Creative professionals: design your client process

Published by Nela Dunato on at 08:13 in Tips for creatives, Business, Creative process, Productivity

Imagine there was one important thing that you could do that would result in better client satisfaction, higher productivity, attracting more ideal clients, more money, and less stress for you—would you do it? Who wouldn't, right?

This magical-sounding method is designing your very own signature client process.

In a previous article, I shared the details of my own brand identity design process. In this article I’ll explain why I believe that any creative consultant would benefit from it, and how to get started if you don't have a process yet.

Creative professionals: design your client process

What is a process?

In a general sense, a “creative process” is any sequence of thoughts and actions that results in a creative work. That’s the meaning of the word I used when I wrote the articles notes from my creative process, on being in the process, and others of that kind.

Today I’m talking about a professional process: a repeatable sequence of activities that you lead your clients through in order to deliver your creative service.

Repeatable means that you use the same process no matter who your client is. Sequence means that steps in the process are always done in the same order.

The benefits of having a process

There are many. Here are just a few off the top of my head.

1. Clarity about the next step

When you have a process, all you need to do is follow it. No need to overthink or reinvent the wheel each time. Once a prospective client contacts you, you know exactly what to do next.

If you’re providing complex or long-term creative services, projects can feel overwhelming—but if you have a process, you can relax knowing that you just need to focus on the milestone that’s right in front of you.

2. Guaranteed results

This is a tall order, but it’s something we need to strive for as creatives. The truth is that when it comes to creative work, there are no guarantees. There’s so much subjectivity and serendipity involved, it’s quite possible that a brave and revolutionary idea you come up with will not work.

At the same time, as a creative professional, you need to have a good track record so that your clients will trust you. Yes, there’s always a small possibility that it will not work, but if you’re good at your craft, and you know how to communicate effectively with your clients and how to select your clients wisely, the probability of your process working will be high.

This is of course only true if your process actually gives great results. If the results aren’t any better than they were while you were winging it, it’s not much of a process. If you’ve validated it on a number of successful projects, and you’re keeping an eye on any holes so you can patch them up before they turn into a problem, itʼs good.

There are days when I sit at my desk and I wonder how will I ever accomplish this challenging task? Most of the time when I begin a project I have no idea where I’ll end up. But I have complete trust that my creative process will take me where I need to go. When I’m anxious about the outcome, I remind myself: my process never fails me. I just need to get started and follow the steps. It will be fine!

When your process reliably works, you are confident in your ability to help clients, and your clients have confidence in you. Because of this, your working relationship will be harmonious and they will listen to your professional recommendations.

3. Optimized for automation & templates

The point of a creative process is to produce custom, original work based on your client’s unique needs. And yet, there are many elements of your process that are repeatable, so you should automate all the steps you possibly can, and create templates for all your documentation and deliverables. Here are some examples of automations and templates I use in my business:

  • Email templates for the client onboarding process.
  • Guides and tutorials for clients.
  • Project proposal templates.
  • Contract templates.
  • Trello project templates (my project management app).
  • Brand mood board and logo design presentation templates.
  • Logo export actions.
  • Brand strategy guidebook and brand style guide templates.
  • Email templates and forms for project evaluation and testimonials.

Brand identity design Trello project template
My brand identity design Trello project template

When I started freelancing, I didn’t have any of those things, except for a contract. I used to write all my emails and proposals from scratch. I didn’t use project management software, but handled everything over email. I saved each individual logo file manually. I was trying out different ways of creating a mood board—using Pinterest, Go Moodboard, Dropbox, and finally landed on a PDF document structure which I turned into a template.

As I started getting more and more inquiries and got very busy, I realized I needed to save time on all the administrative tasks, so that I can spend more time doing what my clients value the most—produce creative work. Designing my process enabled me to create assets that I can re-use and adapt for each individual client.

(Bonus points if you can get your documentation and templates professionally designed.)

If you think that my clients think this is impersonal, you are mistaken. Here’s why...

4. Professional impression

Clients that I work with are typically not used to the level of organization that I demonstrate, and they praise my professionalism. Sadly, creatives have a reputation for being disorganized, unfocused, and flaky. Some creatives openly state that they have a difficult time managing the administrative parts of their business, and wish they could just have someone else handle it.

Sure, you can hire a virtual assistant and let them handle everything you don’t like. But if you don’t yet have a budget to hire one, the solution is not to just keep winging it—it’s to get organized.

I agree, itʼs a challenge to figure it out and set everything up, but you only need to do it once! After that, it’s smooth sailing until you decide to tweak something.

Demonstrating that you have a professional process puts clients at ease, and they feel good about paying you for your services because dealing with you doesn’t add extra work to their plate. If your client has no idea what the status of the project is and needs to chase you down for updates, you’re causing more work for them, and they don’t like that.

(I shared more tips on how to impress clients in my article: How to stand out through exceptional client service)

5. Structure protects you from derailing

There are great clients, bad clients, and OK clients who may just need a little guidance.

If you have a process in place, and communicate this process on your website, in an intro meeting, on your proposal, and in your project management software, you’ll be able to avoid client’s attempts to micromanage you and change how you work.

  • Prospective clients who would want you to work in a different way will realize you’re not the right person for the job. That’s a good thing!
  • Clients who had worked with your peers before will adjust their expectations for working with you.
  • If they ask you to do something in a different way mid-project, you’ll have a logical argument for why the way you do it is better, and you can point to the proposal and the contract that they agreed to.

If you don’t have a process, you’re basically at the mercy of your clients’ whims. You really don’t want to be in such a vulnerable position when doing business.

6. Positioning and differentiation from competitors

How will the clients know which creative professional to choose for their project? There are different criteria that clients use:

  • Price: In the low-end market, clients are most concerned with price and will likely choose the cheapest provider they can find. Don’t compete in that market. You deserve to charge more.
  • Style: Having a recognizable aesthetic can attract clients who share your taste.
  • References: If you worked with several clients in a certain industry, prospective clients in the same industry will trust that you have the expertise they need.
  • Perception of prestige: Graduating from a fancy school, receiving industry awards, getting media coverage, speaking at industry events, and other markers of prestige can sway clients who want to work with an established professional.
  • Measurable results: In advertising, marketing, user experience design, business consulting, and other industries heavily guided by data, being able to demonstrate growth for your previous clients is a great selling point.
  • Persuasive marketing: Your brand, story, personality, and consistency can influence people to make a decision guided by emotions, instead of just facts.
  • Convenience: You may just be the first person they met, or that popped up on their social media feeds or in their search, and they don’t want to research any further for more options.

If you satisfy at least some of the criteria to a larger extent than your peers, this makes you more desirable to prospective clients. Someone else may seem way more prestigious than you, but they also charge twice as much as you do, so a client may decide that the prestige (or references, or style) that you have are sufficient enough and you fit their budget better. It’s a combination of many circumstances, and there’s rarely only one reason why a client has chosen you over someone else, or vice versa.

Your process can also become a strong point of differentiation. First, for the very fact that you have one (as I’ve already mentioned, many of your colleagues don’t). Second, for the fact that your process is designed to help people like them. Certain processes fit certain types of clients better than others. You’re looking for clients who are a great fit for yours, that would not be served as well by another creative’s process. (You can see an example of how I address this point in my article: Human Centered Branding: Filling the Gap between Personal & Corporate Branding)

Is one process necessarily better than the other? I don’t think so. But one process is better for a specific client than the other. (Thatʼs the point of having a niche.)

There are many logo designers who are fast and furious, and make logos for cheap. That’s great for clients who don’t have a lot of money and are in a hurry. But the clients who reach out to me want something else, and my intense and methodical process is precisely what they’re looking for.

Figure out what kind of client is a great fit for your unique approach, and start thinking of ways to get their attention.

7. Easy to explain

The first thing you need to do after designing your process is to write a detailed description of it for your client documentation and your website. Then memorize it. Not verbatim of course, just make sure to remember all the steps and the reason why they’re in place.

You need to know your creative process like the back of your hand, and be able to talk about it when anyone asks. Your meetings with clients will run much smoother when you’re able to anchor any discussion in your process, and answer their questions in an eloquent way. You’ll give off the impression of a knowledgeable professional—an expert.

Illustrated website design process
An older version of my Welcome Guide featured illustrations that outlined all the phases of the process. I may use that technique again in the future with new illustrations.

When there are distinct phases in your process and each one has a name, you can easily create informative content, or even graphic representation of the process that you can share with others. That way when you’re in the middle of the project, the client can figure out where you are, and how much there is still left to do. (Especially if you’re using a project management app like Trello, Asana, Notion, or 17hats.)

If your ambition is to teach others, having a process will provide lots of material for your lessons. You'll demonstrate to your students that there is a method to achieving what you’re able to do, and it’s not just a matter of elusive “inspiration”.

If you want to hire more people in your agency or outsource parts of your work, your process documentation can be the basis of a standard operating procedure document (SOP). This document will make training new team members easier and faster. If you don’t have a process you can teach to your less experienced team members, you’ll be too busy critiquing and fixing their work to do much else.

8. More accurate project scoping

If you have a project divided in phases, each phase divided in tasks, and you keep track of how long each task and phase takes for a certain client, in time you’ll have a wealth of data that can help you create a more accurate scope for future projects.

Underestimating how long a project will take is probably the biggest reason why creatives struggle with money. We tend to be overly optimistic, and if we don’t rely on data, we’ll just go with our gut, and our gut may be very wrong. It’s not a personal failure, it’s a quirk of the human brain that we all share.

Once you have some averages of how many hours it takes to complete each milestone or deliverable, you’ll be able to plot the project scope that fits your client’s needs, and decide on a fee that is proportional to the amount of work required.

Did I convince you that you need a process? Are you now wondering how to get started with that? Great, letʼs talk about that for a bit.

How to create your own process

I used the journey mapping method to design my own process, and I taught it to other people in my workshops. The article I linked will give you the steps for creating your own process map, evaluating it, and finding opportunities for improvement and automation.

Here I’ll focus more on the big-picture questions about designing your process.

Client process design workshop - Journey map post-its exercise
My workshop participant doing the journey mapping method with post-its

What needs to be a part of the process?

As you can see in the article explaining my logo & brand identity design process, the first step I included is receiving an email inquiry from a client. You may be thinking that your creative process starts with research, or with sketching ideas, but that’s not true. Your process begins much earlier—the moment you first meet your prospective client.

How you begin your client relationship will affect the later phases of the project. As I’ve said earlier, if you aren’t clear about your process during the onboarding phase, you may end up with a client that doesn’t respect your process, and wants you to change it for them. If you don’t have a way to evaluate your clients, you may accept a project that you really should have turned down.

Ending your project well is just as important. Often at the end of a long project, especially if it dragged on for longer than we planned, we just want to wrap things up and move on. I understand this feeling and have been there many times. But if you can find an atom of strength to connect with your client once more, thank them for working with you, and invite them to collaborate with you again or recommend you to other people, this will positively affect your relationships and your income.

A process may be flexible, but it must be robust.

Let’s say that you don’t use the exact same sequence of activities with each individual client. Some clients need a smaller services package, while others need all the extra bells and whistles. I would design a process for the most involved and wide-scoped project possible that includes all the services your clients can possibly need.

When you book a project with a limited scope, you can skip the steps that are not needed, and still follow the same general sequence of activities.

Client process design - Full service process vs. smaller service package

Your process will emerge and change over time

People who studied their craft at a vocational school, university, or a class have been taught a certain process by their teachers. Those of us who are self-taught may rely on books, mentors, courses, and plain old trial and error.

Even if you learned a certain process from a master of the craft, you’ll need to adapt it to suit you better. Iʼve used certain methods that I’ve learned from more experienced freelance designers (like making prospects fill out a 20-page project questionnaire before I’d even meet them), only to realize after a few years that they don’t work so well for me and my clients.

Maybe reading someone’s article or attending a workshop will open up possibilities that you had never considered, and this will inspire you to completely overhaul your process. Or maybe you’ll have a horrible client experience that will show you where all the holes in your process are, like I did, and this will motivate you to take your process more seriously.

Revisit your process regularly

If you think that having a process must be boring, I’m telling you that itʼs far from it. My process is a creative project in itself. I continually examine it, tweak it, and test it on my new clients.

After completing each project, I evaluate how it went. If there were any issues, I consider if something in my process might have anticipated or prevented it.

If you switch to a different clientele, you may need to change your process too

If you want to serve a higher-end client than you’re currently serving, you’ll need to improve your process so that it produces results at the level that this type of client expects.

Let’s say you’re a typical wedding photographer, but you want to become a destination wedding photographer. That’s an entirely different league. The logistics of your new process will be more complex, and your relationship with your clients and the value you offer will also need to change.

Or maybe you’ve been illustrating (or writing) for indie magazines, but you want to start working with the likes of Condé Nast. Art directors and editors from larger publishers will expect you to adapt to their process to some extent, because they can’t handle each individual idiosyncrasies at such a large scale.

Or maybe you’ve been designing logos or websites for tiny local businesses with small budgets on a short timeline, but you want to start working with B2B consultancies or corporations. You’ll need to earn that bigger budget by providing more value, and fill that extra time with more research, strategy, and high-level creative deliverables. I’ve written more about this in my most popular article of all time: The difference between the $100 logos, $1.000 logos and $10.000 logos

It’s the same the other way around. If you’re leaving a corporate agency job where you were trained to work in a certain way, and now you want to serve smaller clients as a freelancer, your old process will be an overkill. Smaller clients simply don’t need everything a bigger client would expect. You have to remove all extraneous parts from your process so you don’t overwhelm your new clients.

I can hear some questions brewing...

Never accept business advice from internet strangers at face value. Questions are good. Let’s address some common ones.

What if my projects are so different every time that I can’t systematize anything?

I would assume that you are very early in your career and are still experimenting. You’ll settle into your groove in time.

If you’re in fact quite experienced yet still all over the place with your projects, I’d be suspicious. For all I know your business may be going great, but if you’re having trouble finding and keeping clients, or are not earning as much as you’d like, this is the first thing I’d focus on. Forget marketing for now, clean up your process.

If I do many types of projects, do I need a different process for each?

Maybe—how similar are they? In my experience, offering too many creative services can be counterproductive. Ever since I reduced the number of services I offer and set conditions on how I provide them, my work has become more enjoyable, rewarding, and profitable. And yes, all of the services I offer have a defined process.

If it seems like too much work to define each individual process, this might be your clue that you’re doing too much. Do you really want to keep offering all those services, or are you just afraid to let go of them? You donʼt have to decide today, but think about it.

How can the same process work for every client?

Because you’re selective about clients. Your process won’t work for every person in the world. You need to be able to recognize who you can realistically help—your ideal clients.

My process probably wouldn’t work for tech start-ups, construction equipment manufacturers, fast fashion brands, and telecom companies. It works for service based businesses and organizations, and for artists/artisans—that’s why I only work with them. I don’t want to set myself up for failure by accepting a client that is better served by someone else.

Is the process more important than my clients? Can I change my process for a specific client?

Your process serves your clients. If someone is not served by your process, they are not your client.

I’m talking about a process that reliably works, and that clients only occasionally poke holes in because you couldn’t anticipate everything. If your process is so bad it doesn’t seem to be serving anyone, then you do need to change it. But don’t change it because one out of 20 clients wants you to.

You can still serve this outlier in a way they require if it’s too late to walk away from the project. But chalk this up to experience and pay attention to any future red flags so you don’t sign on the wrong type of client again. This outlier doesn’t get to redefine your entire business.

Is it OK to use someone else’s process? Can they sue me?

There are many experts that teach their process, and certify other consultants to apply their method. If you can find such a program for your industry, go for it!

If you’re able to reverse engineer someone’s method, you can probably get away with it, but you can’t claim that you’re certified, or that the creator of the method endorses your work, or use any of their text and graphics in your content. Be wary of trademark and copyright violations.

I allow designers to use the method described in my book The Human Centered Brand with their clients without any certification (it’s not rocket science, and I don’t want to be a gatekeeper), but only if they use my original workbook. No one is allowed to “white label” my worksheets or copy the content from my book without my permission, because they’re protected under copyright law.

With this, we conclude this primer on the professional creative process.

I hope this has been helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.

Do you have a process? If so, how did it affect your business?

If you’re interested in a workshop that could help you do this, let me know. I’ve done it in-person several times, and if there’s enough interest to do an online one via video, I’ll think about offering it.

Nela

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...


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