As a web designer or developer, you have a solid grasp of code and design. Your portfolio is stocked with impressive work. You’re ready for the freelance journey. Great! There’s still one skill you’ll need to master, though, and it’s the bane of many freelancers. It’s a simple, five-letter word. Yet it can strike fear and loathing into the hearts of web designers and developers everywhere.
It’s said that nothing happens until somebody sells something. It’s true. Sales is a process, just like design and development. Freelancers who consistently land quality clients are the ones who understand the process.
I don’t mean to offend anyone in the profession, but selling often conjures visions of the stereotypical used car salesmen — pushy, annoying and probably not too trustworthy. But sales doesn’t need to be that way.
If the idea of selling scares the heck out of you, relax. You’ve been selling your entire life. You just didn’t realize it. When you were a child and you tried to convince your parents why you needed a particular toy, you were selling. If you tried to convince someone why Italian was a better dinner choice than Mexican, you were selling.
Selling is nothing more than opening a dialogue and building a relationship.
In this post, we’ll look at how you can land quality clients — those who pay, are professional and provide repeat business — and not just any client.
Three Phases in Selling
Typically, there are three phases in the cycle: making contact, building the relationship and, finally, closing the sale.
During the first phase, you’ll start by identifying suspects. These are people or companies who may need your services. To find the ones worthy of further attention requires putting them through a qualifying process. Those who make the grade are usually called prospects. Finally, the sale is closed and the prospect becomes a paying client.
It’s the middle part of the sales process — qualifying — that trips up freelancers. How? The answer is simple in most cases. They don’t do it.
I’ve talked and worked with loads of web designers who take on whatever happens to come through their door or jingles their phone or inbox. Many told me their tales of woe: The client doesn’t pay or pays very slowly. The client nitpicks everything without any apparent reason. Projects are riddled with scope creep.
These designers experienced a litany of headaches. Some big. Some small. The really unfortunate part is that most could have been avoided if the designer or developer took the time to qualify the suspects before they morphed into prospects, let alone clients.
Play 20 Questions With Your Clients
The qualifying process isn’t rocket science — at least it’s not unless NASA happens to be one of your clients. It involves background research and asking questions. Here are some important ones.
Do They Need What You Provide?
You may have found a hot suspect that appears to need a lot of web work. But, upon further investigation, you find that an in-house staff handles the work. Or it could be that they’re completely satisfied with their current supplier and have no desire to change. The point is, before you invest a significant amount of time, learn if they really are motivated clients who truly need what you’re selling.
Do you have experience in their industry?
Have you done this type of work before, or will you need to invest in training, or buy software or other tools to get you up to speed? If so, will you be able to recoup those expenses? Beyond those, using your client as a guinea pig can be pretty risky. Always be up front with them and let them know your situation. If you’ve built trust, they may be willing to work with you.
Can they pay for your services?
Just because your prospects, or suspects at this point, seem they have money to pay you, do what you can to ensure their ability to pay. Ask around to see if anyone you know has worked with the prospect. Did they pay on time? Were there problems, or did everything go smoothly?
It’s a good idea to consider opening a Dun & Bradstreet account and check your prospects’ credit ratings. D&B provides a variety of reports to help you assess your prospects’ credit worthiness and ability to pay.
Do they provide the opportunity for repeat business?
Working mostly, or exclusively, on one-off projects means you’ll need to spend a lot of time marketing, promoting and selling your practice. Repeat business, on the other hand, is easier to sell, if it even needs to be sold. Plus, clients who offer repeat business help ensure that a freelancer’s business has a more predicable cash flow.
Do they have a realistic budget? Are they hesitant to share their numbers?
Often, clients — and especially smaller clients — don’t have a clue about web design and development costs or how time-intensive the process can be. Many think of it as an off-the-shelf commodity with a fixed price tag. As such, they may be hesitant or unwilling to share their numbers or thoughts about costs. The thinking is something along the lines of, “If I tell them my budget, I won’t get the best price.” This can be a red flag that indicates the prospect doesn’t trust you. It’s your job to educate them. Toss out some numbers and see what comes back. For example, you might try something like this: “Based on what you’re describing, a site could be as little as $5,000 or as much as $8,000. Is that pretty much what you had mind?”
Some prospects will tell you they have no idea what their budget is. Again, toss out a number. Their response is usually, “Wow! I wasn’t expecting it to be that much!” Now they have a budget in mind.
Is there a realistic deadline for the project?
If the timeline to complete the project means you’ll need to reschedule other work or labor into the wee hours to complete it, you may consider passing. Taking on a rush project or one without a reasonable window can mean putting your other clients’ work on the back burner. That can result in upsetting them, missing a deadline and often both. Rush work can also open the door for errors. Beyond this, the pressure to complete a rush project can make you angry with the client, even though it’s really your fault for taking agreeing to the time frame.
Have they worked with a web designer? If so, whom?
If your prospects have never worked with a web designer before, it means you’ll need to educate them. Can you afford to invest the extra time needed to bring them up to speed? Novice clients are notorious for not having a clear understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish with a site, and that usually means a lot of revisions.
It can also mean hearing the classic line, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Will you be able to bill for those revisions or the time required developing the site to their nebulous, vague specifications?
Is the prospect the final decision-maker?
Here’s a lousy situation: You work hard to build a relationship with a client’s contacts. They’ve implied several times they’re the decision-maker. You’ve become an important resource for them and demonstrated your value. Everything appears to be moving in the right direction. When the time is right, you submit a proposal, but while reviewing it with your contacts, they tell you they’ll need to run your proposal by their boss, committee or others. Your heart sinks. You’ve invested time and resources wooing the wrong people. In all likelihood, you’ll need to start from the beginning with new decision-makers.
All this could have been avoided with a spin on a simple qualifying question: “Who, beside yourself, will be responsible for giving approvals?” Asking in this manner provides a graceful way for your contact to save face while getting the information you need.
Does there appear to be a good personality fit?
You’ll be spending a lot of time with your contact person and it helps if you can get along easily. Plus, people buy from people they like. This doesn’t mean the contact needs to become one of your best personal friends. That can happen, but the main thing is that your personalities gel enough to get through the project.
What does your gut tell you?
Gut feelings are often correct. If I had to gander a guess, I’d say it’s due to our collective, yet somewhat unconscious, experience in dealing with people. Look for all reasons why you shouldn’t work with the prospect. This may sound counterproductive, but it will keep you safe.
The process of qualifying a prospect as a client that’s right for you can take some time. But, it’s time spent well. When a potential client meets your criteria, even if it’s lofty, the relationship that follows will be rewarding for both of you.
Thanks for the thumbs-up, Halifax. I hope to have the opportunity to write more freelance business posts in the future.
Great article on what outlines the ideal client.
Thanks Neil for this awesome and useful tips. I know building a relationship with the client is really a big deal. I daily deal with my clients and i know how it is.
Thanks for sharing this advice, certainly it will help in future.
I’m happy you found the post useful. As I mentioned in the post, we should try to develop a solid, professional relationship, based on trust and mutual respect. Now that doesn’t mean a client needs to become your best friend. There should be a solid enough foundation and enough mutual respect and “likeability” (is that a word?) to get through the gig in a successful manner.
I’ve been fortunate over the years in developing strong business relationships. When one of my client contacts jumps ship for a position with another company, they usually keep me with them. So, instead of losing a client, I gain two. It doesn’t always happen, but it happens enough. I have one guy who has kept with my for the upside of 20 years.
Back when I had an outside office, a couple of my clients would swing over for coffee and to chat. I may have been working on a project for them, but it really didn’t matter. They showed up just for coffee talk. Truth be told, they wanted to get out of their office for a bit and my office was a refuge in their sea of chaos.
It’s clients like them that you want to clone. They rarely, if ever, balk a fees, they give you enough time (and budget) to do your best work and they trust you enough to spread your creative wings. They also invite you to holiday office parties and Summer cookouts. Free food! Yes!
It looks like your company focuses on dental practices. That’s great! Targeting a well-defined niche can go a long way toward building solid client/designer relationships.
Instead of starting the relationship from scratch, focusing on a niche gives a designer the ability to get to know the industry, common challenges, concerns, etc., that prospects within the niche share. What’s learned working with similar clients does a couple of things. It often cuts down the research time and helps to develop a spot-on design solution with confidence. In addition, a niche-focused designer is often able to charge a premium for their experience, expertise and understanding.
Also, consider what’s going on in a prospect’s mind. Often it’s high anxiety. You may have a done a good job for someone else, perhaps one of the prospect’s colleagues and you might have a great portfolio. But, can, and will you do a stellar job for them? There are a lot of “ifs.”
Taking the time to build a sound relationship and demonstrate your expertise and value helps to ease their mind. It establishes trust. Developing mutual trust is critical for service business sales.
Having experience in their industry is another serious plus. It’s like a person with chest pain. Odds are, they’re going to seek out a cardiologist rather than a general practitioner. It’s a [much] safer bet.
Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
As a freelancer, I have definitely learned this lesson the hard way. Building a relationship with a client is huge! Thanks for sharing this though, I’ll use this advice in the future.
Yeah … having a lesson to two at the School of Hard Knocks is never fun. We all have our share, though. It’s how we learn and really a necessary part of the professional /career development process. That said, it’s best to get through that phase of our education as soon as possible. 😀
“Those who pay, are professional and provide repeat business ” – is the best definition of “ideal” client.
Happy to help out and glad you enjoyed the post.
Having a “get ‘em in the door,” policy often leads to a “revolving door” client management policy. A parade of clients come and go, mostly in one-off gig scenarios. That results in designers/developers finding themselves in a constant scramble to land new business. It’s inefficient, at best and might put a Web designer out of business. If their major, or only client at the time, decides to take a hike, the designer out of luck in a big way.
Here’s how this kind of client management, or rather, project-centric management often works. The client is thinking, “I need this problem solved – now!” The designer is thinking, “Wow! This’ll be a great project to work on. I can design something elegant and great.” They’re going into the project from divergent points-of-view from the get-go. The client is thinking business problem solutions. The designer is thinking process. Sure, process is pretty important, but it should support finding a suitable solution and not simply stand-alone. Even if the end result is great, the client/designer relationship (if there ever was one) can suffer. The client can feel under-valued and misunderstood. The designer can feel like the client doesn’t “get it,” their design skills and talents are under-valued and the client is a picky pain in the hindquarter.
Going out of our way to ensure a great client experience, both in terms of the end result and the relationship, goes a long way toward building a successful business. We’ve all heard the adage that a happy client will tell X people (usually 2 or 3) about their experience. An unhappy client will tell a slew of people about their lousy experience.
Correctly qualifying prospects helps to ensure a client will be doing the happy dance. It also helps a designer to stick to their values and what’s important to them, so they’ll be the client’s dancing partner. Everybody’s happy. Peace, love, flowers … with some elegant design, code and suitable solutions tossed in for good measure.
Thanks for this Neil! So many web companies I’ve worked for or with think that it is ultimately better to just “get people in the doors.” They are then always reeling, when they discover that the person is late with their payments, is dragging their feet with their final content, or simply asks for major functionality and structure changes on a daily basis. Yet it’s the same story every time. Web agencies that cater to this behaviour, further enforce the culture that web services are just trivial to their needs, and must be all inept or scammers, as they can’t see how things work, or aren’t explained to how things work, and why it takes so much time/money to do as they have asked.
Waiting until it erupts into a negative situation with bad feelings on both sides, leads to this sudden cut off, with no repeat business, and the client is left more untrusting and disrespectful of web related services.
Managing expectations and carefully filtering clients will lead to more profits, and less of the starve or drown scenarios a lot of web agencies find themselves in. Unfortunately mediocre outfits with little experience or real knowledge of how the web works are desperate to undercut professional, experienced web agencies, and I think this is where the general bad attitude of clients comes from initially.
I’m happy to learn you found the post useful. As a matter of fact, I just started writing a post about consultative selling for Web designers for one of my sites – http://BeAFreelanceWebDesigner.com. I’ll likely have it posted later today (8/15/14) if you’d like to take a peek. I’m thinking it’ll probably be a series of posts.
I wish you all the best with your business journey! Hang on tight and enjoy the ride.
Thanks Neil, this was really usefull. We’re just starting out and it’s so great to have some clear guidelines when approaching customers.