The Dreaded Launch: What to Do When Clients Get Cold Feet

October 25, 2006

Posted in Small Business and Web Industry.

cold feet
pl.n. Slang. Fearfulness or timidity preventing the completion of a course of action.

The project is 99% done. The design is approved. The IA is approved. The site is built and content is in the pages. You’ve tested everything. It’s ready to launch. But you don’t. The client won’t approve it.

The client has cold feet.

Running Smoothly: Efficient Projects

Recently, I took a sample of some recent redesign projects. I discovered that a typical web project averages 154 hours. At 75% billable rate (30 hours/week), that breaks down to just over 5 weeks. Split among three people, such a project could be done in under a month.

It never does.

Our average project seems to take eight weeks from initiation to launch. The obvious reason is that we’re not working 154 uninterrupted hours. We spend days of non-billable time waiting for clients to produce assets, approve designs, etc. These are the gaps in the project.

It’s in our interest to reduce those gaps. My projects focus on content before we produce designs. This prevents the design from getting stale while we wait for content. It also helps us keep the client moving forward – they want to see that design, and you’re not showing it to them until they’ve got their content done.

But when you’ve done all the work and things are ready to go forward, what can you say to the client that won’t launch?

Cold Feet: Why and What to Do About It

1. Fear of commitment. It’s the end of the project. They’ve invested time and money. Launching means they’re going to say something to the public, and this scares clients.

Answer: It’s a website, not a stone tablet and chisel. Unlike traditional print, radio, or television media, a website can be easily changed after launch. Set the expectation that this website is a work in progress. It doesn’t have to be perfect because it can be improved again later.

2. Fear of being alone. Once you launch the site, the client is in over their head. So far you’ve been holding their hand and they feel safe. Now, you’re asking them to ride alone.

Answer: Commit to the client, not to the project. When you launch the site, do you leave them to fend for themselves? You shouldn’t. Check in on them and have follow-up meetings after launch. Keep holding their hand and make sure they know you’ll be there after you launch.

3. They’re not completely satisfied. The text isn’t quite right. They aren’t sure if they need this page or if they should add a page. They have more content they want to write.

Answer: Show the difference. They may never be satisfied with it. Again, it’s a website – it’s not permanent. It can be fixed later. But to urge them to move forward (rather than try to fix it all now), compare the new website to their old site. The value of launching is that it’s often a huge step forward from where they have been. Pull up their old site (or if they don’t have any website, it’s even better) and ask them to consider how much business they’re losing for each day that they delay launch.

4. Client is MIA You haven’t heard anything from the client in days or weeks. They aren’t answering the phone or responding to emails. The project stagnates.

Answer: Stay in touch Build a relationship where you hold regular meetings – weekly, perhaps – and stick to them. Stay in touch via email and phone a few times a week. That way, it’s unusual for any gap more than a few days. If you have to, contact the boss or another contact within the company and do a friendly check-in. There may be extenuating circumstances.

5. Out of money Sometimes a client runs out of money. This is a terrible situation to be in as a business. When you can’t pay your bills, you have to deal with creditors calling to collect.

Answer: Be flexible. If it’s apparent that money has become an issue, offer to be flexible. Explain that you want to move forward, but understand they may need a little time to get rolling again. Ask them to settle the bill for work performed and you can shelve the project until they’re ready to move forward again. If things aren’t too tight, you can offer to spread out payment a bit to keep things moving forward. Don’t just let them off the hook (that’s a surefire way to shoot yourself in the foot). In some unfortunate instances, the client might file bankruptcy and you won’t get paid for any of your work at all. Just because you lose the project doesn’t mean you have to lose the relationship.

Manage the Relationship

Launching the site means increased exposure and expanded portfolio for you, but it’s a scary process for many clients. From the beginning, you need to set expectations about timeline and responsibilities. Let the client know what happens when you launch their project and what will happen afterwards. Assuage their fears early and they won’t grow into fears later on.

In the end, one of the most valuable parts of a project is the relationship you build. I’m not talking about becoming best friends with your client; I’m talking about building your business. Happy customers are evangelists. They send you more work both from their own future needs and from their networks.