When you create transparency in your workflow, clients feel connected and informed throughout projects–and they’ll keep using your services instead of shopping around. Here’s a 3-step system to create loyal clients by increasing transparency.

There’s a fundamental problem with the billable hour–your goals and your client’s are inherently misaligned.
Your client wants you to produce a quality project while billing as few hours as possible, but you want to take your time and get it done right.
At the root of it, your job is to make your clients happy–because unhappy clients don’t pay their bills. But making them happy isn’t just about producing a high-quality website. It’s about making them trust that you’re working as hard as you can during the hours they’re paying for.
Transparency is crucial to positive, trusting client relationships. When you create transparency in your workflow, you can eliminate any suspicion that you’re taking advantage of them–and they’ll keep using your services again and again.
Here’s a 3-step system to create loyal clients by increasing transparency.

1. Set realistic expectations

unrealistic expectations
Between getting client approvals, making multiple homepage directions, and redoing work based on client changes, it’s difficult to know what’s going to slow down your process. Chalk it up to Hofstadter’s law, which states that projects always take longer than you planned them to, even when you build in that extra time.
Clients who have experience with design might be more understanding, but others will be furious when they see those “surprise” hours on their bill.
Even though you know where those extra hours came from, they don’t–they just see the final product and the invoice. And we’re biologically wired to have a negative impression of people who break our trust. A study from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research shows that it’s our natural inclination to take action against a trust-breaker–which means your clients will be pulling their business and giving it to someone else.

Under-promising by overestimating the time it will take to complete a project means a client won’t feel betrayed by any “surprises” later on–and maybe they’ll even be surprised by how efficient you are.

Solution: USE the PERT formula to give an accurate estimate

But you don’t have to just take a random guess when you’re not sure how long each project will take. The PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) Formula turns time estimating into a science – so your excitement about a project won’t make you say that you can get it done sooner than you actually can.
The formula calculates a time estimate using both the best case and worst case scenarios to give an accurate estimate while simultaneously building in time for when things inevitably go wrong.
Here’s the math breakdown. In the PERT Formula, (To) stands for “Most Optimistic Time Required,” (Tm) stands for “Time Most Likely Required,” and (Tp) stands for “Most Pessimistic Time Required.”
PERT formula
Let’s say it usually takes you nine hours to build a client’s website. If everything goes well, it could take you seven. If you hit every possible roadblock, it could take you twenty. Here’s the PERT calculation:

(7 optimistic hours + (4 x 9 most likely hours) + 20 pessimistic hours) / 6 = 10.5 hours

In this case, you’d tell the client that the project would take about 10 hours and 30 minutes, which doesn’t give an outrageous over-estimate, but leaves room for those inevitable roadblocks. If you don’t want to bother with the math yourself, here’s an easy PERT calculator – so you can get project time estimates in seconds.

2. Give clients a window into your workflow

After you set those expectations and get started, it’s hard to give your clients insight into the kind of work that each design element involves. To them, design seems like decorating–but you know that making things look nice is only the tip of the iceberg.
improving client trust
There’s a whole mass of the iceberg underneath the water that they can’t see: the website’s wireframes, blueprints, alternate plans. Your clients aren’t design experts, so they don’t know all the little steps you have to take in order to complete their project. But in order to cultivate a trusting relationship, you have to tell them.
However, there’s a fine line between involving your clients in the process and having them stall your workflow. You need to develop low-effort strategies to give your clients insight into your working process.

Solution: Show clients every little step you take

By connecting your clients with your project management software, they can see all the smaller tasks that have to get done in order for the bigger project to be finished.
Breaking down every deliverable project into “sub-deliverables,” or smaller parts on your project management software, will offer transparency into how you do your work, and what needs to get done.
This task list breaks tasks down into categories (development, copywriting, and design), breaks each category down into multiple steps, and then breaks those steps down into sub-tasks.
Instead of clients waiting for the “one big draft” of everything you send them, they can see exactly where you are in the process–for example, they can see at a glance that you’ve almost completed one of the wireframe options, but not the other.
tracking tasks
Using Teamwork Projects, you can add clients as “Client Companies” and control what they’re able to view and edit, eliminating opportunities for them to micromanage and making sure they don’t have access to your entire database.

3. Cultivate a human relationship

An agency’s success doesn’t just depend on how great individual client projects are–it’s about whether they can build strong client relationships. Especially since client relationships are mostly digital, it’s easy for them to think of you as a machine that churns out web design projects–and pick another agency without a thought if they can find a cheaper option.
But you can ensure client loyalty by giving them transparency into your humanity. Instead of only saying what you’re doing, like making edits or designing a wireframe, tell your clients how you feel about it. For example, that you’re excited to start the project or that you’re sorry for any inconveniences.
Showing them that you’re emotionally invested–instead of a web design factory–will help them feel confident that your agency is doing its best to help their business. Building that trust is what will keep your clients coming back for more.

Solution: Own Up to Your Mistakes

While it might be easy to express excitement to work with clients, part of a transparent relationship is owning up to your mistakes with them as well. It’s tempting to try and seem “perfect,” but it’s better to be upfront and transparent about any hiccups than have the client confront you later.
It’s human to make the occasional mistake, and apologizing shows clients that you care about getting the job done right. Studies behind trust violations show that if you express your apology in the correct way, your client will probably be willing to forgive you completely. These are the psychological factors which determine your apology’s effectiveness:

  • Timeliness. If you pre-empt their complaints and apologize first (instead of delivering a reactionary apology), they’re more likely to understand.
  • Sincerity. If you’re going to apologize, you have to mean it.
  • Relationship characterstics. The nature of your past relationship and probability of future violation–they need to trust that you won’t mess up again.

Here’s a sample of what a good apology email might look like:
invoice sketch
This email is timely (it sends the apology with the initial invoice), apologizes sincerely, and points to their project management database to highlight their transparent processes. An apology email like this lets the client know that the occasional misstep might happen, but they’re still in good hands.

Conclusion: A Commitment to Courtesy Eliminates Uncertainty

All these steps to transparency are acts of common-sense courtesy.
While you’re jumping hurdle after hurdle trying to do your best work for them, they’re just waiting for the project to arrive in their inbox.
Give them the respect they deserve by offering them a window into your workflow.
Let them see the steps you take to get a project from idea to final product. You might know all the hard work you do for them, but they need the transparency to feel good about where they’re spending their money.
If you consider what your clients might be feeling and thinking at every stage of the process and anticipate their need for updates, they’ll trust that they’re getting the full bang for their buck–and choose you the next time they need a designer.