The biggest lie in this book would be if I told you I don’t worry about where the next client is coming from. I could tell you that once you build up enough of a portfolio, or garner enough experience, or achieve a certain level of notoriety in the industry, this won’t be a concern anymore.
I could tell you I sleep soundly, not bolting out of bed at 4 a.m. to run laps around the local high school track. I could tell you that I never worry about enough presents under the tree. I could tell you these things, but I’d be lying. And I don’t want to lie to you. Getting clients is the most petrifying and scary thing I can think of in the world. I’d rather wrestle lady Bengal tigers in heat with meat strapped to my genitals than look for new clients.
If putting in the work to get the kind of work you want to do sounds too daunting, then close this book right now. Walk away. Rethink your life choices and take up a less stressful craft, like cleaning out cobra pits. Do it. No one will think less of you. Cover yourself in sackcloth and pray to your god for penance.
(Are they gone? Great! More clients for the rest of us.)
All kidding aside, getting clients can be one of the most daunting challenges a designer faces. After all, until you’ve actually secured a client, you can’t do the job. That said, the biggest sure-fire way to not get clients is to be worried and freaked out. Clients are looking for confidence when they hire. You wanna make sure you don’t land a client? Then act freaked out and worried. I’m not saying play “hard to get.” I’m telling you to behave like someone who I’d entrust writing a large check to while putting my professional reputation in your hands.
This chapter will be of the most immediate use to freelancers and principals of moderately-sized shops. However, the concepts will be useful to anyone. Even if you’re not in client services, or you’re deep within the bowels of a large client services shop where clients just “happen,” it’s useful to know where they come from.
Clients are the lifeblood of a healthy business. They are the oxygen in your bloodstream that keeps everything going. No matter how good you are at what you do, without someone willing to pay you for that service you will have to close your doors. Lack of clients is the number one reason design studios fail. The number two reason? Who cares.
So where do clients come from? The best ones come one way.
At this point, all of our jobs come through referral. Often, there is no formal RFP (request for proposal) process. In the case of some of the largest, best projects we’ve worked on, we weren’t bidding against anybody else.
When you need a new doctor, lawyer, or butcher, your first inclination will always be to ask someone you trust. You value the opinions of people you trust, and it’s faster than doing a lot of research on your own.
Say you wake up tomorrow morning with a weird pain in your knee (probably from doing laps at 4 a.m.). You’ll make a mental run through your address book until you think of a friend who had knee problems last year. The next time you see her you’ll ask her about the doctor who treated her, and after confirming she’s not walking with a limp, you’ll get that doctor’s number. Now you not only have a doctor in mind, but you’ve gone from wondering if you can find a good doctor to hoping this particular doctor has an opening for you. All because of the wonderfully transitive properties of trust.
So it goes with hiring for design. Most people don’t hire designers very often. (The average person’s address book should contain more tailors than designers.) So during those odd times someone needs to buy design they’ll confer with friends or colleagues who’ve hired designers in the past. And they’ll certainly trust those referrals more than a Yelp listing or some unknown replying to a public RFP.
If you’re trying to decide between two design firms that seem equally talented, the one that came with a referral has a solid advantage. And that vetting goes both ways—a client who is well-socialized and has a good reputation in a large network is more likely to be a great client. In most cases, you’re going to be as skeptical of a client who hires a designer from an ad as they are of the designer who answered that ad.
How to get referrals
Most referrals come from colleagues or friends of colleagues, friends, or past clients. The keys to getting those referrals are:
- Be pleasant to work with.
- Do good work.
Get to know the people on the client team and treat them well. Make them a valuable part of the project and make sure their voices get heard. People change jobs. If the current project goes well, the person who hired you will have her stock rise within the company, and the rest of the staff will eventually spread out far and wide to other companies who will need design services at some point. Your DNA travels with them. (Not literally. I’m hoping I don’t need to add a chapter explaining that.) When the call goes out to find a design partner, they’ll be throwing your name in the ring.
Everything you deliver on a current project and every interaction you have with a current client is business development. All successful jobs lead to more jobs. And you are never not trying to line up your next job.
Be pleasant, don’t be nice
We once received a call from a gentlemen who said, “[redacted] referred me to you. He said that you wouldn’t be shy about telling me I was wrong, you’d probably piss me off, and that I should listen to everything you said because it would work.”
I was delighted.
That said, you should aim to be pleasant to work with, as everyone would rather work with someone pleasant than with an asshole. But no one wants to work with someone who’s faking it. Doing good work often requires a few hard conversations.
There’s a difference between being enjoyable to work with and being “nice.” Being nice means worrying about keeping up the appearance of harmony at the expense of being straightforward and fully engaged. Sometimes you need to tell a client they’re making the wrong call. Part of client services is being able to do that without coming off as a dick. But being afraid to do it because you’re too invested in being “nice” is worse than being a dick.
No one is hiring you to be their friend. They’re hiring you to design solutions to problems. But if they can get the same solution from someone who’s pleasant and someone who’s a jerk, they’ll go with the former.
Do good work
Of course, being the most pleasant person in the world won’t help your cause if the work isn’t good. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the quality of your work by itself will be a shining beacon that pulls clients near. Good work is the core of your business, and for the purposes of this particular book let’s assume you do good work. But clients aren’t hiring your portfolio, they’re hiring you. So while your portfolio is important as proof that you can do what you say you can (especially if you can match the work up with success metrics!), it can’t be your biz dev department. You need to convince your potential clients that you’ll be able to solve their problem as well as you solved your past clients’ problems.
To do this design thing right we’re going to have to redefine what we think of as “our work.” That stuff in your portfolio? That’s just evidence of work. The real work is that plus all the conversations, decisions, and convincing you did along the way.
Be clear (and enthusiastic) about what you do
Some people call this the elevator pitch. It’s actually the standing-around-at-drinks pitch. (No one wants to make small talk in an elevator. Creepy and invasive.) You need to be able to explain what you do very succinctly and in an interesting manner. Everyone hates being cornered at a party by the guy who drones on about his work.
But if you sound really excited and confident about what you do when someone inquires in a perfunctory manner at a baby shower—and then you shut up—the person you are talking to might actually remember and recommend you when the occasion arises. This actually happens all the time.
Research is a fundamental part of design. Networking is just research plus manners. In all of human history from the time your choice of careers was either hunting or gathering, it has never been easier to figure out who is in a position to hire you, and then figure out who you know who knows that person.
For an easier time doing this, it helps to know a lot of people.
If you are not a networking natural, try a user-centered approach, just like in design. Whenever you meet someone, start by learning something about them. Try to find out just a bit about what interests and motivates them. Try to think of something you could do to help them, whether it’s validating their needs and interests or providing some useful information. Then when you talk about what you do, and what you need, just put it in that context.
This all has to come from a place of genuine interest and confidence. Or you risk sounding like a creepy stalker. As with all things, practice.
Don’t be afraid to ask people you know for recommendations and referrals. Knowing someone to recommend is very exciting for people. Whether it’s being thought of as karma or scoring business points, people love giving out referrals when they truly believe the person they’re recommending is solid and trustworthy.
A very wise (and handsome) man once told me, “No one’s going to know what you think about unless you write and publish your opinions.” I was incredibly shy and insecure about my writing when he said that. (Here’s a secret: you don’t get over it. You push through it.) Yet I knew that for the sake of my business I had to take that advice to heart. And you should too. People need to know who you are so they can write you checks. Write! Design! Put yourself out there. Let history decide whether it’s crap or not. But unless you’re putting yourself where people can see you and making your opinions known, clients or potential employers won’t be able to find you. And the more you write the better you’ll get at it. (Case in point, I’m almost certain the end of this book will be good.)
By the way, that very wise man started a publishing empire a few years later. Thanks, Zeldman.
The end of a project is not the end of the client relationship. First, you have a responsibility to check in on the success of the work. Were the longer-term goals met? Did the metrics meet everyone’s expectations? Second, maintaining relationships is the single most important thing you can do to ensure good referrals. Not only did you nail the work, but you were pleasant while doing so and have remained pleasant afterward. You’re a good person to know! And everyone wants to introduce good people to other good people.
Maintaining a relationship is not hard. (If my therapist is reading this I just screwed myself.) You’re both busy people with sites to build and lives to live, so don’t reach out with chores for them to do. Send the occasional email, or make the occasional phone call, to just say hello. Check in briefly. If their company just did something awesome send them an email, mention it on Twitter, and congratulate them publicly. Maybe once in a blue moon make plans for a drink or a meal. And yes, make sure to tell them you’re always on the lookout for any referrals they can send your way, but don’t make that the central point of conversation.
Reflect well on people who recommend you
When a friend or colleague recommends you to a potential client, you carry a responsibility to that referrer. You need to do right by them. They’ve put their reputation on the line to vouch for you. Treating that referral well not only shows that you’re a reliable person, it also grows your referral network by one more happy client.
Sloppy work on your part reflects badly on the person who recommended you as well. Not only are you less likely to get another lead from that person, you might not be able to use them as a reference, and you’ve potentially added strife to the relationship between two of your clients.
Do you have to take a job that came from a referral? No. You still need to go through your process of deciding whether the client is right for you or not (coming up). But how you handle the inquiry is key. I’ll give you an example.
We’re a small shop. There are twelve of us as of this typing. And we get a fair amount of business inquiries. (Knock on wood. I love you all.) But we’re not always the right studio for those jobs, and the faster we determine that, the better for everyone.
I need to manage the percentage of time I spend talking to leads versus the percentage of time I spend working with the clients to whom I’ve already made commitments. So meeting with every person who contacts us, as much as I might want to, would leave me little time to take care of current clients.
To help with this, we’ve developed a set of questions, a screener, to help both parties decide whether we’re right for the job. If the potential project passes the initial screening, then we know it makes sense to devote some precious, otherwise billable time to pursue it. Some of the questions are common to all design studios: goals and necessary capabilities, timeline, and budget. There are several others we have added over the years as we’ve learned what qualities make a better or worse project for us.
(I love you guys so much I’ll even give you a link to the screener: http://muledesign.com/designbook/screener.html.)
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are evaluating the potential client as much as they are evaluating you. Prospective clients sometimes find this surprising. Those folks aren’t likely to make good clients.
As soon as we know that we’re not the right studio for someone, we tell them. But a potential client who comes in from a referral is generally sent to us by someone who’s worked with us before and thinks we’re a good fit to solve this problem, so we’re more inclined to sit down with them right away. After an initial conversation, we may in fact decide we’re not a good fit after all, but we’re going to do our best to refer them to someone who might be a better fit. We like them to leave feeling satisfied and helped. And someday they may have a project we’ll be right for. So even when you choose not to work with someone you want to leave them with a good impression. If you give them a clear, positive idea of what you do, they will then refer you to others.
Referrals are the one true path. But surely there are others, right? Well, sure. There are also other tablets besides iPads, I suppose.
Other, less good, ways to get work
First of all, before we go too far with the joke, these are all good things to be doing regardless. Although ninety percent or more of your work will come in through referrals, there’s no reason to sit on your hands waiting for the phone to ring. Let’s review some of these.
Request for proposals (RFPs)
There are many good organizations that have to go through an RFP process to hire anyone. And those are good jobs to go after. People who tell you they don’t go after RFPs and people who tell you they don’t have meetings are both lying to you. The problem with most RFPs is that they’re written by people who are as irritated that they have to write it as you are that you have to reply to it.
That’s also the key to handling an RFP. Find out who wrote it. Most come with a contact number in case you have questions. Call it. Make friends with the people who wrote it. They may have even heard of you. If so, you’re golden. Strike up a conversation with them and get as much detail as you can about the organization involved.
The other problem with RFPs is that they can be overly prescriptive in nature. They can include specific solutions that may or may not be appropriate. This is usually an indication that the organization is freaked out about having to hire designers and is trying to maintain as much control as possible—to the point where they’re going into as much detail as possible and short-circuiting the entire design process. You may be able to help them through that.
If an RFP starts dictating button colors, pick up the phone. It’s a cry for help and your opportunity to create mutual understanding. Speaking directly to a designer may be what they need, much more than getting 325 replies to a badly-formed RFP. Remember, not all organizations who send out formal documents have to.
By the way, how do these organizations decide where to send these RFPs? By referral. BAM!
I totally encourage you to go after clients you want to work for. Let’s just be realistic about the return on this type of business development. It is very, very low. You’re basically throwing seeds across a cement lot in the hope that one or two of them will find a crevice with enough dirt to take root in, not get eaten by birds, and that it’ll rain at some point. It’s hard enough to get a job that exists, but contacting people when a job may not exist is rough.
That said, if there’s a client you’re really interested in working with, go after them. Your best bet, as always, is going in through your network. Someone you know will know someone at that organization. Get ready to buy some meals and drinks. This is a little like that game where you start off with a paperclip and have to trade your way up to a dream client in ten moves or less. But with a little luck you may be able to get in front of the right people. More likely than not you’ll be making a pitch to be considered should they have design needs in the future, so make a lasting impression. Pee in their fireplace or something.
Oh, and potential clients love getting cold calls as much as you do.
We were once asked to co-sponsor a party at SXSW. I believe it was about three or four grand to get our name on the banner outside the bar and a listing in the program. We didn’t have a spare three or four grand sitting around at the time. Instead we got stickers with our logo on them. Cost: $50. (It helps that our logo is an animal. People like animals.) We went to the party and gave everyone a sticker. People got drunk, put stickers on each other, took pictures, and uploaded them to the internet. You know how people referred to that party? The Mule party.
So yeah, I believe in advertising. I also believe in not throwing money away. Did we get any clients out of that party? Probably not, but we raised our profile a little bit. And we were only out $50. Oh, and we drank the free beer paid for by the people who anted up the $4K.
So host the occasional party, buy the occasional ad in a conference brochure. Be visible in places where clients look. Very targeted advertising might be helpful to raise your profile and let people know you exist, but I wouldn’t put more than one or two eggs in this basket if you’re trying to get clients. At the most, advertising might help you seem familiar to a potential client who’s just been referred to you.
Conferences are a fine place to meet both potential clients and peers. Sometimes these are the same person. They’re full of other designers who work at organizations big enough to have a conference-going budget. (They’re also more likely to expense dinner for a whole table, so tag along.) Those are the same large organizations who hire outside designers, and send out RFPs, at which point having someone on the inside will be invaluable.
Blog about things you want to work on
If you’re interested in working with Disney, then blog about Disneyland. Write the best blog about Disney design on the internet. Will this in and of itself guarantee that you’ll be the designer they call when they need work? No, but it certainly won’t hurt. And you’ll be writing about what you love anyway.
As always, the key to everything, especially getting clients, is confidence. No one wants to deposit a check into an ATM machine that looks like it just got wheeled in place yesterday and may not be there tomorrow. Ultimately you need to evaluate whether a client is the right client for you, because the perfect client is one that understands and values what you do, whose design problem plays to your strengths, and whose timeline matches your availability.
And this will keep the tigers away from your genitals.