Questions you should ask your client once you start a project

You've done your homework about a potential client and the project you're being hired to complete. But how do you know you haven't left anything out? Use this helpful checklist to address any issues that might come up once the project takes off.

As you negotiate contracts with clients, there’s a lot of information you need to know up front in order to draw up a contract: your payment, a project timeline, contacts within the client company, and other details about the job they need done.

Similarly, once you take on a project, you need to know as much as possible about it so you can hit the ground running. This article details the last few issues you’ll need to settle before anyone signs on the dotted line. It also lists the details to gather once you start the project that will help you get off to a good start and quickly become productive for your new client.
In last week’s article, Little presented questions you should ask any prospective client during your first meetings to establish minimum requirements and to help you prepare a bid.
What you need to know for your contract
Once you’ve covered all the questions in last week’s article, your notebook will be full of details about the project. You should be ready to create your bid and a time estimate. Those answers should enable you to address in your contract the issues of project deliverables, timing, revisions, and scope creep. So, you need only a few more details to help you craft the contract. Some of these questions are for the client while others you simply need to set out for yourself. They include:
  • What resources are you responsible for providing? What resources is the client responsible for providing (e.g., specialized software and/or hardware)?
  • What’s the payment schedule? If you settled upon a fixed fee, what money will you be paid up front, at specific milestones, and upon completion?
  • If applicable, under what circumstances can you use a subcontractor? Under what circumstances can the client reassign some of your work or even the entire project to someone else?
  • If you’re creating a product, who owns the rights to the work? (In IT, the work done is usually deemed a “work made for hire,” and the client owns it.)

Administrative details
Once you have a signed contract, it’s time to get to work. Just as when you were researching the client and his or her needs, ferreting out the details at the start of the project will save you time and prevent frustration later.

First, you need to get some preliminary administrative details out of the way. In addition to your hiring manager, you might need to talk to other departments such as payroll and HR to get this information. You’ll want to find out:
  • Who is your main contact for this project? This person should be knowledgeable about the project and able to sign off on your invoices.
  • To whom do you give your invoices, and how much detail does the client expect on them?
  • If you and the client have agreed that you would be reimbursed for certain expenses, ask about the process you should follow to get reimbursed and the supporting documentation you’ll need to submit.
  • How does the client want you to keep the appropriate people informed of your progress?
  • If you’re working offsite, how will you and the client exchange materials between their offices and yours? For example, you might use a courier service, or you might agree to drive to their office to pick up or drop off materials. If you’re on an hourly payment schedule, specify whether your transit time in such cases is billable.

If you’re doing some or all of your work offsite, you and the client should have already discussed under what circumstances you might be needed in the office. You should clarify your work habits with the client: If there are days or times at which you are not available, make that known.

Orient yourself to people and procedures
You’ll need to know the people to contact throughout the project, as well as the right folks to approach with ideas or suggestions or to inform when there’s a problem. You’ll also want to make sure the appropriate people know to inform you when changes to the project or timeline arise. Be sure to address these issues:
  • Who are your primary contacts for questions and assistance? Get their names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers.
  • What is the review process for your work? Who is involved in the reviews, and who has final sign-off authority? You need to make sure the sign-off process is established; otherwise, you won’t know if your work is satisfactory, and you’ll leave yourself open to unexpected revisions from “higher-ups.”
  • What’s the procedure for handling delays in the project, both from you and from the client’s staff? When a client delay affects you, find out how you’ll be advised, or you risk getting left out of the loop—especially if you work offsite.
  • Similarly, what’s the procedure for handling changes to the product or the project? Again, you need to be kept informed, especially if there are changes to the project parameters or specifications.
  • If applicable, find out how much latitude you have in deviating from project parameters. Is there any room for your creativity or for suggestions? To whom do you present ideas and suggestions?

If you’re developing software, find out about testing procedures:
  • What is the procedure for unit testing? Integration testing?
  • Will there be end-user testing? How will it be performed?
  • For all phases of testing, who is responsible for setting up the test environment?
  • Has the client accounted for the modifications that will arise from each phase of testing and their effect on the project timeline?

Gather background information
Lastly, get down to the detail on the project itself. Fine-tune your understanding of the project by asking these questions:
  • Does the client want you to use or incorporate any current company standards, templates, or other guidelines?
  • On a detailed level, what are the required elements of the project? Has the company completed similar work before? If so, ask to see it.

Now you’re set. You know who your contact person is for any situation, and you and the client both know your procedures for billing, scheduling, and updating. The client also knows you expect to be kept informed of decisions that affect the project and how to do so. Of course, some complications arise even in the best-planned project, but when you know the right procedures and people to approach, you’ll find your work goes much more smoothly.

Meredith Little wears many hats as a self-employed writer, including technical writer, documentation specialist, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and travel writer.

How should you deal with clients who can’t answer your questions about a project? Does this throw up a “red flag” that the project might run into problems? Post a comment below, or send us a note.

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