Tips for Finding, Filtering and Maintaining Online Clients

The best service businesses aren’t always those that do the best work. They might be loved and treasured by their clients, but without effective marketing it’s unlikely they’ll ever become the most profitable or most effective. Log onto any webmaster forum and you’ll see hundreds of designers – some highly talented and able – working for peanuts because they don’t know how to find good clients.

The best design businesses know how to market themselves. Whether it’s a lone freelancer establishing their personal brand and value or a multi-employee design firm looking to improve their bottom line and increase their client base, it all comes down to effective marketing. In the design world, that means establishing new relationships with clients, building a more powerful business brand, and reaching out to more people.

These six tips can help you grow your design business from a five-client operation to a highly profitable company. While success doesn’t always come with size – some of the most profitable businesses are also the smallest – it can certainly contribute to it. If you’re beginning to see your client total flatten out slightly, put these tips into practice and expand your client base, bring in new business, and maintain long-term low-maintenance client relationships.

Picking Marketplace

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If you’re actively seeking clients by yourself, the factor that has the most influence on your professional relationship is where you find them. There are thousands of online forums, communities, and marketplaces that allow designers to search for clients. Some are worthwhile for professional designers, while others are typically home to low rates and poor working conditions.

When you’re out looking for clients yourself, keep in mind the setting when you approach and pitch people. You’re not going to find million-dollar design contracts on a web forum populated by beginner webmasters and small business owners, but you may pick up a couple of small sub-thousand dollar jobs. If you’re trying to hook big fish, go to where they swim. Investing time in poor marketplaces is a waste, but selectively marketing on high quality online marketplaces can be worth the time.

Finding Clients

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We’ve all heard design horror stories about clients approaching designers with their own ‘revolutionary’ ideas, design concepts drawn by their 13-year-old nephew, and creepy desires for 5-minute Flash website introductions. Most major designers have experienced a few of their own, and smart designers quickly build up a shield for deflecting them and a strategy for driving them away.

There are always going to be clients out there that simply aren’t worth your time. Sometimes they’ll have unrealistic expectations; sometimes they’ll have budgets that are insulting and demands that are absurd, and sometimes they’ll have an attitude that makes you want to close shop forever. The most effective designers don’t just build a method for turning them away – they build a method for keeping them from even contacting them.

The best clients you’ll find will let you work on your terms. They’ll have clear project requirements, but they’ll let you manage things yourself. They won’t micro-manage and treat you like an infant. They won’t change their mind halfway through a project and demand free revisions. Once you find one of these clients, do whatever you can to keep them on long-term. Sometimes it’s worth turning away short-term clients if it means retaining the ones that let you work as you want to.

Being Easily Found

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Why? Because when they come through your sources, they’re going to order according to how you work. Think of it this way – when a client advertises that a project’s available for designers, they get at least twenty quotes and resumes sitting in their in inbox, waiting for them to make the call on which one’s the best. When a designer advertises that they’re available, they’ve got twenty client emails in their inbox, waiting for them to pick out whichever ones they’d like to work on.

Whenever you can, get clients to come to you. Chasing after projects is a good short-term strategy – it gives you income, brings in potential long-term work, and keeps you busy – but it’s not a good strategy for building lucrative long-term client connections. When clients come to you, you’re in control. With the right degree of control, creating a highly profitable design business is much easier.

Reaching Out To Clients

If you run a successful design business already, you’ll know that a small portion of your clients will quickly make up the bulk of your orders. Generally, they’re long-term clients that order large projects at once, saving you the trouble of actively marketing or aiming to take on more work.

Unfortunately, there will be times when communications with ultra-valuable clients stall and you’re left with little work to do. Call it an over-reliance on a small group of clients, but as a short-term business strategy it’s sometimes very successful. While it’s not a good idea to base your long-term business projections on a small sample, sometimes you need to patch things up with long-term clients and get your business back on track.

If you haven’t heard from a major client in a while, send them a quick email and ask how they’re doing. For clients that you work with frequently, a personal phone call is often worth the time. Sometimes all it takes is a quick nod in their direction to put orders and projects back on track. When in doubt, don’t panic; communicate.

Offer Discounts

Offering discounted rates for long-term work is common practice amongst service businesses, but it’s often done in a thoroughly non-scientific manner. There are two elements to establishing long-term prices – balancing the reduced cost of marketing, and ensuring that you’re providing a rate that keeps long-term clients coming back.

Remember, by keeping your business inundated with work, the long-term clients are minimizing the amount of time – and therefore the amount of money – that you have to spend on marketing your business and services. You’re not just providing a discount rate out of convenience and care for them, but because of the optimization that they’re providing for your business’s marketing methods.

Being Honest & Clear

A lot of designers are quick to complain about the business hell that their clients can put them through, but quite often the blame rests on the other side of the table. While most web design clients are pretty switched on to what they want and need, you’re always going to find clients that simply have no idea what their business needs in a website.

If you’re dealing with a client that really doesn’t know what they need, don’t cushion them from reality and convince them of something that isn’t right for them. Be clear, incredibly clear, about what you can do for them, and be even clearer about what you can’t do. Keeping things specific at the start of a project will save you hours, sometimes even days, of potential confusion later on.

Now it’s your turn…

Have you discovered any client strategies that keep work simple? If you’re a successful designer, don’t keep quiet – speak up and let us know what works for you when it comes to managing clients, workloads, and multiple projects.

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