Thousands of service buyers complain of poor quality work from freelancers and design agencies every year; often to the point that reputations are ruined and the design industry as a whole suffers. From disappearing service providers to fly-by-night scam artists, the online world is packed with opportunities for things to go wrong, and it’s really not surprising that so many online and offline entrepreneurs have a bad impression of freelancers and one-off designers.
Of course, there’s another side to that coin.
While cheapskate designers and fraudulent artists ruin business for one side, ultra-demanding clients and power-tripping businesspeople can certainly do the same for the other. From bizarre requests to ridiculous revision ideas, some clients can be an absolute nightmare to work with.
Unfortunately, it’s part of being a designer—especially a newbie designer—and a lot of people simply suck it up and get back to work.
The problem with that approach is that it’s not a long-term strategy. You can only work with poor clients for so long—they certainly pay the bills, at least most of the time —but they quickly become a major roadblock to your business flourishing, costing you in terms of opportunity. Time gets wasted catering to ludicrous requests. Rates are slashed to keep them onboard. And an all-round negative aura immerses your business.
The good news is that, with enough planning and marketing direction, you don’t have to work for clients that are frustrating and difficult.
Here are some strategies that will help you refine your freelancing business and personal marketing to the point where you’re choosing clients; not them choosing you.
Get your planning book out, file a new page for marketing, and incorporate these tactics into your new client acquisition strategy.
Search by Yourself
It’s one thing to put up an advertisement on a popular website, and another altogether to respond to someone else’s. While it’s typically unwise to respond to advertisements for service work – primarily since you’re often forced to work on the clients terms for payment and scheduling – it’s occasionally a great strategy for picking out clients and saving yourself the hassle of having to say "no".
Most webmaster forums will feature a website that’s packed with design-related jobs, and although wages are typically pretty low, they’re often a good place to start building up your portfolio and acquiring clients on your terms. If you’re catering to a higher-end market, a number of local directories and design-related websites typically offer job leads or other design contracts.
Create a Great Web Presence so They Can Find You
You’ve built a website, done some basic SEO work, and now you’re stuck waiting for clients to come to you. The only problem: they aren’t coming.
A basic website is just that – a basic website, and it’s unlikely to attract any valuable clients to your business. While people may stumble across is from a bizarre and unrelated search result, it’s very unlikely that you’ll gain any valuable clients without your own client-driven and well-marketed website.
Before you create your long-term business website, look at the people who are getting all of the jobs you’d like. Even if you’re not at their level currently, look at their websites and observe what it is that’s pulling in new clients week after week. For example, if it’s conversion-driven sales copy, hire a professional to write your page in an appealing and buyer-friendly style.
You can only imitate for so long, but as a starting strategy, it’s a good way to gain exposure and influence. When you’re dead set on getting clients to come to you, look at the people who are inundated with clients and see what they’re doing right. Reverse engineering can help as a beginner, and could end up being the difference between 10 great long-term clients and 10 frustrating one-time clients.
Ask Your Current Clients for Referrals
After a few months of freelancing as a designer, you’ll quickly build up a group of designers that come back to you for orders often. From weekly logos to frequent entire website designs, some designers are inundated with orders from one or two of their best clients, and completely free of work from anyone else.
This is the type of situation where you have to look at the advantages you have, not the potential disadvantages that only having a small stack of clients causes. Contact your best clients with an honest and important email, asking them if they know of anyone else that would be interested in working with you.
This situation can be taken to extremes, sometimes with very profitable effects. Want to really encourage your clients to get their friends working with you? Create an affiliate or referral program for your design agency, and convince past clients to bring in new ones for a small commission, discount on their next order, or special bonus. Incentives go a long way online, and sometimes something as minor as a free blog theme could bring in a new major client.
Advertise Yourself Strategically
PPC (pay-per-click) advertising can be worthwhile for service businesses, especially large service businesses that can afford to cater to a pool of clients at once. However, most PPC advertising platforms are used in a non-strategic manner, causing lost ROI and wasted time. From banner ad mistakes to on-page advertising that simply isn’t effective, even minor advertising mistakes can end up costing some serious money.
The best way to advertise is to go where your clients are. A great design blog or community might expose you to thousands of new designers, but it’s not the type of place that’s likely to be brimming with potential clients. Advertise strategically to target the most clients, and the most valuable clients, with every pick.
For example, a simple text advertisement on a small business forum could be worth much more than a large full-page post on a design marketplace. Why? Because an advertisement specifically tailored to small businesses will bring in hundreds of entrepreneurs and local business owners that are interested in working with you, whereas a marketplace posting will only ever bring in the occasional client, as the level of choice is hugely increased.
Don’t just advertise; advertise strategically for optimum clients.
Master the Cold Email Approach
It’s surprising how effective an email marketing campaign can be for service business owners.
Relax, there’s no need to spam anyone, but targeting individual businesses and community companies with the offer of design services can be quite worthwhile. Many businesses want to be online, but simply don’t know how to move their business there. As a designer, you can approach them with a deal in mind, limiting their barrier to entry and maximizing your local business profits.
This works best with local clients, and for some designers it can seem like quite a mission. Most of us internet-based providers aren’t used to working with offline businesspeople, so get ready for a few changes.
Email as casually as you’d like, but expect in-person meetings, discussions over lunch, and more than a few questions for a large contract. For some, this might be too much work, while for others it presents a lucrative opportunity.
Partner With Other Designers and Design Firms
There are going to be times in your life when scheduling gets completely out of control. Clients will stack up, website design requirements will tally well off the page, and work will become a major headache for you. Then again, there will also be times when clients simply aren’t contacting you, leaving you completely free of work, and unfortunately, free of income.
Realize that every service business experiences these changes from time to time, and while many don’t adapt, many others do.
If you want a more constant flow of long-term clients, why not team up with another designer or design firm? You’ll be free to take care of their overflow when things get rough, and they’ll be available to take care of yours. While not a perfect solution for long-term clients, this approach can minimize downtime and keep your schedule smooth even through low-client patches.
What Are Your Strategies for Finding Awesome Clients?
How do you find your clients? What are some great resources online to find clients? Share it with us in the comments!
- How to Design for Your Worst Client: You.
- A Simple Guide on How to Effectively Talk to Clients
- How to Get Your Ideas Across to Clients
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