How to Read the Mind of a Client in 3 Easy Steps

Apparently, I’m supposed to read my clients’ minds. I’m supposed to know exactly the style, content, and length of every project a client wants taken care of, typically on the basis of a one-line email.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only freelancer who is expected to offer telepathy as a form of client communication, either. Actually becoming telepathic isn’t particularly likely, but there are a few ways to get a better idea of what a client is actually thinking.

1. Ask every question you can think of

Every client has different needs — and it seems like the clients who expect us to read their minds always have a few out-of-the-ordinary requirements. That means asking every question you can think of will pay off: if you can get the answers that will tell you what your client is thinking, you’ve eliminated the guesswork. Even questions that seem like they should have obvious answers can have surprising answers.

There’s one question in particular that I’ve found crucial — asking a client what his goals for a project are can provide an immense amount of information, especially if you’re working with a client who isn’t quite sure on the details of what he wants yet. Goals are often the key to knowing whether the design or copy you have in mind will actually be what your client wants. If a client comes to you asking for a website and offering no other information, for instance, it’s easy to assume that the client wants something that provides his customers a way to find him online. It takes more of a leap to automatically assume that a client wants to sell products through this new website. Knowing that information in advance will make the design process much easier.

2. Ask for work examples that the client likes

I’ve had clients who weren’t happy with a project simply because it didn’t look like a website operated by someone else in the industry — a website I wasn’t even aware of. Simply knowing what those clients really liked ahead of time would have lead me to take a very different approach to the project, rather than having to try to graft a few elements on to my design at the last minute. It doesn’t have to be much, either: a website or two can be enough to give you insight in to what your client likes. I also make a point of asking exactly what the client likes about a particular design or piece of copy.

You do have to be a little cautious of how closely you follow an example your client sends you. I’ve actually had a client ask me to copy a site pretty much intact and just swap in their information. Trying to explain that you can’t do that — especially after you’ve specifically asked for examples that the client likes — can be difficult. But making a point of explaining that having an identical website, brochure, or other project won’t actually help a client set himself apart from the competition seems to do the trick.

3. Provide extra drafts or mock-ups

If you’re still uncertain about exactly where your client wants you take a project, it can make sense to create a mock-up or draft earlier in the process than you might otherwise. On a blogging project I did recently for a client, I wrote up a list of a month’s worth of titles, with a short description of what each post would include. The time spent writing those descriptions was minimal — but wound up saving me a whole lot of trouble and grief down the road, because the concept my client had of what her blog should include was very different than what I had understood from our discussions.

It can slow down a project a little bit when you add in extra drafts or mock-ups: it’s very tempting to just get in there and get the project done, rather than offering a client lots of opportunities for revisions. But offering at least one chance for the client to review what you’re working on early in the process can reduce the number of times you hand a project over to a client only to hear complaints that they hadn’t gotten what they wanted.

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