Seeking out new design clients vs. Waiting for them to come to you

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“All of my design clients were not cold-call clients. They weren’t a result of any serious marketing or advertising campaign. They came to me.”

The last week or so, we have been discussing the importance of having a stunning portfolio to attract more clients. We also discussed the art of writing an effective project proposal in order to win over your next potential client.
But, the question still arises, “Should I actively seek out new clients, or wait for them to come to me?” Instead of jumping to a conclusion and answering the question, let’s explore the pro’s and con’s of each scenario and then make an educated decision.

Seeking out new design clients

First, there’s the option of actively seeking out new design clients. Actions that help you find new design clients might include cold-calling, knocking on businesses’ doors, sending email requests, going to fairs or conferences, speaking at local business gatherings, distributing direct mail, business cards, or flyers, or anything else that you actively do to bring in more clients. The question is, are these activities worth the time you put into them? and do you find the kind of clients you are looking for when you actively seek them?

Ultimately you have to consider your return on investment when client-hunting. Do all the brochures, emails, hours dedicated to finding new clients, etc. justify the influx of new clients you receive?

HOW’S YOUR RETURN ON INVESTMENT?
Take a real mathematical approach to this one: sit down with a pad and paper and a calculator (or an Excel sheet if you like). Write down all the expenses you incur when actively searching for new design clients. This might include printing costs, copywriting costs, and the time it takes you to work on all your marketing material. Factor in how much time you spend multiplied by how much you usually make per hour as a designer.

Next, try to identify how many clients such activities bring in. (If you are new to the freelancing scene and haven’t had many clients, try to determine how many new clients you would need in order to fully justify engaging in these activities and spending these funds.) If the total amount of work you bring in is not proportionally greater than the time and money you are spending on actively seeking new clients, perhaps you either need to rethink your marketing strategies or find ways to encourage clients to come to you instead.

WHAT IS THE QUALITY OF CLIENT YOU GAIN?
Let’s face it, not all clients are created equal. I know that someone is going to be offended by that statement and inform me that all clients are people and deserve our attention and respect. I agree. But when it comes to running a successful design business, we all know there is a varying quality of clients. Some are easy to work with, pay on time, and trust your understanding of design. Others tend to be time-suckers, always want the lowest price and the highest quality (which they just can’t have), or are terribly hard to get a hold of during the design process.

Again, with a pad a paper (or your preferred brainstorming tool) sit down and determine what sort of clients you hope to work with. Be optimistic but realistic at the same time. Determine the demographic attributes of your clients such as age, income, business type, business size, etc. After determining what kinds of clients you are aiming for, adjust your marketing strategies appropriately.

It may be difficult in the beginning, but as you gain more momentum in your design career, you will feel more comfortable turning down clients that just aren’t a good return on investment or don’t match your working style. Remember, when you are actively seeking design clients, you are looking for clients that are a good fit as much as they are looking for a designer who is a good fit.

Waiting for design clients to come to you

Now that we have explored option one, let’s consider the opposite side of the coin. Is it possible that instead of actively seeking out new design clients, you can just sit around and wait for them to come to you?

Sort of. But there’s a catch.

If you don’t currently have an active client pool and you aren’t working on any client projects, what is it that you are doing to get your name out there so that clients will come to you? Many of the clients I am currently working with were not cold-call clients. They weren’t a result of any serious marketing or advertising campaign I have run. They came to me. So what is it I have been doing to get clients to come to me? Here’s what I do:

PERSONAL PROJECTS
I have a number of personal projects that I am always working on. Whether I decide to do some pro bono work for a local charity, design my family blog in wordpress instead of blogspot, or impress my professors (I have graduated now, but this used to work wonderfully and I can highly recommend it for any student-designers), I make sure my work is constantly in front of people. I make sure they know, if they want a site designed well, or a logo created for their company, they know right where to turn.

The interesting thing is, most of the time the people who are closely involved with these projects never hire me. But when a friend or acquaintance comes their way asking for recommendations on who to hire for their web marketing, guess who they suggest? And it’s all because I have made myself visible to the right kinds of people.

Put your best foot forward to the people that influence others.

THE PRO’S OF WAITING FOR CLIENTS TO COME TO YOU
Here’s what’s so great about waiting for the right clients to come to you instead of actively seeking them out. When they come to me, I know they are dedicated to the project. They want to get the project done, they have made a conscious effort to seek out a professional to help them, and they are motivated to work together to achieve a successful design.

Also, when they come to me, I have the opportunity of accepting or rejecting their proposal for work. I don’t look needy or desperate for work because they came to me instead of the other way around. This way I can choose the kinds of clients that fit my target audience and will help me grow and progress as a designer.

THE CON’S OF WAITING FOR CLIENTS TO COME TO YOU
This method of finding new clients doesn’t come without a few problems, though. There is the obvious problem of client dry-spells. There will be times when no one is searching you out. You can either have other money-making opportunities (online businesses, a design blog, etc.) readily available for such times or you can revert to actively seeking out clients (see above).

In addition, while deciding which clients you’ll work with and which you won’t can be a privilege, it can also be a painful game. I try not to turn down too many clients, since you can never judge a book by it’s cover. I also require each potential client to sign my contract and terms of agreement so that if they decide to get flaky or refuse to pay, there is something legal backing me up. But it’s never easy to decide which clients can stay and which should go. Turning down a client is never easy.

Now it’s your turn to talk. What do you do?

You’ve heard my side of the story. That’s how I handle the art of finding new clients. I usually wait for them to come to me. But what do you do? What has been successful for you? Share your insights with us and help us all build our client base.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. Another good article. I think one of the best points of this article was about not turning down too many potential clients. In doing so you may end up missing some great opportunities.

  2. You raise some good points and provide a good methodology for helping designers determine what’s best for them. Being proactive might pay off for some, while conserving resources might be better for others. A big thing, which you touched on, is regardless of what approach you take, make sure the relationships you do form with clients are good ones which lead to referrals and you project professionalism at all times.

  3. From my own experience, clients who come to you are those that feel that you have an important value for his/her project and they will cherish you because they want you, and nobody else, to do the work. Most of the people I know reaching out clients are treated poorly, partly due to clients thinking that in the same way this designer approached them, any other designer will do, and so the work will be eventually completed.

  4. You’re right that you can choose which customers you’ll work with when they come to you. If you’re busy, I think it’s better to turn down and be honest about it. Customers appreciate it when you say that you’re already working on a few projects and would only be free in x weeks. Rather than to accept and make them wait or compromise other projects.

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