both successful and actually enjoyable.

The work you do for your clients is important, but how you communicate with them about that work matters just as much.

Paul Jarvis
Paul Jarvis

Paul is a best-selling author and web designer. He also writes for his newsletter, The Sunday Dispatches and teaches a course on freelancing.