Getting the clients you want. My talk from #PodcampHfx 2013

Continuing in the vein of giving small business-related talks at Podcamp Halifax, this is a tweaked version of my speaking notes from yesterday’s wonderful unconference. 

Who should you work for? Even if you’re starving for work, you shouldn’t take every project that strolls through your front door. Not everyone deserves to get to work with you.

I once had a referral from another designer who was maxed out and going away on vacation. He hadn’t worked with this client, but also couldn’t take on anything new.

As soon as I got on the phone, I knew I wasn’t going to jibe with this guy. He immediately launched into a spiel about how he needed these 200 page books laid out AND printed by end of day tomorrow (red flag #1). And he needed 100 of them printed (red flag #2—short run digital printing wasn’t really a thing back then), and how designers are overpriced (red flag #3) because he knew how important working with someone of his stature (red flag #4) would be for my portfolio (red flag #5).

So, against my better judgement, I sent him a portfolio of similar work and a quote, and a realistic timeline, figuring at least I would get him to bend to my will in one way (teach him how to treat me, right).

When I didn’t hear back from him for a week, I knew something was up, and I should have left well enough alone. But, instead I called him.

Big mistake. My ego is still recovering.

First he told me how expensive my quote was.

Then he told me how I hadn’t met his timeline despite how (un)reasonable it was.

Then he spent five minutes criticizing every piece of work I had sent him. Said all I did was put pictures and text on a page. How dare I call myself a designer? I explained how my approach, however, was tailored to the needs of my clients and that my design solutions matched their requirements.

He didn’t care. He knew more than me, and made sure I knew it. I hung up the phone just absolutely seething with anger. It took me days to not feel utterly defeated.

I knew I had good clients and had done great work for them, and that this was, like, just his opinion. Still, when I’m feeling shitty, I often think of that guy.

Now, whenever I get a comment that we’re too expensive or the like, I just tell people that we’re simply not for everyone, and that we’ll never, ever try to compete with anyone on price. Perhaps the golden rule applies here: In the end, people do business with people they like. and not everybody likes you. I think you’re amazing, for what it’s worth.

So that’s rule number one.

Rule number two is know that you’re good at what you do. And that you’ll continue to get better every day, if you push yourself. 

So how do you know if you’re in a relationship where the client doesn’t value what you do?

Here’s a handy dandy list of signs that you’re in an abusive client relationship. They:

  • don’t respect your time. they answer their phone when you’re in a meeting.
  • show up to meetings late
  • book lots and lots of meetings that aren’t necessary, keep you from working and aren’t always billable
  • don’t pay within 30-60 days. sometimes they take 120 days. Sue them.
  • make you detail out every hour you spent on an invoice even after you’ve agreed to a budget. on every freaking invoice.
  • make revision after revision after revision even after you’ve set a total number of revisions and then still refuse to pay for the additional time, despite being the one that introduced the changes.
  • refuse to listen to your rationale
  • tell you the project will be good for your portfolio. But, won’t it be good for their business to have a professionally-designed website as well?
  • start shopping your prices around or forcing an RFP for basic projects despite having a long term working relationship. They just aren’t that in to you any more and don’t feel that they’re getting value for their money any more. Sometimes you’ve grown apart, sometimes they’re just not respectful of your talent/time.
  • show the project to their wife/daughter/cat for their opinion. That person knows NOTHING about what it takes to do the job. They weren’t likely in the room when you discussed it (and if they are, you should have already fired that client) and their opinion is only a taste argument, and isn’t valid.
  • change the specs after the work is already (nearly) done and then expect you to adapt everything to fit the new requirements without paying for it.
  • redesign your layout in PowerPoint and send it back to you

So what if you can’t resolve a problem?

Sometimes you just don’t hit the mark on something. It’s up to both of you to recognize when this happens and do one of two things:

  • change your perspective, suck it up and come at it from a completely different angle as a hail-mary, or
  • agree on a kill fee and part ways. If they’re not willing to pay a kill fee, you may need to sue. although there is a chance you’d lose, so try to work it into your contracts.

What make’s a good client?

  • Good client
  • Good project
  • Good money

Picture this as a Venn diagram. You need to have at least two of these for the relationship to work.

Its not that different from:

  • Price
  • Quality
  • Speed

What is a good client?

They respect your time, talent, expertise. They have good ideas but won’t micromanage you.

What is a good project?

Creatively exciting, avant garde, actually good for your portfolio. It could be in the industry you want to break into. it’s everything that isn’t money or people.

What is good money?

It’s not necessarily a LOT of money. It’s value for what you get to do.

What’s an optimal client breakdown for you?

Say you want to do $100,000 in a year. It’s a nice round number and it’s also an attainable target for a solid freelancer with a good network. Keep in mind that you’ll lose nearly a third of that in taxes, even with a good accountant.

You could either break it down by your skill-sets:

  • 25% print design
  • 40% web design
  • 20% web development
  • 15% photography

Or by client type:

  • 25% industrial
  • 25% agency sub contracting
  • 25% B2C
  • 10% not for profit
  • 10% gov’t
  • 5% friends and family/volunteer

Or by revenue:

  • Five $10,000 projects
  • Five $5,000 projects
  • Ten $2,500 projects

More than likely though, it’s going to break down across all of these (obviously). But this gives you a way to frame it up for yourself.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. No more than 10% to any one client. If you find that you suddenly have a $25,000 opportunity, accept it if it fits the Freelancer’s Venn Diagram of The Truth™, but realize that it can do one of two things for you:

  1. Boost revenue in the short term, but it will mean that there will be a sizable hole in your revenue next year. You’ll have to work twice as hard to fill that hole, so you can’t stop selling despite having a huge new chunk of work on your plate.
  2. Catapult you into a position where you need to grow to a $250,000/year business to get your percentages in line. Are you ready for that?

Try to find clients that have lifetime value to you, not just a one off project.

Getting paid and doing fulfilling work

Everyone deserves to be paid well for doing great work. So for god sakes, charge what you’re worth.

This is also an easy way to shed dead weight clients: raise your prices.

You can also run background checks on potential clients to make sure that they have the ability to pay. I’ve never done this, but there are times that I should have. Always ask for cash up front as a deposit. If they balk, put off the work until they can pay.

Be honest, own up to your mistakes. If you can’t sign your name to it, don’t do it. Fire clients when it isn’t working. Try to part ways amicably. Burning a bridge will often come back to haunt you in ways you haven’t even considered yet.

So, how can you get these great new clients?

There are lots of ways to get new work, with clients that are more in line with what you need to succeed.

  1. Reverse the polarity, you’re shopping for them as much as they are for you. You need each other.
  2. As much as I hate to say it, RFPs are an incredible way to get to the next class of client work. They will give you an opportunity to experience work with larger clients. Work together with others if you don’t have all of the skills required. Take your time when you write the reply and do everything bespoke.
    1. Spend time on the design of the document. Quality gets noticed.
    2. Put it in a themed box. Everyone loves opening a box. It’s true. I spent 12 hours over Christmas sorting through over a decade of mail. I don’t open envelopes. Ever. But if a box shows up on my desk? CLEAR MY SCHEDULE.
    3. Don’t solve the problem in the RFP. Answer the question of why you’re the right one for the job.
    4. Have great references. Do great work so that you’re worthy of them.
    5. Not all RFPs are winnable. Some are written for specific agencies. Do your background research and try to figure this out before wasting your time.
  3. Ask your current clients for referrals to people they know that you want to meet. Use LinkedIn to see who you know that they know.
    1. Thank referrers who send a client to you that fits. Don’t feel bad if you have to turn down a referral. Sometimes, it just doesn’t fit.
  4. Friends and family. I don’t like calling in favours from family, but sometimes your parents or in laws will know really smart people that you might want to meet.
  5. Your network. Show your work on Twitter and Facebook once in a while and people will start to realize that you do good work and will start telling others.
  6. Pay attention to the people whose work you admire. Ask for a critique of your own work to try to figure out what you can do to elevate the quality of your work so that you’re ready. Be open to the crit and do not get offended. Take the feedback and make your work better

Obviously, none of this is going to happen over night. You need to set a plan and stick to it, making adjustments along the way as you discover what works for you and your skill set. Keep practicing, upping your game as you go. Then the value you bring will start to make sense for those that are seeking out your services.

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