So many designers I talk to have projects in all stages going on at all times. How many projects you can handle at one time is totally unique to you, but the problem comes in when you have a ton of open projects that you aren’t making progress on.
You never know when each client will come to you, magically ready for the next step. And because of that, you have no control over your schedule, projects, or process.
Before we get into this topic, know that if you are in this situation, you are NOT alone.
If your process isn’t set up to prevent this, it’s easy to let project after project remain open and unmoving.
Let’s dive into the easy part and prepare to close your open projects by setting boundaries.
Prepare to close your open projects
How you’ll go about closing your open projects will depend on how many projects you have open. For example, if you have more than 5, you won’t want to take the all of these steps and be bombarded with a ton of projects to complete all at once. But before we get that far, there are a few steps to take first.
Step 1: Accept blame
This first step is tough because it is easy and natural to blame our clients when things don’t go according to plan. But if you’re finding yourself in this position repeatedly, it’s time to take responsibility for your process not being set up in a way to ensure that projects make it through to completion.
I don’t say this to make you feel bad – please don’t!
But I do want you to go into this process without negative feelings toward your clients when you are the one that knows how the process should work.
Step 2: Get ready to set boundaries + stick to them
Now it’s time to prepare your boundaries for the step. To make it easier, you’ll have a couple of options for each client. So that’s what we’ll do the prep work for.
First, make a list of your open projects and which stage they are stuck in.
- Katie H – Revisions
- Melanie S – Brand approval
Next, indicate next to each project whether you’ve tried to follow-up.
- Katie H – Revisions – 2 follow-up emails
- Melanie S – Brand approval – No follow-ups
Take action to close your open projects
Now that you know where each project sits, it’s time to decide what the next step is and tell the client.
There are two options for how this can go.
Option 1: If you’ve never attempted to get the project back on track
If you’ve never done much to get a project back on track (fewer than 2 follow-ups), this option is for you. Like we covered in the last step, the fact that you have projects that aren’t moving likely isn’t the fault of your clients, so we want to give them the option to get things back on track. To do that, you’ll send an email that is positive, short, and to the point.
Subject: Next steps for our projectHi [NAME],I hope you’re doing well! Our project has gotten off track, but I am dedicated to getting it wrapped up so you can move forward with [BENEFIT OF HAVING THEIR PROJECT COMPLETE].We left off on [STEP] and to continue I need [WHAT YOU NEED].Please provide this by [DATE] and I will [YOUR NEXT STEP].[YOUR NAME]
For many clients, this is all the direction they’ll need to get back on track. However, if you don’t hear back from them, you can give them one more push.
Subject: Action required: Next steps for our projectHi [NAME],I reached out to you [LAST WEEK/A COUPLE WEEKS AGO] about [STEP THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO TAKE] and have not heard back.I’d love to move forward and complete this project for you. If you haven’t, take a look through my last email and provide [WHAT YOU NEED] by [DATE].If I don’t hear back from you by then, I will close our project. If you decide to continue in the future, my next available start date is [DATE] and the project fee will be [PRICE].I look forward to hearing from you![YOUR NAME]
With this option, you’re giving yourself permission to close the project and leaving the final decision up to them. If you don’t hear back after that email is sent or you’ve followed up several times previously, move on to Option 2.
Option 2: If you’ve attempted to reach out to them previously
If you have clients on your list who you’ve tried to follow-up with two or more times, I encourage you to simply shut down the project. Keep your email to them polite, positive, short, and unapologetic. Say something like:
Hi [NAME],I haven’t heard back from you since I reached out to you on [DATE] so at this time our project is closed. I’ve attached the relevant files we’ve worked on, including [LIST].If you would like to finish the project in the future, my next available start date is [DATE] and the project fee will be [PRICE], paid prior to booking.I wish you the best![YOUR NAME]
With a script like this, you’re getting the project off your plate, providing them with anything they may have already paid for, and giving them an option to continue that wouldn’t put you in a tough spot – meaning you get to decide when your next opening is and how much you would be paid for it. I would encourage you to add at least a 50% rebooking fee. And if you don’t want to work with this client again, simply remove that part of the email and recommend someone else instead.
Also, be prepared to stand your ground. When you show a client that you are serious about your process, they may attempt to push back. I encourage you to stick with exactly what you said in that email.
Make sure it doesn’t happen again
Now that you’ve taken action to start closing your open design projects, it’s time to ensure that you won’t end up in the same situation down the road.
Step 1: Get clear on your project process and set due dates
Compared to the last step, this one is easy! But if you haven’t done it before, its time to create a step-by-step process for your design projects. This includes every step that you take and every step that your client takes.
There’s your first action step, list it all out!
Once you’ve completed your list, it’s time to set due dates for both you and your clients.
For example, maybe on Days 1-3 of a brand design project, you work on gathering project inspiration and making a mood board. At the end of Day 3, you send it for approval. Then, Day 6 might be when any client feedback is required.
Map that out for your entire process. It’s okay if this differs for each of your packages – it probably will!
For a little more help with this step, check out this post that covers getting clear on your project timelines.
Step 2: Finalize your process and set your boundaries
This is when we’ll take everything you’ve done up to this point and make sure it sticks moving forward. We’re going to create consequences, tweak your payment schedule, and update your contract. Let’s get started!
Clarify deadlines and expectations
Before we can create consequences for missed deadlines, we need to make sure your expectations and deadlines are insanely clear to your clients.
First, make sure you have your project schedule outlined in your client welcome material so they know what to expect. A sample schedule that you don’t need to update each time is perfect!
Next, use a project management tool like Asana to list out each task that your client will need to complete with information on that task and due dates. If your clients absolutely hate project management tools, that’s okay too. Instead, make sure every email you send to them ends with information on upcoming due dates.
Set consequences for missed deadlines
Once you’ve clarified your deadlines and expectations, we’ll create consequences for what will happen if a client misses a deadline.
For example, each time my clients miss a deadline, there is a $150 delay fee added to their invoice. If something is more than 3 days late, their project is taken off of my calendar completely and a 50% rebooking fee is added to their project. These consequences might seem harsh, but they account for open spots in my schedule that would be created and night/weekend work I’d need to do to catch up.
But as you can imagine, I don’t tend to have missed deadlines. 😉
I encourage you to do it this way too. Set your consequences based on how missed deadlines will affect you and your other projects.
Set your payment due dates
As frustrating as it is to be stuck waiting for content or client feedback, waiting on payments is worse. If you’ve been breaking up your payments based on your progress in the project, that is part of the problem.
For example, maybe you require 50% to book the spot in your schedule and the other 50% isn’t due until the project is complete.
While that might feel “fair” to you, this setup doesn’t encourage your clients to pay their invoices on time or keep the project on track. Instead, it makes it really easy for them to put the project off because putting it off means not paying an invoice.
So rather than basing payment due dates on project progress, you’re going to set them based on calendar dates. Your first payment might be due to book a spot in your schedule, the second one 4 weeks later, etc.
This way, you’ll get paid regardless of what happens to the project timeline and you know to stop the project immediately if a payment is missed.
Update your contract
Last, after you’ve determined your new project process, how payments will be broken up, and what consequences for delays will be, it’s time to update your contract.
Include each deadline and consequence in a way that is easy for your clients to understand. Also, add a section that allows you to close a project after a certain amount of inactivity – whether that is 3 days or 3 months.
You can do this!
If you’re new to setting boundaries, this post may have pushed you out of your comfort zone. But remember, you are running a BUSINESS.
Doing things this way will keep your projects on track and you’ll be surprised at how willing your clients will be to respect your process when it’s easy for them to understand.