How to prevent things from going wrong on any project

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

When you freelance, you'll be working on many projects for lots of different clients. Most will run smoothly, but others will teach you some valuable lessons about how to prevent things from going wrong next time.

You'll come across all sorts of issues, like clients forgetting what they wanted and demanding more than was initially agreed. You might find that you're doing more than your usual role and going over your allocated time and budget.

Here are some top tips to ensure your projects are stress-free and, more importantly, you do a great job to ensure a happy customer because a happy customer can mean repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendations.

Establish the brief

Before embarking on any new project, it's essential to establish what your client wants, so arrange a face-to-face meeting. During that meeting, ask lots of questions. Don't be afraid to ask some more. Get to grips with the brief and, if you're still not sure, keep asking questions until you're entirely comfortable with what's required. Don't forget to write everything down, ready for later.

Manage client expectations

During this initial meeting, listen carefully to what your client is saying. Be aware of anything they say and manage their expectations. Remember, you're the expert in your creative field, and the client is relying on you to tell them what is and isn't possible. Because if you manage client expectations now, you'll save yourself lots of trouble further down the line. Read these additional top tips on How to Manage Client Expectations.

Give estimates on price

At this early stage, clients will want to know exactly how much the project will cost. However, this can be a real issue for freelancers as it can often be impossible to predict how long a project will take. You don't want to underestimate the time involved, but you don't want to over-price the work either.

The best thing to do is add on some 'contingency' time. It's what a friend of mine does with her web development projects. She always says: "I think it will take five days to complete, but if it goes under, then I'll let you know". It works for her because clients love her honesty.

However, be warned! When you give a 'ballpark' figure and say that the project could be between '£X and £X', I guarantee that the client will want the lower price. Don't allow them to do this by setting one price only. But, whatever you do, don't give a confirmed price until you've had a chance to go away and think about the project.

Get everything in writing

Following that initial meeting, write everything down. Put all of your notes into a well-presented written proposal that includes different sections. An excellent way to begin is with a 'Project Background' section, outlining precisely what the project entails and what the client expects. Next, add a 'Project Goals & Recommendations' section. It's where you can list all of the project goals followed by your recommendations. Make this section as detailed as possible to avoid any future problems.

You could then add 'Project Schedule', giving an estimate of how long the project will take. Then you should add 'Project Costs' and make sure you write something like: "The following costs are our initial estimates based on the work outlined in this proposal. Any additional work will be priced separately."

Finish off the proposal with your Terms, saying something like: "© Copyright in this document is the property of COMPANY NAME. Information and ideas in this proposal are provided in complete confidence to THE CLIENT and may not be forwarded to any third party without our prior consent".

An excellent top tip is to start your proposal with some background information about your business. Describe your background and outline your skills. Remind the prospect client why you're so good and why they should go ahead with your proposal.

Set payment milestones

Most clients are honest and trustworthy, but some can't be trusted when it comes to money. In which case, establish 'payment milestones' before you begin any project. It means you ask for a deposit – some freelancers always request 50% upfront before work begins. And you then ask for final payment before you hand over the completed work. For example, if you're developing a website, don't launch anything until you've been paid in full.

If the project is significant and will take many months to complete, then it's worth adding more payment milestones along the way. Whatever you do, make it clear before work begins that you expect these scheduled payments to take place and that if they don't pay, the work won't be finished.

Give yourself enough time

Want to know the number one reason why projects fail? It's because people haven't given themselves enough time to get the work done. Make sure you give yourself plenty of leeways to avoid any stress or impossible deadlines.

If the client is putting pressure on you to finish before the deadline, politely remind them of your original estimate and that you're 'on schedule' to get things done.

But what if you got it wrong? What if the project is taking longer than anticipated? Keep the communication channels open and be honest with your client. They'll appreciate being kept in the loop and will be more flexible if you stay in touch.

Anticipate common issues

With every project, there'll always be something that keeps rearing its ugly head. If you're a graphic designer, it's logo design. Clients will often give you a weak brief, expect you to read their minds and come up with some concepts without really knowing what they want. They'll then expect you to keep crafting logo concepts until they see something they like – even though your initial price included only ten. The problem here is that the client doesn't understand or respect that your time is involved and it's your time that they're paying for, not just the final logo concept.

In which case, you should make absolutely crystal clear that logo concepts require thorough briefs and make sure you add a clause in your written proposal, saying that the price includes X amount of logo concepts and not the final logo they choose. Add in a further line saying something like "any additional concepts will be charged at my hourly rate of £X".

Looking at web designers, they have a similar problem. Again, follow the above top tips and get a decent brief, get everything in writing and anticipate anything that might go wrong.

Take note for next time

After a project is done and dusted, sit back and consider any lessons you've learnt so that you may avoid them next time. For example, did you underestimate the time involved? Allow more time on your next project. Did you have communication issues with your client? Next time, arrange more face-to-face meetings. Did the client expect more than you agreed? Review your written proposals and ensure they're bullet-proof for the next project you embark on.


Overall, project management is a job in itself. For projects to be successful, they have to run smoothly. Hopefully, the above top tips will go a long way to help you keep clients happy and coming back for more.