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Finding The Clients and Projects of Your Dreams

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Freelance web designers always have the job of finding clients to work with. It's a necessity in order to actually maintain a somewhat constant workflow and to keep busy (which also means keeping your bills paid). Not all clients are created equally though. If you've ever read Clients from Hell, you'll probably realize that there are some clients you might not want to be associated with. Every client is going to come with their own perks and baggage, so how do you find (and land) work with clients that are suited to you? Today, we'll be taking a look.

Luckily, not all web designers are faced with the complete disaster clients that generate horror quotes like the above image. Instead, the chances of finding work that's both interesting enough to keep you happy is a lot higher, but how do you go about finding that work? How do you build up a client relationship to keep them happy and possibly influence more work? In this article, I'll be looking at how to find valuable clients and pitching and maintaining a good relationship.

Before I start, it is worthwhile noting that Freelance Switch - a site that's part of the same network as Webdesigntuts+ - has hundreds of posts on freelancing and there's some great stuff there. I'll address a lot of the key points as they relate to web designers, but I can't write everything so be sure to check them out if you want to dig even deeper!

Identify What You're Looking For

When asked about what their "perfect" client looks like, most web designers would hit the following points:

  • Has lots of money and likes to make it rain!
  • Projects are interested an relevant to my own life.
  • No desire to over-art-direct a project.
  • No short deadlines or ridiculous requirements.
  • Willing to conduct all meetings over email.
  • Gives perfectly clear and logical feedback.
  • Did I mention lots of money?

While that list might seem like the ideal client, there's probably only a handful of clients that fit that bill on the entire planet... and more realistically, anyone this perfect is probably too good to be true. Obviously, we're going to need to ground our list of characteristics that make up the ideal client in reality.

Before you go hunting for a perfect client though, what we really need to do is identify what that client looks like in reality. Here are some key factors to consider:

What Types of Projects Do You Like?

First question: what projects are you actually interested in? If you hate working for hippie non-profit organizations, all the money in the world probably won't make you enjoy working on the project for 16 hours a day. Take a moment to list off the types of projects that you enjoy. This could be based on topic (ie: I like technology based projects), project duration (short sprints vs. year long marathons), or managing style (collaborative vs. a single art director).

Jot these down (and all of the following questions) on a piece of scratch paper or a notepad doc.

Do You Work Well With Others?

This question seems silly, but it's fundamental to how you might approach potential clients. Some clients are simply looking for a single web designer to manage an entire project on their own. Other clients want someone to integrate with their existing team of marketers, content writers and developers to assist them with a single aspect of a project. Figure out which style works best for you as it'll play a big role in your comfort with the projects they give you.

Does Your Ideal Client Want To Meet in Person?

This is a no-brainer for most people who want to find local clients... but it's a huge question for anyone using the internet as a primary tool for finding work. If you live on a deserted island off of Hawaii, chances are pretty good that you'll want a client who is willing to work with you solely in an online capacity. As such, part of your search for the ideal client will involve a little brainstorming over what communication methods will work best for you.

Fast and Furious or Slow and Thoughtful?

This is a question that's deeply rooted in your own working style and personality. Some people love the heat of 24 hour deadlines, short sprints, and fast-paced action projects. Other designers truly aren't happy unless they have a month to ponder carefully over each aspect of a project. Where on the scale do you fall? Each type of designer can make fist-fulls of cash on serious projects, but if you're more of a "tortoise" and you end up working on "rabbit" speed projects, you'll be miserable and stressed out.

What Is Your Ideal Budget?

Be serious with this one - what kind of money do you actually need to be comfortable (and save a little) each month? Use this basic number as a criteria for determining whether a project is going to be worth it's while to you. You'll also want to consider things like payment schedules - if you NEED cash right away, you might be more willing to get paid less than a Net-90 project where you can get paid more, but it'll take 90 days to see the money in your account.

Remember, the key point with budget is that it shouldn't make you miserable! If clients want to pay you more, that's always great... but never take a project that's going to leave you stressed out and strapped for cash if you have any alternatives. We'll be releasing a massive article on pricing in the next couple of weeks, so I'll leave this topic at this.

Ranking Potential Clients/Projects

As I mentioned before, jot your answers down on a piece of scratch paper or a notepad doc. When it comes time to find and screen clients, you can actually score them on a scale of 1-10 against each question above (and any others that you can think up) to see how clients "score" against each other. High scores fit closely to your "ideal" clients, low scores are probably projects that you want to avoid.

Finding the Client

Now that you've addressed what kind of client you're looking for, you've gotta do some work to actually go out and find those clients that fit your list of requirements.

Using Word of Mouth

Especially when starting out, local work through word of mouth can be a great launching pad for your design career. However, even as you become more and more professional and talented, referrals and word of mouth can be big (and free) marketing strategies that pay off. Theoretically, if you have a good relationship with a client they may refer you to similar jobs where you have a bigger chance of having a good, perhaps fun, experience.

Luckily, word of mouth is a strategy that doesn't require effort on your part. However, you can go out and market yourself in the hopes that someone will pick up on your availability and refer you to a potential client.

Additionally, you can somewhat outsource this particular strategy by a finder's fee. If you're explicit enough in your skills and availability, others may preference you in the hopes that they'll get a finder's fee.

Previous Clients

Recurring work can be great, especially if you end projects on a high note. If you come out happy, the client and project was probably good. If they come out happy, they may be more inclined to stick with a designer they know will produce the goods [at a high standard]. It's a win-win situation.

Keeping in touch with potential clients can maintain a work relationship with them, encouraging future projects to be assigned to you or give you an advantage, should you choose to apply. If you enjoyed working with the client, offering promotions and suggesting new work yourself can result in you being a preference and being able to return to that enjoyable experience, instead of starting off with a new client you've never met.

Job Boards

The previous two items haven't really been about seeking out clients. Instead, they've focused on trying to future work, should it be needed. Job boards are how many start out and can be great sources of a jobs requiring various different skill sets. If you're a designer who will not breach the line between designer and developer, most boards have a PSDs section where only Photoshop work is need. If you're a full on PHP developer with a ton of portfolio work to prove your experience, you may as well give up the profession if there's not someone in need of some sort of script designing.

Job boards and forums allow you to find projects that you are specifically interested in and ones that meet your skills. If you find a perfect job, you don't have to spend any time learning anything new and your client will appreciate your experience.

So where do you go? Envato have a job board on FreelanceSwitch which lists jobs from designing game and media hosting sites to simple designs for small blogs or promo sites. Elance is another that allows to browse client jobs and look for work at specific locals and in specific fields.

The advantage of using job boards is you can browse work without having to enter into commitments and most of the time, you don't even have to get in touch with a client since the project's extended details are published on the board.

Cold Contact

Cold calling has been a marketing tactic used for some time. To define it, cold calling is where a prospective client or customer is contacted out of the blue and is encouraged to buy into goods or services. Let's look at this in terms of "search, destroy, rebuild".

Cold contact in web design can be used in a scenario where you find a website that's aged and offer to refurbish if for a client. Of course, this takes a little more marketing talk to a prospective client, but it can be worthwhile if your pitch can clearly represent the benefits of your work to a client.

Cold calling and telemarketing are generally associated with scamming or just unpleasantness. I'm sure many of you have experienced random calls in which the caller offers to you some sort of benefit and, in these times, a lot of scammers target things like tax problems. But you are not one of them. Always be sure to state who you are and offer a legitimate pitch and, if it's possible, explain the benefits. Try to catch their attention and if they say no, take it and cease communication.

If you see someone using a free theme, or a badly designed one, act as an adviser. They great thing about redesigning amateur websites is the client trusts you, allowing you to do your own thing with their trust that you'll help them benefit.

Leverage Social Media

Similarly to job boards, I find Twitter an awesome source of finding new work. Regularly, I see tweets in my feed of people looking for small to large jobs who are primarily advertising them through this particular social network.

Someone i'm acquainted with on Twitter is working on a new project. He sent out multiple tweets looking for a designer and a simple reply to that tweet led me to having several Skype calls with him and a good chance at landing the work. Ultimately, I pulled out of pitching because the project did not match my skills and the learning curve - for me - was not worth the fee. However, if I had continued and landed that project (which I had a good chance of doing), it would have been entirely through Twitter. Plus, we vaguely knew each other and therefore had a workable relationship to start off with meaning he would have been a better client than someone I just met.

It's not just who you follow, either. Just doing a Twitter search for "web designer needed" resulted in many recent tweets of people with varying needs. Twitter is not just a social network, it's a dynamic, constantly updating job market too!

How do these methods grab you a dream client?

Maintaining good relationships with previous clients is always an advisable route. If you build up a good reputation, you can get an instant advantage when applying for new work. Using job boards and social networks allows you target work that you know you're able to complete to a good standard and in a manner that you enjoy. Plus, most job boards offer some sort of client reputation (similar to seller reputation on eBay) where you can see other specifics about a client meaning you can guarantee that not only is the project suited to your skills, but the client is too!

Using traditional contact, either out of the blue or even maintaining a regular newsletter, can also help you identify potential products and produce an exclusive opportunity to pitch and generate new work.

Winning the Work

Once you've identified some work and secured a pitch, the real work starts to roll in: securing it. Let's take a look at a few tips on how to pitch successfully and win the work.

Know the Client

Understanding exactly who the client is and what they want is a vital part of the pitching process. Leverage social media, use Google or just browse their current website (if they have one) and look at what it is they actually do. The more you know about the client, the better chance of success your pitch has.

Another thing is realising their goal. Ultimately, i'm sure they want to sell something, but how do they prefer to approach it? How do they market? What messages do they send out? Who are their target market? If you know the company, you can tailor your pitch to coincide with what they're trying to do. If you learn their method and them embody that in your pitch so your potential client can understand exactly how your work will benefit them in the long run.

Let's take an example. Most of you might not know what giffgaff is. You wouldn't pitch to them with a generic idea. Instead, you'd at least Google them and find out that they're a UK-based phone network and make sure that your aims target their aims.

Do some research!

Don't Talk Details (just yet)

The pitching process is a process and, for new clients especially, there's not a massive likelihood that you'll be hired on the spot. So leave prices, timings and all the specifics to future meetings. The first meeting, whether that be in person, over Skype or just in an email, should be used to present your ideas and maintain a positive image. Leave your audience with your ideas and then talk specifics later.

Follow Up and Be Persistent

As I said above, it's sometimes right to leave the idea lingering with your client for a while before you start adding your fees and your timescale to the mix. If they don't get back to you, be persistent and follow them up with a polite email that encourages them to get in touch.

Be sure to do this shortly after your pitch, to let them know your interest is maintained. If they don't reply, then you may want to pull out. Slow responses can indicate that they're just not interested or that they may not be the best client for feedback and future discussion. Take their attitude to your pitch seriously and consider whether you want to work with them, not just the other way round.

Keep it Simple, Engaging

If you've found a dream client who's the perfect match for your design skills, you're likely to be enthusiastic and want to spend ages discussing with them your skills and experience. However, most clients probably just want you to get straight to the point. Present to them your ideas in a concise manner and allow them to ask you questions. Push to them what you want them to take away (ie, what you can do for them specifically) and let them ask you what skills you have. Or what you've done in the past. That way, you are only telling them what they want to know and keeping your pitch engaging.

Clearly Outline Your Project

Once you've landed the work, it's important to clearly discuss (and get in writing) the project's specifics. Clear up any grey areas to avoid misinterpretation and potential frustration down the line. You can promise everything, but if you don't deliver what the client expects your relationship with them can go down the drain.

The Benefits of A Good Client

So why is a good client so good? Targeting and landing suitable work can be great in order to grab projects that you're suited to and that you have the various skill sets to meet it's demands.

Why a good client is so great depends on your definition of a "good client". Recurring work can be a great indicator to whether you want to work with a client, but if you encounter someone new, you can take hints right from the pitch. Choosing a client who's quotes don't frequent the Clients from Hell blog is a complex process but you can take hints straight from your first contact to determine their responsiveness, knowledge and other key factors that will streamline your workflow with them. If you don't have to wait two weeks for a response, you don't have to wait two weeks to complete your work. If they understand how designing on a Mac doesn't stop Windows users from viewing your site, you're not going to have to invest your time into explaining it.

It might be a necessity, but working with bad, un-knowledgeable clients isn't ideal. Sorting through job boards and social media, and doing into your client can mean you end up with a friendly client willing to accept your ideas and potentially work with you in the future.

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