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Every successful web designer needs more than set of hard skills. You need to work on your soft skills as well. These hard skills, such as coding and design, will not secure you safer future and abundance of job contracts. All these hard skills are also easy to replicate. If you want a real competitive advantage on global market, soft skills are the way to go. In this and future articles, I will give you seven soft skills you have to develop to get to the top of your industry. Let’s begin!
All parts of the 7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have series:
7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have Pt1-Communication
Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills
We should start this journey into the subject of soft skills by making a clear distinction between them and hard skills. The simplest definition of hard skills is that you need them to be able to do specific job. This type of skill can be developed through investing your time in study and practice. Some examples of hard skills include knowing a foreign language, experience in front-end or back-end development and knowledge of design or business. These skills are easier to quantify and rate.
Soft skills are a little bit different. First, they are much harder to quantify than hard skills. This type of skill is also not specific to an industry or work. Soft skills are also known as “people” or “interpersonal skills” and are associated with your emotional intelligence. In other words, your empathy. Nowadays, soft skills are becoming more and more important for sought out by employers. From this perspective, soft skills can turn out be a huge advantage for just everyone looking for new business, freelance or job opportunities.
Soft Skill No.1: Communication
Let’s start with one of the soft skills people working with freelance web designers, and freelancers in general, complain the most about. This skill is all about communication. Through years in the web design business, I can’t come up with precise number of how many times did I hear communication-related complaints from client. One of the examples of one of these complaints is probably this one: “I [client] hired a web designer to work on this project. Everything looked just great. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long.”
Then, the story often continues like: “The delays in communication were getting longer and longer. Soon, if I wanted to know about what progress has been made on the project, I had to write the designer by myself and ask him. Otherwise, I would have no idea about what was happening.” If you have an experience with hiring a web designer or any freelancer, is this situation familiar to you? From the other side of the shore … Dear web designers and freelancers, do you see some similarities in the example I described?
Let’s be honest. We are not perfect. All of us do mistakes from time to time. It is easy to forget to send a brief mail to your client about the project status. It is also easy to become overwhelmed by taking too much weight on your shoulders. In that case, all your focus and attention is narrowed on getting the work done before the deadline and there is not enough space left for things such as email. Well, I will tell you one thing … Neither bad memory nor being overwhelmed is an excuse to half-assing the communication with your client.
In the beginning, you decided to take the job and get it done. You presented yourself to the client and acted as professional. Now, when things go wrong, it’s time to stick to your professionalism even more. For this reason, bad memory is not an excuse. If you have really so bad memory that you can’t even remember something that helps you earn money, there is one thing you might try. It is called writing. What I mean is to write down everything you have to do. Don’t rely on your memory. Memory is not the best thing to bet on. This is true even more if you are under pressure.
First, make sure to schedule regular email in your calendar or to-do list and set a reminder. If you are not using neither of these tools, take five minutes of your time and pick one immediately. My personal choice for a to-do list app is Wunderlist. For calendar I’m using default calendar on my iPhone along with Google Calendar. Analog or digital, use whatever tools that you will feel comfortable working with. Second, make sure to make regular reviews and short informational meetings with your client part of your workflow.
This may not be comfortable at first, but it is one of the easiest and fastest ways to improve your soft skills in terms of communication. So, set aside just a few minutes and create regular windows for communicating with your clients in your calendar. Then, do the same thing with your to-do list. Think about it in a way that if it is not in your calendar and on your to-do list, it will probably never happen – there is a chance you will forget it.
In the end, remember two things. First, your calendar and to-do list are your friends, not your enemies. These will also help you keep strong and healthy relationships (you will find more about this topic in Proven Ways to Build Strong Relationships article) and make more money. Second, by scheduling even these “small details” of your business you will appear more professionally then your potential competition. In this way, soft skills can give you strong advantage.
When in Doubt, Ask
The next advice I have for you is to get in touch with your client whenever you will find yourself in doubt about how to proceed. Unless you already have a decent amount of experience, you should always consult every issue or idea with your client beforehand. Otherwise, you might spend time on something that will be rejected in the end. This is exactly what happened to me. Let me tell you that short story so you can be smarter and evade following the same path.
About a year ago, I was hired for as a web designer for bigger company I will not mention. My job description was to do refactoring (clean up the mess accumulated over the years), replace the current front-end framework with new one and make the whole website responsive. In the middle of work, I decided to make couple design changes that, I thought, would increase the quality of the website and improve its aesthetics furthermore. Then, I made a big mistake. Instead of consulting this idea with anyone from the company management, I jumped right into realization of this idea.
After one month of work, I handed the results. I would love to tell you that company management was blown away and offered me a hefty financial bonus. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The problem was that my idea was not corresponding with overall branding of the company. When I argued that they should consider changing the branding, they wanted to fire me on the spot without paying me. One lesson learned: “Leave cheeky comments to yourself until you get paid.”
Luckily for me, they were more than satisfied with result of my work (except for the design changes), so I got paid. Before leaving the meeting, one of the present managers advised me to never do any unauthorized changes without consultation. I don’t have to tell you that they didn’t hire me again until this day. The takeaway from my story is this. Always consult everything with your client upfront. Whether there is something unclear in the project, you need some additional assets or have an idea you think would be beneficial, always discuss it with your client before moving on.
Doing so will help you avoid many potential problems you would have to face otherwise. Let me give you another quick example from my career as a freelance web designer. This is about project assets that were not originally provided, but were used in the project. Couple months ago, I was hired to code couple HTML banners for car manufacture Skoda. In this banner project, the missing asset was the main font. Since I didn’t want to “bother” my client and possible delay the project, I decided to use similar web-safe font. Another mistake.
The first thing I was notified about after a code review was … Yes, wrong font. Again, thanks to a high quality result I was not fired. As you can see, I have often more luck than sense. Anyway, there are two key takeaways for you. First, always check the assets your client will give you before getting the project into motion. You have to be absolutely sure you have everything you need to complete the project. There is simply no place for maybe.
The second takeaway is to always get in touch with your client immediately after you find that some asset is missing. You should always either wait until you get the asset or response of your client. Never do what I did in the HTML banner project – never try to supplement the missing asset with your own without notifying your client. Although your client might tell you to supplement it, you should still wait to hear from him. Never try to make decisions for your client.
Remember that the willingness to ask when you don’t know something is an important part of your communication skills and soft skills “toolkit” in general. There is a great Japanese proverb I will share with you. I hope it will motivate and nudge you to ask. It is: “He who asks a question may look stupid for 5 minutes but he who doesn’t ask will be stupid for the reste of his life.”
Keep it Crisp and Clear
The last thing that is crucial for healthy communication is keeping the channels crisp and clear. This has few additional requirements. The first one is to drop the jargon. The majority of your clients and people you will be working will not understand industry jargon if you use it. Or, their understanding will be poor at best. So, make sure to always use plain every-day language. And, if you have to use some technical terms, take the time to explain what does it mean.
The second requirement is to keep your communication short and to the point. Considering the length of my articles, you would probably not believe it, but I hate long emails. In the most cases, my emails to clients are pretty short and in the form of lists to separate different topics. I think that about seventy percent of my emails would even fit into tweet. By saying that, I don’t recommend that you start counting the number of characters or words in your emails or chat with clients. Trust me, I try that. It doesn’t work for every situation.
What I suggest is that you skip the gravy and get straight to the point. Meaning, if you need to increase budget so you can buy additional assets, write exactly that and explain why in one short paragraph. If you are behind the schedule and need to move the deadline, write that with shot explanation of why are you behind the schedule. In other words, say what you have to say in short form and give your clients facts. If you want to pitch an idea, give them the pros and cons. Again, keep it in short form, and let your clients decide. That’s all.
Your clients just need to know what is happening and why. When you give your client this information, you will gain their trust. They will see you as a true professional, not just some newbie who just discovered the discipline of web design. Some people are afraid of adopting this approach of informing their clients about every step. They think that the more information they will give their clients, the more objections they will have to face. From the perspective of these people, the less amount of information provided is better.
Change of The Perspective
The assumption mentioned above will be true only if you will not provide sufficient reasons. Or, if you provide these reasons in improper way. Meaning, the reasons provided are either weak or your client was not able to understand them. If the problem you are facing is the first one [reasons are weak], I suggest that you do one thing. Think about the reasons from the perspective of your client. Think about how would sound the reason(s) you state are from the perspective of your client, not yours. Doing so, you might find out that the reason(s) are, in deed, weak.
In that case, either look for new and stronger ones or reconsider the thing you want to write about, or both. Based on my own experience and experience of other freelancers I worked with, in at least fifty percent of the time you will realize one of two things. First, you should drop your idea because it is really bad. Second, you can make it even better. Both results are great. In the first one, you will save time you would otherwise waste on idea that has no legs. In the second one, you will be able to provide your client with even better solution and bring bigger value.
By the way, you should go through this “routine” of pondering and questioning your ideas every time you want to notify your client about anything and everything. Not only will it help you improve many of your soft skills, it will also strengthen your empathy and grow as a human being. So, remember to always think about these things from the perspective of your clients, not yours.
Let’s now suppose that the reasons provided were sound. However, your client was not able to understand them and it affected his decision. I will recommend that you take a look at your message again from client’s perspective. Now, however, you will focus on the language and terminology you used. There is a chance that your client literally didn’t understand the content of your message. Have you used some technical terms? Was your description or explanation sufficient? Go through the text and question every word if you have to.
There might be another reason might be what I described in 7 Deadly Mistakes To Avoid in Landing Page Design article. Your message was all about features instead of benefits. After a long time in our craft, these features such as mobile-first, bandwidth, HTTP requests, progressive enhancement, adaptive, fluid or responsive layout will become a part of your daily life and your dictionary. They will become a second nature to you. You will create connection between all these terms and many more with some specific meaning.
Thanks to that, these terms will look absolutely clear. Well, at least in your mind. Unfortunately, this can’t be said about your clients. They are not immersed in this terminology every day. They may have no idea what any of these terms mean. It is your responsibility, then, to work as a connection between those two distinct worlds and translate the ciphers of your craft into the language they will understand.
Remember, the level of your soft skills in terms of communication will be largely determined by your ability to show empathy. In other words, how well and fast can you switch between different perspectives and how well can you “translate” ideas into words comprehensible for other people.
The Danger of Over-communication
Another argument some people may bring is that by communicating “too much”, you are exposing yourself to the risk of being fired. The reason? Your client will get overwhelmed and then angry by the amount of emails you are sending. Let me tell you that this idea is simply ridiculous. In my career and business history, I’ve never experienced such as situation. To be completely transparent, I was fired couple times from couple projects. In a fact this short series is of articles about soft skills is based on these experiences.
However, I was never in my whole life fired by any client because of excessive communication. Rather the opposite. I was fired twice for not communicating enough. I also asked couple other businessmen and freelancers and surprised them with this question. Their personal experiences? Similar to mine. In the longer form, not single one of these guys and girls, fifteen in total, has to cope with being fired due to excessive communication.
That being said, the term “excessive communication” is quite vague and relative. Meaning, ten people will have ten different standards for what they consider to be excessive communication. Let me give you an example. Imagine you have two freelance web designers. The first one is Joe. Joe is naturally quiet person. His approach to communication is very brief – usually few lines – and to the point. He writes to his clients on specific days twice a week. By the way, all these administrative matters of business are clearly stated in his contracts.
The second web designer is Jack. Jack is almost the direct opposite of Joe. He is in contact with his clients on a daily basis, notifying them every at the end of the day about the progress of the work. Again, this is also clearly stated in his contract. From the perspective of our first web designer Joe, excessive communication could be writing one email on a daily basis instead of twice a week like he currently does. On the other hand, for Jack, excessive communication could be filling up the client’s mailbox with five or more emails per day.
Out of curiosity, I have two questions for you. First, which one of the examples used is more similar to your own approach? Second, which one do you consider to be better? Anyway, we should create some common ground you can use to set the standards for excessive communication. Call me crazy, but I think that if you will stay in range of two or four emails or messages (including Slack, Skype and other chatting apps) you are not overdoing it on the side of communication.
However, what if you find yourself in the evening writing fifth email to your client? First, you might have some serious issues, work or life-related, you should solve or consult with professional. Second, you should find some friends to hang out with or find some hobby.
Note: Let me quickly mention that neither of these approaches to work and communication is better or worse. In both of these examples, I refer to communication in the terms of notifying client about the current progress. Meaning, I’m not including situation when there might be something urgent that has to be consulted with client. In that situation, I think that there is nothing such as excessive communication.
The Danger of Delays
The last thing related to soft skills and communication is about delaying your replies. I should state at the beginning that this topic can be a bit difficult. In general, there are two aspects we have to consider. First one is delaying communication with clients because you are afraid of consequences. For example, when screwed up something and have to tell your client about it. Second aspect is delaying communication to let your thoughts settle and your nerves to calm down. For example, when you are angry and want to send your client on the places he didn’t even hear about yet.
When I think about it, I was wrong. This topic of communication delays is not difficult at all. Maybe I should state that we are talking about artificial delays. Meaning, these delays are voluntarily and not consequences of any technical problems. So, for the first type of delays – I screwed something up – don’t even think about it. The only acceptable exception is if you need couple minutes or hours to come up with a solution. Otherwise, you should notify your client as soon as possible. The longer you will wait, the worse it will get.
Suppress your ego and pride and acknowledge that you made a mistake. Similarly to regular reviews and “hangouts” with your client, keep it short and to the point. Explain what happened, why it happened and, most importantly, how you can fix it. Then, promise to your client that this will not happen again. For the majority of clients, this will be enough. Catastrophe will be successfully averted.
Now, let’s briefly discuss the second type of delay – you are angry. In this case, my recommendations is to always wait. Give it at least fifteen minutes. Well, one day might be even better. Then, think about what happened with a clear head. Remember that when you say something to someone, either loud or in mail, you will never be able to take it back. So, don’t let one moment ruin what you’ve been working for the last week, month or even longer.
One trick that works well in situations such as this one is to write that mail, but don’t send it. You write all your thoughts like you normally would, but instead of hitting the send button you will save the mail as a draft. Then, you will wait until you will be able to think about it with a clear mind. If you will still want to send the mail, go ahead. At least it will be conscious and rational decision not influenced by your emotions. Remember that sometimes, your ability to wait will be one of the most precious part of your soft skills “toolkit” you can foster.
Closing Thoughts on Soft Skills and Communication
This is it for the first part of 7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have series. The initially idea was to give you all the skills in one article. However, just to get through communication took seven pages :). For this reason, I decided to go with a series of relatively shorter articles instead of one incredibly long essay. I can’t tell you if I will keep this form, one soft skills per article. What I can tell you is that there will be a maximum of seven articles, no more.
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