I'm a freelance web developer and I charge by the hour. I realized that my previous Research & Analysis process was very inefficient and I'm looking to improve that to save more time and get better results. Most of my projects are for small companies and individuals looking for a start-up, but I do occasionally get larger projects. One of the steps I've taken is to split my R&A process into two parts which basically are:

Preliminary R&A:

  • Collect the basic project requirements from the client.
  • Review the project requirements and decide whether possible to accept the project.
  • Send an estimate to the client if the project should be accepted from my side.

If the client approves the estimate:

Follow-up R&A:

  • Meet and review the results with the client to finalize the requirements.
  • Respond to the client with a detailed quote.

I drew my inspiration from this article: http://inspiredm.com/web-development-projects/


Charging my clients for the preliminary R&A is not logical but I'm not sure about whether I should charge for the follow-up R&A and if no, how much time I should spend on it. Furthermore, I want to avoid unnecessary meetings and prefer a solution that would not take too much of my time even if the client was just looking around so to speak.


Apart from splitting my R&A process in two, looking at how other freelancers deal with this problem, one possible solution that appealed to me the most, is to have an online questionnaire on my website that will send me the client's request via email for my review. If I do this right, then said online questionnaire will act as the preliminary R&A thus saving me a lot of time. Though I'm not sure how that would impact my clients. It works well for me but would it work for my clients as well?


  • Am I right to split my R&A process in two parts?
  • Should I charge my clients for the Follow-up R&A as per my hourly rate?
  • How do you think an online questionnaire would impact my future clients?
  • Should I mention my hourly rate along with the questionnaire?
  • Should I mention the general terms of agreement with the questionnaire?

Any suggestions please?

2 Answers 2


Please bear with me as I set up and use this analogy from my days as a real estate agent:

In the US, Real Estate Agents typically get paid a commission when escrow closes, that is, when the transaction is complete and the property is sold. It usually takes around 30 days and it's not uncommon for a deal to fall-through or cancel even at the last minute. Sometimes an Agent receives no payment in this case.

Such scenarios provide real estate professionals an incentive to 1) pre-qualify and often pre-approve potential home buyers, and 2) Create a detailed, written, and legally-binding contract to be signed before representing a client. As Independent Contractors, we should be doing the same.


In real estate, pre-qualifying clients is a way to determine if they have the means to purchase a house, either by cash, or most commonly, by getting a loan. Much of the pre-qualification process is automated and can be completed online. Oftentimes the loan pre-qualification process also sets parameters like: How much money they can borrow, how much cash they'll need to have saved up in the bank (the cost of the transaction), what interest rates are available, and more. A credit check will also be run. So there's a lot of vetting and research that goes on prior to signing that contract, let alone getting paid. But the eye is definitely focused on that prize.

Dealing with clients over time will help to refine your methods and instincts in pre-qualifying your clients. Learn, document, and tweak the list of questions you need to ask a potential client when conducting that initial interview. And listen. And document.


Once the pre-qualification requirement has been satisfied, a real estate agent can start asking more specific questions of the potential buyer: what areas are you considering, how many bedrooms/baths, what style of home, amount of square footage desired, etc... and the list goes on. At this point some agents might show a few examples of what's available on the market - this to stimulate the clients' appetite. But most agents will be focused on getting a commitment by way of a signed agency contract.

Written and signed contracts are so overlooked when launching a new freelance business. For most real estate professionals - it's a lifeline. It may be the difference between getting paid and getting burned. Any price tag you send your client needs the scope of work attached to it. Work through the process and make sure you communicate clearly what is and what is NOT included in the price you quote.

To Answer Your Questions

  • You are a service provider business. There are expenses, investments, and revenue. Always consider the ROI (Return On Investment), but define a 'return' according to your terms. Is time spent on a potential client a marketing expense or an investment?

  • Track your time. Find out how long it takes to pre-qualify a client and get a signed contract. It will help to figure out your ROI eventually.

  • Pre-qualify your clients. A form on your website is a good start, but nothing beats a live conversation to fill out that questionnaire.

  • Never work without a signed contract detailing the scope of work and timeframes. Client won't sign? Not pre-qualified!

  • Consider if value-based pricing is a better model for you, compared to charging hourly. How well can you communicate the amazing ROI you'll provide for your client? Is a $10,000 investment in you worth a $100,000 return for them?

Hope this helps and happy freelancing!


Risk and Compromise:

As with any type of business, there are always risks and situations that require compromising to some extent and freelance Web Development is no exception. Web Development is a very wide field and there are a lot of things to consider before making an informed decision. Every project is unique and comes with its own set of challenges so I would advise you to not waste your time trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution.

Not every client that comes to you will equal an approved project. Maybe, the client is just looking around to get a better bargain or wants to know what you can offer for a project they plan to put in action a year from now. Taking the time to evaluate a potential client and their project is, at the very least, a good investment. Look at it this way - You spent good time and money educating yourself and learning the art of Web Development, not to mention the equipment you got yourself to do it, so why not spend some time to get good projects you can handle with confidence and earn from them?


Having a good set of methods and procedures is a priceless asset to your business but so is your ability to be flexible. Organize them in a way that allows you to "break the rules" if needed for the sake of a good project while still keeping things manageable and well-organized. It's in man's nature to prefer freedom over limitation. Think of your methods and procedures more as guidelines rather than absolute rules. When to be flexible or not is entirely up to you.

Generally I don't allow discounts but if a project is worth 2000$ and the client's budget is only 1900$, I would consider taking it. However, if the client's budget was only 1500$, I wouldn't. Losing 100$ to earn 1900$ is acceptable but I wouldn't bother losing 500$ to earn 1500$.

Online Questionnaire:

There's no harm in having an online questionnaire depending on how it's done. If you make it easy to use while collecting the information you need, you will be saving your time and your client's as well. Also, it will offer you a consistent way of collecting preliminary project information. Of course, just because you have one, doesn't mean every client must use it. You can for example use it yourself while meeting with the client.

R&A Process Guideline:

Splitting your R&A process is a good way to do it. There are no solid rules of thumb about how an R&A process should be done, instead work on something that works for you in your current situation. Based on some further research, previous experience, and the article you mentioned, here's a more organized way of structuring your Research & Analysis process:

Preliminary R&A:

  • Non-disclosure Agreement: (more info)
    Some of your clients may not know what an NDA is and may not ask for it but in any case, offer them one as part of your contract. Your clients will appreciate it.
  • Project Requirements Collection:
    This is the part where you collect the project's requirements from your potential client. How you collect this information is up to you. A meeting is usually best but may not always be possible. What matters is knowing beforehand what information you need to collect in order to start analyzing the project so be sure to put a good amount of effort into it. The more detailed it is, the better, but do not overwhelm the client.
  • Project Requirements Analysis:
    You collected the info and now it's time for you to analyze the project. Go through every detail carefully and make sure you understand everything. Note: It's perfectly acceptable to contact the client and ask for clarification in case something is missing or you don't understand it. Missing or misunderstanding even a single detail can cause problems down the road.
  • Project Rejection:
    You won't be able to accept every project you get. Sometimes the project interferes with your schedule or, the client might be asking you to use ASP when you only know PHP or, maybe what the client required is not covered by his/her budget. Be ready to reject some projects but know that it matters how you reject them. Bonus Point: Offer your potential clients some alternatives.
  • Project Estimate:
    So far, you've analyzed the project enough to calculate roughly how much effort is required in terms of time and how much it will cost accordingly. Write down a good Estimate for your client and send it over. Keep in mind that a lot of clients heavily underestimate the work involved in developing a website and thus may not be happy with it. Be ready for anything and handle it professionally. Don't let the client push you around but don't attack the client either. ALWAYS BE POLITE AND PROFESSIONAL. If the client accepts the Estimate, then we move on to the second part of the R&A process. Note that the project is still not officially approved and you will do well not to get your hopes up.

Follow-up R&A:

  • R&A Finalization:
    Whether you've already met and/or been in touch with your client or not, now is the time to do so (again if applicable) and fill in the blanks of the project requirements. If you've missed anything the first time, clear it up now. Be very detailed and very precise. Make sure you understand the client and that the client understands you, ask for examples, don't hold back on your questions. The more you understand about the project, the better the results. If the client is not willing to cooperate with you, feel free to reject the project right there and then as chances are, that client will not work well with you. Keep in mind that the client is not only helping you deliver better results but they are helping themselves as well.
  • Project Plan:
    At this point, you have a very clear picture of what the client wants and expects from you. This is when you create a plan of the project for yourself. Think of it as a treasure map. Yes, that's how important it is. The better your plan is, the better your project will be, the happier the client will be. Put some good effort into it. Don't just rely on your mind. You're human, you forget, you make mistakes. It's not a good feeling to remember that the client wanted a dynamic AJAX form on the Contact Us page 2 hours before the project delivery is due. Also, in case you've missed anything, creating a good plan will often expose that and you can clarify it with the client. Basically what you want from your project plan is to have a clear picture of what needs to be done and how.
  • Project Quote:
    By now you should have complete understanding of the project and the client. You should be able to take those requirements as you have in the Estimate, along with your project plan, and make a good Quote out of it. Add all the necessary details to be able to quickly and easily identity the project just by looking at the quote, be very clear and honest about what you're charging for and how much. Eliminate the need for the client to call you asking what the hell is this amount for. It's also a good idea to include your terms and conditions regarding the payments, project delivery, etc. I personally like to consider the quote as the contract of the project to eliminate unnecessary paperwork and make things easier for myself and my clients.
  • Project Approval:
    If the client accepts the quote, for local clients, the first payment along with a valid invoice and a signature, all attached to the quote is good enough. As for international clients, a valid receipt from Western Union attached with the quote will do the trick. This is what worked for me and I haven't had any problems. Also, this is when you have to collect sensitive information like hosting account usernames and passwords.

Closing Notes:

  • Am I right to split my R&A process in two parts?
    If you feel it's more organized and logical to you, then yes. There are no rules of thumb.
  • Should I charge my clients for the Follow-up R&A as per my hourly rate?
    Since you're just starting out, try the water first. See how things develop. The easier the process, the higher your chances of getting good projects. Don't complicate things by charging for the Follow-up R&A. At least not for now. To counter that, you have to be efficient in your work.
  • Should I mention my hourly rate along with the questionnaire?
    While some clients prefer knowing ahead of time, keep in mind that it may scare most of them away. Most if not all of your clients don't know much about the work that's involved in Web Development so your perfectly reasonable rate may appear too high. On the other side, mentioning it will let your clients know that you're not playing games and that everyone gets the same rate. It's up to you.
  • Should I mention the general terms of agreement with the questionnaire?
    If these "general" terms of agreement apply to every project and every client, then yes.

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