What’s more exciting than having a client discover your e-learning work and track you down to do a project? A successful project conclusion where you enjoyed working together, everyone was delighted with the final product, the budget worked out beautifully, and you got paid for all of your hard work.
Sadly, as many independent e-learning professionals can attest, that’s not always the outcome. Even experienced designers can take on a client that causes a lot of headaches now and then, but if you’re new to offering your services to the e-learning world you may be more vulnerable to agreeing to a project you’ll eventually regret.
Here are the questions I’ve learned to ask myself when I evaluate someone as a potential new client.
1. Who are they and what do they do?
In the same way that companies expect to see good information about you along with a strong portfolio, you should expect similar signs of credibility from them. When someone contacts me to do work I expect to see:
- A professional website. If you’re talking to a well-known company and their contact information matches what you’re seeing on the site, this is easy. If you’re talking to “Buster” from “E-Learning WOW!” you’ll want to take a closer look. When in doubt, I want to see a quality website with names, team pictures and bios, contact information, detailed images and information about their products and services, and some history about the company. If they don’t have an online presence that makes me feel comfortable it’s not a deal-breaker, but it makes me pay closer attention to the rest of my criteria.
- Their existing training. If they’re looking to gauge your interest in taking on a project and getting an estimate from you, they’ll need to share some files. I generally want to see whatever source files I’d be using in addition to existing courses they like or want to improve upon. If they can’t produce these things or the quality of the desired product isn’t something I want to be involved with, I pass on taking them as a client.
2. Do they genuinely want to work with you?
These questions will help you get a sense of whether they’re shopping around and contacting 50 different designers from a list or selecting you because you’re their dream designer.
Is there an application process? If someone contacts me about a project but first wants me to register in their system, submit a résumé or letter of interest, or submit a Request for Proposal (RFP)—it’s not a fit for me. I’ve found these are warning signs that someone’s shopping around with a lot of designers, and my past experience shows it’s not a good use of my time to engage them. You’ll have to establish your own criteria based on your experiences.
One note: This is different from providing your information after you’ve had enough discussions to know you want to go forward with the project. At that point they should certainly ask you for some sort of paperwork or have you go through a process to get you established in their system.
- Do they want something for nothing? If someone’s asking for spec work or they want to give you their design problem so you can give them a “sample” of how you’d solve it before going forward, they’re asking you to design something for nothing. I have no patience for that. My work is demonstrated in my portfolio and high-quality clients do not ask for more than that. My advice: if they want a free sample, refer them to your portfolio.
- Are they already fans of your work? If so, you’ve hit the sweet spot. They already know exactly what you do, they’re excited about the opportunity to work with you, and they’ll likely treat you with enormous respect. If they meet all of your other criteria, there’s a good chance it’ll be smooth sailing ahead.
3. Are their expectations realistic?
Even for great clients the initial answer may be no, but you can dig deeper.
- What’s their timeline? This answer can be whack-a-doodle from even the best of clients, who may insist you need to design and build 30 new courses to be launched next month. Fortunately, the A-level client will listen intently as you talk them through what the project would look like once calendared—including their part in providing materials and performing review cycles—and quickly realize the end product needs to be reimagined or staged over a longer period of time. The D-level client won’t.
- What’s their budget? Before jumping into a project you’ll need to provide a project estimate or perhaps your hourly rate, and it’s up to you to decide if what they offer to pay you is fair and realistic. If you don’t feel comfortable with the proposed compensation for the proposed work, don’t take the project.
- Does the project fit your expertise? Someone may come to me because they love my work, but if their expectation is that I’m going to produce elaborate custom video shoots, code from scratch, or use an e-learning development tool besides Storyline—I’ll gently steer them elsewhere.
4. Do they pay their bills?
This is one of my first questions when designers tell me they’ve been approached by someone they don’t know and they’re eager to start working for them. I’ve been lucky and have never been stiffed on a project, but I’ve had to pursue my share of slow-paying clients. It’s in your best interest to ascertain whether someone’s a good risk up front.
- Do you inherently trust them because you feel they’re legit? If the company that gets in touch with you is so big they’re a household name, there’s a good chance they pay their bills.
- Can someone vouch for them? In the best-case scenario, you’ll know a fellow designer who’s done work for them or knows someone who has. They can tell you whether they pay at lightning speed or if they disappear without paying once the work is done.
- Are there international considerations? If you choose to work with companies in other countries, you’ll want to feel even more confident you’ll get paid. I know how to pursue payment I’m owed from a company in my own country, but I don’t want to figure out how to do it in other countries. Also, be sure you agree on the currency you’re using, how money will be transferred to you, and who is going to pay any transfer fees.
5. Who makes the decisions?
Knowing who’s in charge from the start can save you a lot of wasted time and effort.
- Does the person you’re talking to have the authority to approve you as a vendor? It’s possible that whoever contacts you initially will play a key role in the project and can give you a lot of good information, but you need to find out who actually makes the decision to contract with you.
- Who does interim reviews and who has final project sign-off? This might not sound like something you’d need to know from square one, but it helps clarify who should be involved throughout. More than once I’ve seen a project go skidding sideways when it became apparent the vendor didn’t understand who was really in charge, so they didn’t involve that person until the very end.
6. What’s their reputation?
Most importantly, I expect the same level of professionalism from clients as I expect from myself; and even though the work won’t bear my name in the end, I want it to be associated with a company I respect.
- Were they referred to you by someone in the industry? It’s easy to evaluate their reputation if the person referring them has personal knowledge they can share that’s helpful. If they’re just forwarding a blind inquiry, that’s less helpful.
- What have you observed or heard from others? Test your assumptions about a potential client by asking other e-learning professionals about their experience. I’ve gotten good tips from my peers that have helped me avoid clients I was considering working with.
In the End: Trust Your Own Judgment
The key to deciding whether to work with someone new is to follow your instincts and trust your judgment. Asking yourself questions like the ones I’ve shared here can put some structure around gathering the information you need to help you make client decisions you won’t regret.
If you have other criteria you use to evaluate clients, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Jackie Van Nice is a proud Articulate Super Hero who has written about her journey in the E-Learning Heroes community in From E-Learning Newbie to Super (Hero) Success Story on E-Learning Heroes. She’s been happily running her own instructional design and development business for the last thirteen years, where she creates innovative and refreshing e-learning for her clients–all of whom easily survived her screening process. You can check out her ever-helpful e-learning blog and connect with her at www.jackievannice.com.