12 Questions You Need to Ask Every Client BEFORE You Accept Their Project

Have you ever gotten involved on a project and then realized that neither the project nor the client is ideal? The project that was going to be so great for you turns into a nightmare, and you’re stuck. We’ve all been there. We’ve each had these experiences as freelancers, if we been freelancing for any length of time. How can you avoid the trauma and the drama? By asking these 12 questions before your client signs your contract!

When you do a little homework and investigation up front, you can reduce the risk of taking on a client who turns sour on you once the project has begun. When you can make an assessment in advance of signing the contract, you have the information you need and freedom (and freelancing is about freedom, remember) to walk away before you’ve made any commitments.

Working with a client means you are in a relationship with that client. Client relationships are more like marriages than they are like dating. You have made a commitment and you have to make it work. You need to see it through. It’s a bad idea for a freelancer to simply walk away from a project out of exasperation with the client. The best thing is to not get to that point in the first place.

No matter how great a prospect appears to be, doing some strategic on-boarding can ensure you are working with the best kind of client. Ask your prospects these 12 questions before you agree to work with them:

Have you ever worked with a designer (copywriter, photographer, illustrator) before?

In asking this, you want to know what the client will expect from you in the way of  a working relationship. You do not want to work with enterprises that have not experienced working with an independent creative. Don’t make yourself the guinea pig they cut their teeth on.

If the prospect has worked with a designer in the past, ask 2 follow-up questions:

How did it go?

Why are you making a change?

You really do want to know the reason the prospect is talking with you about their upcoming project and not their previous designer. You also want to look for clues about how they regard that person. Are they speaking respectfully or dissing the person?

You can also check with their previous designer, if you know who that is, about how things went with the client. This may be tricky if they have not actually moved on from that designer, but it can be helpful to you. Consider is as checking a reference.

When did you establish your business (or organization)?

Do not work with start-ups. Let other independent creatives work with start-ups. Again, you do not want to do work with an enterprise that has little knowledge of its market, does not know the viability of its product or service, or does not have history and culture you can draw from for your creative solutions.

The one exception is if the start-up is a new venture by an already successful business owner. You can look at the owner’s track record and make an informed decision.

What budget have you allocated for the project, and are you funded?

Many times a client will not have a stated budget, but will balk when you provide a ballpark range for your services. The balk reveals that there is a budget. The fact is that there is always a budget, stated or unstated. If the client is reluctant to start talking about creative fees, expense reimbursements and payment terms, walk away. They are not likely to respect you enough to pay you. The ideal client understands that you provide necessary business services in the form of creative work and intellectual property, and is willing to pay appropriately for that work. An unwillingness to discuss money should be a red flag to you.

On the other hand, a prospective client who is over-eager to pay you or over-pay you may be scamming you. Check out my article on scams that target designers and other freelance creatives.

The question about where the funds are coming from is legitimate to ask. You need to know how the client expects to pay you – check, credit card, etc., and if they have the funds set aside in advance for this project. You do not want to end up working for free (that is NOT what freelancing is for).

Who is responsible for approvals?

Depending upon the client’s business structure, approval may come from a board member, an officer, a committee or board, or partners. The more people responsible for approval, or the more you will need to interact with, the more complex the project will become. This is compounded when different people give you different opinions or conflicting information. This is something you will want to consider and adjust your creative fees upward to allow for extra work and even organizational politics you will encounter.

Someone,  somewhere in the organization will have final say when approving designs, copy, and images. That’a the person you need to work with.

What is the reason for the creative work? Why now?

The basis for most of my new projects has been that the client needs to make a change. They need a new approach to their branding, they were launching a new product or service, or simply needed to refresh their dated, once trendy, graphic assets.

Early in my career, I accepted a project from a client that had been in business for over 10 years, and had a track record of success. They claimed to want to refresh their visual communications just to stay updated. These are legitimate reasons, of course, and I accepted the project. But during the project I learned that the business was about to close because it was losing money and had huge debts. They were making one last-ditch effort to turn things around and putting a lot of hope in my designs. They were not able to pay me the balance of what they owed me for my work. I learned not too many months later that the client was out of business.

You want to find out  to know not only why the prospect is approaching you, but why they are approaching anyone.

Is this an exclusive project offer?

Prospects will often solicit numerous proposals. This is especially true in the case of government agencies, institutions and non-profits. You are one of many creatives they are considering. You should know that. Why? Because you can then make a choice about whether to compete with other creatives for the project or not. I don’t pitch. I want to work with clients who want to work with me because of my reputation and ability, not because my fees are the most affordable.

If the prospect is approaching several (or dozens) of creatives, you should follow up with 2 more questions:

Who else is being asked to submit a proposal?

What will the decision be based on?

You will want to know who you are competing with. Check them out. Look at their work and their client rosters. Read their blogs or check out their YouTube channels. What is the quality of clients they work with?

And you will want to know what the deciding factors are. Price? Expertise? Reputation? Similar work in your portfolio?

Then it’s up to you to decide whether or not to continue discussion with the client. You’re a freelancer, remember? You are free to choose who you will work with and what projects you will take on. Really, do you want to be the freelancer who wins the project just because you are the cheapest option?


Really, do you want to be the freelancer who wins the project just because you are the cheapest option?


How did you hear about me?

This question is a way of checking up on your professional reputation and how well your marketing and social media are working. Keep track of how your clients come to you. For the past 10 years, 100% of my new clients and projects have come through referrals from existing clients. That says something. I encourage you to strive for that as well. Don’t stop marketing, but be the kind of independent creative people will want to work with.

If the prospect was referred by someone you’ve worked with, or a friend or family member, you will want to follow up with a note of thanks (I recommend it’s handwritten and sent with a stamp), whether or not you get the project. Someone out there is thinking of you. Acknowledge it. Gratitude fosters good will and lets the referrer know you appreciate their interest.

Two follow up questions you should ask:

Why are you asking me to submit this proposal?

What is it about my work or my process that you believe is a good fit for your business?

You want to know if the prospect has done his or her homework and understands what you do. I’ve decline several projects that were referred by clients simply because the projects were out of my scope of capability. These prospects didn’t visit my web site at all, and were entirely uninformed about what I do and how I work. I’ve declined straight photography gigs because there was no design work with it.

By asking these questions you are also letting the prospect know that you are selective in who you work with. This is important, because it builds respect and mutuality. It sets up the condition that you expect an effective, professional and mutually beneficial working relationship.

Your current projects should result in future projects.

As you can see, these questions are not focused on the project, but on who is commissioning the project. The character and experience of your clients directly impacts your working relationship before, during and after a project. If you ask the right questions up front, you set the stage for serving high-quality clients, enjoying a great deal of creativity, and encourage repeat business and referrals. Current projects should result in future projects. In other words, you make yourself more successful by choosing to work with clients with whom you will be successful.

Your Turn:

What on boarding questions do you ask your prospective clients, and why? Share them other readers in the comments below.