I learned many years ago that it can be risky to show a client a website before it’s finished. Having said that, I’m about to jump on  a phone call in 20 minutes time and do just that – show a client a half finished project. But I’m going into it prepared and with a plan of what to explain.

Many moons ago I showed a client a website that wasn’t finished yet. It was, to a developer, almost finished. The pages were built, the booking system was custom coded, the content was added – all the heavy lifting was done. But the things you do last – the things you come back to once you’ve done the big things – those are often the things the client cares about. And if they’re lacking, you can have a very anxious client on your hands.

In this particular case, knowing this client now as I’ve worked with her for over a decade, it would have been things like the font size being right, or the spacing between lines. Also, the main navigation – often the last thing that gets sorted by a developer because it’s just a little something you do in the CMS – can be a huge thing to a client. Padding between images and how the images are cropped – things that really impact the first impression but are tweaks when you’re building a holiday booking website!

Now, as I mentioned, I’ve worked with this client for over a decade. This wasn’t our first website for her, and I knew her well enough to manage the process of showing her a link early. But it’s still stuck with me and is something I handle delicately. On a recently very, very large project the client requested an agile methodology and I said that was fine, as long as they appreciated things would be in a half finished state.

Why showing a client early can back fire

Why is it such a big deal if a client has a little panic about font sizes or image spacing? Can’t you just tell them it’ll be sorted, and then they’ll relax when it is? In my experience it often doesn’t work like that.

A client has invested in you – they’ve chosen you to bring their project to life. If the first impressions aren’t what they’ve been imagining or hoping for, you suddenly face an uphill battle to win their trust. You accidentally find you’ve given them reason to doubt your capabilities, and their decision in choosing you for their project. This is all, of course, completely unfounded because you’ve done so much good, hard work to get the website to this point – but still, they don’t know that. They haven’t seen the lines of code you’ve written or the testing you’ve done or the decisions you’ve made in the system for their best interests. All they’ve seen is a slightly broken home page and the fact that the 6th different logo they’ve sent you isn’t on the home page and you’re still using the one they sent you initially which they’ve since changed their mind about. They don’t see that you were being efficient, getting on with other things for them, and waiting until you were sure they weren’t going to change their mind again before updating it.

There’s also the risk that they’ll ask for changes based on half finished sightings, and timescales and budget plans will go out the window.

Managing expectations

So much of a successful project is managing client expectations. In this situtation, there are a few things I’d do to brace the client for the fact that things aren’t finished.

1. Make sure as much as possible of what you’re showing is neat.

Think about that first impression – can you change that logo quickly? Can you remove the copy that looks bad rather than send it with poorly laid out content? You see the content being there as being a step in the right direction – but sometimes it not being there at all is better than it looking bad.

2. Give the client  a to-do list

A to-do list of yours and theirs. Highlight the main things you know you still need to do and that might impact their first look at the site – forewarned is forearmed. And give them a to-do list for them – reminding them that the images are still watermarked and so don’t look very good, for example, until they buy the official ones.

3. Don’t hand over the reigns

On this call I’m about to go on, I need to show the client that the project has moved along very well during lockdown and we need their content now to bring it together. So I’m going to do a screenshare and walk them through it. As I do so, I’ll be able to say “here we just need that” or “there we just need you to supply XYZ” – and any links that I know don’t work yet, I won’t click on. This is a lot safer than giving a client a link to something that looks remarkably empty without images and icons, or leaves them fishing around for a link because a success message isn’t built yet. I’ll stay in control of what they see and be able to show them that actually – despite it looking very sparse or the wrong bit showing at the wrong time – the functionality is actually all there and it needs what we’re waiting on from them before it’ll suddenly all click into place.

Keep control

If you keep a tight reign on what the client sees, or panics about, the end result will be a happy, reassured, trusting client. Not one who is worrying about cracks in the project and will be – unduly – on edge waiting for something to go wrong, jumping at any last little thing during testing. Preserve your relationship with your client and ensure you end up with a great finished website by being careful what you show too soon.