How to Ensure Clients Stick to Your Project Schedule

Suzie reached out to you in a panic on Monday. 

She needed her new website up and running yesterday, and she’s hoping you’ll take her project on right away.

Being the nice person that you are, you agree. You set up a general timeframe and hit the ground running.

But it isn’t long before Suzie starts running the show. She’s unhappy with the concepts you’ve shared with her and although you agreed to a few revisions at the outset of the project, you’ve made exceptions to keep her happy. 

Not only is this situation frustrating, but it’s put you behind on your other client projects. Stress creeps in. Both you and Suzie are irritated with the process, and you can’t wait for the project to end.

If this situation becomes a trend in your service-based business, you won’t last long. 

But here’s the good news: This awful situation could’ve been prevented. 

The most common question I receive about my 2-week design process is, by far, “How do you ensure that clients stick to your project schedule?”

The simple answer? Setting boundaries and managing expectations. 

But here’s a more detailed explanation of what that looks like from start to finish in my client process.

How to Ensure that Clients Stick to Your Project Schedule | Elle & Company

1  |  Set up a detailed timeline

Too often, clients are taken on right away and given a general timeline.

“My design process isaround 3-5 weeks, so you should have your website finished by December 9th.”

But general, estimated timelines set both you and your client up for a frustrating client process.

Not only do they give you too much leeway (which can lead to procrastination and last-minute work), but they leave your client in the dark.

Instead, map out your client process from start to finish to figure out exactly how long your process will take you.

Set a start date and end date, and add deadlines for every important task. 

If there’s anything you need from your client - like completed homework questionnaires, website copy, photos, etc. - include those deadlines on your project timeline, too. 

This helps set expectations from the outset of the project and provides some extra accountability for both you and your client.

Make sure your client sees this timeline before the project begins. You might even add it to your contract and/or have the client sign off on it.

Also be sure to mention that once the project timeline is up, you’ll no longer be able to work on the project (because hopefully, you’ll start booking in advance and have another client project to start on). 

When clients know that there’s a time limit on their project, they’re much more likely to get things done on their end and provide prompt feedback.

(And if you’re a procrastinator, the time limit should light a fire under you to get work done on time.)

Be sure to add these deadlines to your calendar when a client books your services. 

I also highly recommend estimating how much time each step of your process will take you and blocking it out in your schedule so you can account for the tasks and manage your time effectively. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself scrambling to stick to your project timeline.

2  |  Utilize client homework

I’ve seen far too many project timelines get held up by clients taking forever to provide necessary materials (like photos, copy, etc.).

To keep your process rolling along and meet those deadlines I mentioned a moment ago, have your clients complete any preliminary tasks ahead of time.

For my design process, this takes the shape of a branding questionnaire, website map and any photos/text that need to be included on the website and collateral items. 

I set up all of these documents using Google Docs and keep them in a shared folder so both me and my client can easily access them. 

Not only can my clients continue to make adjustments right up to the project start date (rather than submitting them through a form or email), but I can also check in and see if they’re completing their homework on time (sneaky sneaky).

For those of you who are interested in utilizing client homework, I wrote a post on how to set it up here.

I encourage my coaching clients and Freelance Academy students to go ahead and get their preliminary tasks done ahead of time, too. These include items like email scripts, inspiration board and/or draft templates, Calendly links, etc. - anything that you can knock out before the project begins.

This will help you keep your process running like a well-oiled machine and spend less time on repetitive administrative tasks. 

3  |  Set up buffer time

I’ve lost count of how many emails I’ve received from other designers and service-based business owners who struggle to get their clients to finish homework on time. 

My first question to them: “How much time are you allowing them to finish it?”

Most of them take on new projects right away, which doesn’t give new clients much time to complete homework and turn in other preliminary materials.

People need time to prepare; you don’t want them to rush through and haphazardly fill out your questionnaires. 

When you take on projects right away, you not only put your clients in the driver’s seat, but you aren’t able to give them time to get their prep work done. 

So give them at least 2 weeks of buffer time between their book date and their project’s start date. This will help give your clients time to complete their assignments and it will build anticipation for their project to begin.

Booking out in advance also puts you in the driver’s seat on projects and helps clients take your timeline and process seriously. If they know that you’re in demand and your time is valuable, they’ll start respecting your time.

4  |  Check in

Set up a meeting (or two) in between your client’s book date and start date to check in and see how things are going.

Remind them of the project timeline and the importance of completing the homework on time. (I usually say something along the lines of, “I want you to get the most out of our time together, and having everything done ahead of time is extremely helpful for turning everything over to you before our timeline ends.”)

Ask them if they have any questions, stay positive, and let them know that you’re excited to work with them.

You might also provide incentives for them, like my Starbucks giftcard surprise.

My clients aren’t usually 100% done with their homework questionnaires 2 weeks out from the project start date, so I send them a Starbucks giftcard via email with a note that says:

“Homework questionnaires" can sound a little daunting. Here's something to make answering them more enjoyable :) I’m excited to work with you in 2 weeks!

It serves as a reminder that their project is quickly approaching and also gives them an incentive to wrap up the items needed on their end. And because they aren’t expecting it, it adds a fun little surprise to the process.

So make check-ins a habit and plan them into your project timeline. It will open up the lines of communication with your clients and help them stick to your project schedule.

5  |  Always remind clients of the next step

After you complete each task in your timeline, remind your clients of what’s coming up next on the agenda and how they can prepare for it.

Each time you send a draft, tell your client exactly what kind of feedback you need from them. 

After they approve something, tell them which task is coming up next and when you’ll have it done.

We’re often so familiar with our own process that we forget our clients haven’t walked through it before. 

Even though they have access to your detailed project timeline, it’s still a good practice to be mindful of them. 

Make it a habit to ask clients if they have any questions and explain things thoroughly with each and every step.

In the end, it all boils down to communication and preparation.

If you’re having trouble ensuring that your clients are sticking to your project schedule, start troubleshooting and account for hiccups in the process ahead of time.

Not only will it make for a better client experience, but it will save you a lot of stress and headaches in the future. 

How do you ensure that your clients stick to your project timeline? Which of these tips are you going to implement in the future?