Become the Check-in Hero

In this article I want to offer some strategies for managing client communication during a project. Often thought of as a pebble in the shoe of creative flow and productivity, frequent check-ins with your clients can actually help you be more productive, deliver a more successful product, and be a client-hero. The key is having a strategy.

What is a check-in exactly?

Basically it’s any short point of contact with your client. Its purpose can be anything from providing a quick update on the progress made that week, to asking a quick question about content/functionality, to sending a request to schedule a more extensive meeting.

It should be a few lines in an email (or project management tool like Basecamp or Trello), or a 5-10 minute phone call.

Check-ins shmeck-ins

A quick email, a short phone call. Meh. Who needs that really?

Well, for starters your client does. They just handed you a big bag of money to make them a thing and until you deliver said thing, they will be curious and likely to inquire about the progress you are making. The bigger the project, the bigger the curiosity. There may also be a palpable level of nervousness coming from a first-time client. After all, they don’t have a history of trust with you yet.

You need these check-ins too. These short & sweet exchanges are an opportunity to catch small issues before they become massive points of contention. Even if you have done an amazing job at scoping out the project at the start and your client was crystal clear, you can’t predict every edge case and some things will need to be revised. These quick points of contact are an opportunity to adapt and tweak before it becomes too complicated or costly to do so.

The key to avoiding random, invasive check-ins is to schedule them ahead of time Tweet

Schedule those check-ins

The key to avoiding random, invasive check-ins is to schedule them ahead of time!

During the on-boarding of your client, you’re hopefully letting them know what the process is for working with you: do you communicate via email or do you prefer using a project management tool? How can they reach you by phone? What are your standard working hours? Terms of payment? And so on.

The scheduled check-in is just one more item to add to that list. Essentially you will be checking-in with them on a consistent and predictable schedule to provide updates and answer any quick questions they may have on the progress of their project.

How often should I check-in?

This will vary from project to project and client to client, but I try to stick to once per week. Smaller projects with simple scope are usually fine with just a couple lines in an email, while more involved projects (or certain types of clients) may benefit more for a quick call.

Either way, it should be:

  1. Short and sweet. A quick status update on what you did that week, what’s coming up next, any snags you may have hit, and a head’s up on what you might need from them to keep going.
  2. Consistent. The entire value of these check-ins rests on the fact that you and your client can count on touching base, without fail, every x days.

The benefits

Now that we have defined check-ins and established a system for doing them, let’s look at some of the benefits:

1. Client trust

When you first tell your client about your check-in process, you may get various reactions ranging from sighs of relief to water-filled eyes of gratitude. Why? Because you have taken full responsibility for keeping them in the loop.

They will never be in the anxious position of wondering what’s going on, when they might hear from you, or whether an acceptable amount of time has gone by for them to call and ask for a status update. In fact they can pretty much put the whole project out of their minds knowing they have a spot reserved for it in their schedule. It’s really the secret sauce and I have yet to meet a client who didn’t love this.

You may also find clients are less likely to micro-manage (which usually comes from insecurity) and more likely to be open to your ideas because you are acting like a true professional.

2. Less context switching

If you’ve ever done any presenting at a conference or workshop, you will be familiar with politely asking people to hold their questions until the planned question period. This is exactly the same thing.

Your client knows that their time with you is coming. Rather than sending the sporadic hey-I-just-had-a-thought messages throughout the week, you might ask that they actually combine them into one email delivered a day or two before your check-in so you can prepare.

If they still insist on sending them as inspiration hits, at least it’s not adding to your cognitive load because you have a process now ?. Unless it’s an emergency, just flag-n-forget until your scheduled check-in. You can address things then.

You have a process now ? Unless it’s an emergency, just flag-n-forget until your scheduled check-in. Tweet

3. Built-in mini-milestones

If you aren’t great about creating your own structure, this gives you mini-milestones or artificial deadlines which is particularly great for large projects. Knowing you have a weekly meeting with your client forces you 1) to make significant progress and 2) break-down large projects into manageable chunks.

What’s the catch?

There are actually very few down-sides, however there are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Keep the phone calls in check!

The last thing you want is for these 5-10 minutes exchanges to become an endless, rambling conversation. If you have some chatty clients, it’s going to be up to you take control of those calls, to keep things on topic, and politely set time limits.

Additionally, if a topic comes up during the check-in which clearly requires a more involved conversation, then you should schedule an actual meeting for that specific thing at a different time. You can think of it like:

Diving deeper into this topic is out of scope for this check-in. Let’s open calendars and set-up a proper meeting to explore this further.

Pro tip for phone calls: Shoot off a quick email after you speak just to summarize the call. Everyone forgets things at some point and paper trails keeps everyone on the same page!

2. Email exchanges may need a sanity check

The upside of email is that it can be really efficient to fire-off a quick status update, especially if you don’t love the phone. However if your client has sent over some complex questions during the week, or you need clarifications on things before you can move forward, email can quickly become a time-consuming mess.

If you are going to be spending more than 5-10 minutes writing and replying to emails, I highly suggest you plan for a call instead. It will be more efficient and usually things are clearer when you’re speaking live.

Final thoughts

Once a project kicks-off most designers/developers don’t reach out much unless they need something: some content here, a little feedback there, and let’s not forget invoice time.

As for clients, they tend to reach out for updates on the progress of the project like telemarketers: always at the wrong time. Maybe there’s not much to report right now, or you’re deep in another project that day.

Two of the most frustrating things for anyone trying to get real work done are context switching and interruptions. Getting in front of and planning for them will benefit everyone involved. It will also make you stand out as a proactive designer/developer who never goes dark!


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