When it comes to attracting and retaining clients, it's not enough to merely be a great designer. There's a lot of competition for work out there these days, so you have to push the envelope.
To keep your clients happy, you'll need to work on your social and networking skills, improve your business acumen, streamline the organisation of your workflow, and more. That might sound scary, but don't worry: as long you take heed of the following advice, you'll be well on the way to becoming your clients' go-to designer...
01. Always be open
A potential client comes to you after going through a terrible experience with a previous design firm. He is facing losing hundreds of thousands of dollars if his tight timeline is not met. You should take a good hard look at your workload to see what you can do to help. Of course, don’t get yourself in a bind by making unrealistic promises; otherwise you’re no better than the previous firm. If it can be done, take it on as a challenge and do whatever needed to make it happen. When the project is complete, the client will be eternally loyal.
02. Give free advice
This doesn’t mean go out and do spec work for everyone, but rather talk to clients when they call you without counting the minutes and how much you’ll bill them. We’re not attorneys. If they ask you a question which leads into an hour long call, who cares? Be happy they called you for your suggestion. Never deliver a sales pitch, just provide a consultation and try to help in any way you can.
03. Make introductions
If a client mentions in passing they are working on a new strategy or is looking to learn about a topic, think of an expert or someone within your network to introduce your client to who can help shed some light or bounce ideas off of. Anytime they have a question or are looking for advice, they’ll call you to see if you know anyone. Soon, they’ll believe that you only mingle with the best minds in the industry. Ever hear of the phrase, “you are the company you keep?”
04. Be flexible
When the scope says “not to exceed seven unique wireframes”, think about doing an eighth or ninth if it will bring value to the project without saying “this is out of scope, we’ll need to draft an addendum”. Likewise, when a client is in a bind do what you can to be helpful and flexible without mentioning payment or the number of billable hours. It’s important that you don’t get taken advantage of, but making the conscious decision to not nickel and dime your client for that extra few hundred dollars you should have billed them for will come back to you tenfold.
05. Become an ambassador for their brand
Clients love it when you believe in their brand as much as they do. So be enthusiastic about the work that you're doing and spread the word through your own contacts via social media. Put the work you've done for them into your design portfolio and shout about it. Then show your client how you're helping to boost their brand image.
06. Ask a lot of questions
Some clients won't be used to dealing with designers and often won't know exactly what they want. So question the client thoroughly. Make sure you know what they want to achieve and who the work is targeting rather than what they think they want to see.
07. Show them examples
If a design client doesn't know quite what they want, it can be difficult to get started. So try to show them some design examples, either your own or from other graphic designers, in the hope of nailing down a concept.
08. Give regular updates
A 2010 Design Council report ranks good communication as the number two priority in terms of what clients look for in a designer or agency. This doesn't (usually) mean answering calls at 4am, but it does mean being prompt in replying to emails and making time for meetings and conference calls.
Aim to give regular updates. Keep your clients in the loop and make them aware of any delays in the project. This often depends how involved a client wants to be and whether they want to see early conceptual stages or just the finished design.
09. Quote honestly for work
Give a clear quote, in writing, and list out what you will deliver, by when, and any fees for revisions or edits. Setting everything out in black and white makes your clients' life easier as much as yours.
10. Respect your deadlines
Although some clients may have been agreed to give you deadlines extensions in the past, that doesn't mean they were happy about it. And others may flat-out refuse - as they're quite entitled to: deadlines are deadlines are deadlines. If you are absolutely unable to deliver your work on time, make clients aware of this well in advance - not the day before you are due to submit work.
11. Play nice
It's amazing how many professionals forget that straightforward civility goes a long way. If you're a pleasure to deal with, energetic and polite, you'll get repeat business. Behave like a teething toddler or a hard-nosed corporate caricature, and you'll quickly get under your client's skin.
12. Accept blame when necessary
Don't cede responsibility for any mistakes or errors you make. Acknowledge them, and then tell your client how you'll fix them. Ignoring problems only makes them worse. Refusing to accept liability for them makes you look untrustworthy, and you'll be much less likely to be employed again.
13. Don't take on too much
Don't take on more work than you can handle. You won't end up doing a great job if you can't fully devote your time to a single project. Multi-tasking is overrated, and martyrdom won't win you any fans.
14. Listen. Really listen
The number one priority for clients in choosing designers is an ability to listen closely and carefully to what they have to say. Clients love it when you make their jobs easier, so returning a week into the project to clarify the brief because you switched off in the meeting is not recommended.
15. Learn to say no
If a client has a bad idea, tell them. If they want flashing day-glo text, say no (and explain why). If they want to use cheesy stock photography rather than original artwork, tell them (politely) that this isn't the best way to go. They'll thank you in the long term.
16. Put things in writing
Verbal contracts are just a lot of hot air. So make sure that you agree on a contract in writing, which specifies what they get from you: for example, you may set an hourly rate, offer the first/second set of revisions free, then charge for further revisions on the hourly rate.
If you or the client wants to change the terms of the contract at any point, get the changes down on paper or in an email. It saves a lot of heartache later on for both parties.
17. Keep in touch
Send thank you emails, cards, cakes - whatever's appropriate - to your design clients when the situation deems it suitable. Make a note of your project's live date and send your client a good luck message. Take an interest in how a project is doing a few months after it launches.
18. Make an appearance
A freelance illustrator who works for our sister title, Computer Arts magazine, insists upon hand-delivering his work rather than FTP-ing it over. When he turns up he talks through the work for immediate feedback, and brings cakes and cookies to brighten an otherwise ordinary day. This is not always practical, but will almost certainly win you plaudits if you can do it.
19. Offer added value
You're in a competitive market, so think about what extras you can offer your design clients. It always pays to over-deliver. This could involve working in-house, seeking out cheaper suppliers for them, or even offering to help out with extra workloads. Or could you deliver five concepts even though you've only specified three?
20. Demonstrate your loyalty
It's a tough ask in the current economy, but have a degree of loyalty. If you're approached by a competitor to your design client, think long and hard before taking the work. Similarly, pass on any news you might hear on the design grapevine. Your clients will soon learn to value you for more than your design skills.
21. Make small talk
It may sound sycophantic, but it works. If you know that your client is a die-hard Manchester United fan, have a chat about the weekend's results. If they have a family, ask after them. If clients feel they can trust and confide in you, they'll feel more comfortable hiring you again.
22. Design for them, not you
We all want amazing work that make our portfolios sing. But that should never be the priority in our design process. If the client just needs a good, solid design - nothing particularly ground-breaking, innovative or experimental - give them that. If you really want to create envelope-pushing stuff for your portfolio, consider designing something bespoke for that purpose, or starting your own side-project.
23. Do great work
Always remember the primary reason the client loves you: because you produce great work for them. If you find you're spending all your time trying to make them happy in other ways, then it's probably time to review your working practices - because something isn't working as it should be...
24. Get inside their heads
Not all clients are the same, but they're not all completely different either. Check out this article by Carl Heaton of Bangkok Design Agency in which he identifies the five main types of design client and how to handle them.
25. Please clients by pleasing users
It's a tricky conundrum: the client is the one paying you, but the user is the consumer who ultimately matters. Manage to square the circle by keeping both happy and you'll never be short of work. This article by Ren Walker explains how to balance the needs of clients and users successfully.
26. Set your sights high
You don't have to be a massive agency to work for a major company. Even the biggest brands, such as Coke and Sony, will often hire small, lean outfits so set your sights high. Read this article to discover how to punch above your weight.
27. See an open brief as an opportunity
When clients leave everything up to you, it can sometimes be liberating, but sometimes it can be frustrating not know what they want. For advice, check out this article on how to cope with an open design brief.
28. Strike the right balance
Designers are hired specifically to be creative, but you'll also be expected to understand and meet business needs. It's a tricky balance to strike, but Alastair Eilbeck, creative consultant and digital artist at Amaze, explains how you can do both successfully in this article.
Need more advice on how to work successfully with design clients? Try these articles on for size:
- Getting clients to pay: 10 tips for freelancers
- 5 things design clients REALLY want (but probably won't tell you)
- 10 ways to stop deadline stress kicking your ass!
Let us know any tips you've got for working with design clients using the comments section below!
Contributor: Mike Kapetanovic
Mike Kapetanovic is founder of Washington DC-based agency Reef Light Interactive.