Whenever you meet with a potential client about a project, you need to obtain certain information up front to help you learn more about the project, determine whether you and the client are a good match, and understand how to prepare your bid and draw up your contract. 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 focuses on the preliminary questions you should ask before accepting a project and presents checklists of several that you should pose to every client to acquire the necessary background information upon your initial meeting or meetings.
In part two of this series, Little will detail questions that will help you quickly come up to speed once you begin the project.
What you need to know up front
The more detail you can obtain about the project upon your first meeting with your potential client, the better able you’ll be to estimate the project scope, prepare a bid, and write a contract that accounts for any situations that may arise.

An added bonus is that these questions can also help you weed out nightmare clients. If a client is evasive, indecisive, or simply doesn’t seem to know much about the project, that’s a good sign that you can expect such problems as feature creep, disorganization, inability to access necessary resources, or even late payments.

I’ve divided the information you’ll want to have before you sign a contract into minimum requirements and then into questions to ask once the project appears to meet your baseline criteria. If your client can’t satisfy those, you don’t have a deal, and you don’t want to waste any more of the client’s time or yours. If the client and project check out fine on preliminary research, you can move on to the details of the project itself.

The minimum information
Before you even get into the details of the project, make the client aware of your basic requirements, and find out whether they will be met. The client may be able to answer these questions over the phone even before your first face-to-face meeting. Use your best discretion as to the timing of broaching these issues. You should always keep in mind the following general rules that you apply to every project:

  • Minimum payment: If you won’t work for less than $X for any project, make that clear. You don’t have to specify your bottom dollar, or the client will probably aim for that. Instead, specify a range for the type of project the client is proposing. Point out that this is simply a range, and you will be able to prepare an exact bid only after you learn more about the project.
  • Minimum or maximum contract period: If you don’t take on projects for less than a certain amount of time, such as two weeks, find out how long the client anticipates needing you. Similarly, consider whether you want to take on extended-term projects.

One of the biggest challenges contractors face is that of shifting or poorly defined project scope. So also ask the client:

  • Whether he or she believes that the project is well-defined.
  • If there is a specific timeline or deadline for the project.
  • For longer projects, if he or she can have an outline of the anticipated deliverable milestones ready at your next meeting.

The exact answers don’t matter as much as the client’s ability to address them. If the client seems completely indecisive or unsure, you should still proceed with your next meeting or next set of questions, but be warned. Ask the client to prepare this information for your next meeting.

A little more detail
Once you and the client have passed the preliminaries, you’re ready to find out more information about the project itself. The following questions will help you learn more about the project and whether it’s a good match for your skills. They’ll also help you clearly outline the project scope and other details in your contract.

Not all questions will apply every time to every project, but you can easily adapt them to your needs. For example, you’ll approach technical consulting differently than you would software development, but you need to define the parameters for each.

This first set of questions gives you a broad overview of the project:

  • Who will be your primary contact during your work for the client? (If that person is present, you can establish that person’s level of involvement by noting whether he or she is able to answer any of your other questions.)
  • What is the overall purpose of the product or project?
  • What is the client’s goal with this product or project? (If you don’t know what benefit the client hopes to realize from bringing you in, you don’t have the information necessary to create a compelling proposal.)
  • How involved will you be with the project? Will you be doing all the work or working along with other contractors or the client’s staff?
  • Is there any existing documentation or other introductory information for this project? (This could include user’s manuals, functional specifications, design specifications, or even memos and e-mails.)
  • How much, if any, of this project is already complete or underway?
  • What kind of documentation does the client expect you to create? (If developing software, this could range from simply using comments freely within the code to writing the user’s manual. Even if you aren’t in development, you’ll still need to document the work you do for the client, so find out what would be helpful to them.)
  • Will you be able to complete work on your own offsite, or do you need a dedicated PC at the client’s office?

Estimating time and looking for red flags
The following set of questions will give you an idea of how long the project will take and help alert you to possible problems:

  • What is the client’s time frame for this project? Ask the client to detail all possible deliverable milestones and to forecast a completion date based on his or her best estimate. Be alert to any gap between when the client wants the project complete and the time he or she realistically estimates it will take to complete it.
  • What potential problems might arise that could conflict with finishing the project by that date? If the client can’t think of any, press a little harder—there’s always something.
  • If the project has already started, what parts of the project does the client think are going well and which ones aren’t?
  • What revisions and changes to the project or product does the client foresee arising during the project? How much time and funding has the client budgeted for revisions? (Remember that at some point, you’ll also want to make clear how many revisions the client can request before you’ll start billing for the changes.)
  • What about changes after the project is completed? Does the client expect you to be available then?

For software development
If the project involves developing software, you’ll want to know the answers to each of these:

  • How frequently is the software updated?
  • Who are the primary users of the product, and what is their technical level? Are they familiar with this technology already?
  • Does the client upgrade all users at once, or do they support various versions of the product?
  • What’s the environment in which this product will be used?
  • What are the client’s upgrade, update, and post-development support needs?

With all this, you should be in a good position to create a detailed proposal. Next time, I’ll round out these question checklists so you can write a thorough contract tailored to a specific project and client and gather the details of the project once you start.

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

What types of problems are you likely to run into when you fail to ask these questions? If a potential client can’t answer your questions, should you turn down the work or try to help the client get organized? Post a comment below or send us a note.

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