How I Evaluate A New Prospect For Client Fit

Wouldn’t it be great if you could worry less about feedback and focus on creating great solutions with clients who trust you?  This week I’m excited to share with you some red flags that I watch out for as well as a few tips that I’ve used to evaluate if a new prospect will make a great client.

My Experience:

When deciding on what story I wanted to share with you regarding finding client fit, I thought it may be best to share my very first freelance opportunity with you all. I chose this because it was the very first time I learned that there are two types of prospects that are eager to work with talented designers.

Unfortunately, this opportunity came to me through my Senior Career Fair while in college. I remember this particular person clearly. He was well dressed, moved around the room pretty quickly and had a ton of confidence. He was also one of the very first people to approach my table that night. He looked through my portfolio, said he was impressed and then moved along. Later in the evening, as I was speaking with a prospective employer, this same guy squeezed in, laid his business card down on my table and said call me. I immediately thought, what a power move? He must be very important.

So as anyone would, I got in touch with this guy the next day. He said that he wanted to schedule a meeting with me to talk about a really great opportunity. He said he was in need of a talented designer to help him with the logo and brand for his new marketing company. He loved my style and said he was confident that I could pull it off. I of course was excited to finally get paid to design, so I agreed to meet him.

Up until now, everything about this experience was fairly normal. When we met, we made small talk and chatted more about his project. However, things got really strange when I asked him about his potential budget. He said that he didn’t have any money. Instead, in exchange for my time and services, he was going to reward me with an awesome collection of stock photography worth thousands of dollars. I told him I’d think about it and be in touch.

Because he didn’t have any money, I should have politely declined the opportunity and moved on. Instead, I went home and thought about this so-called proposal. At that time, there wasn’t any great services like Death to the Stock Photo, so the thought of owning thousands of dollars in stock photos appeared to be a pretty great alternative to cash. So stupid me took him up on the offer.

The next day we kicked off the project and I began tirelessly working back and forth with this client for two full months, until we finally came to a final agreement on his logo. I probably should have removed myself from the project well before hand, but I was determined to receive my “payment”.

To make a long story short, he did make good on his promise, and when the stock photos arrived, guess what? They were all from the 1980’s. Complete with cell phone bags, and a red 1980’s convertible. And since it was 2007 and these photos served no purpose to me,  I essentially worked on this project for free.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying events like this are full of sleazy people trying to take advantage of new grads. What I hope you get out of this is that there’s two types of prospects: those who want to pay you because they truly value your talents as a designer, and others who just simply see you as someone who can get the job done. Its up to you to recognize who you want to work with from the very start.

What I’ve Learned about Client Fit:

  • There’s no value in free: If someone claims that they don’t have any money to invest in you, they clearly don’t value what you have to offer them. Never work for free, unless you truly feel connected to an organization and want to offer your services as a gift to them. I’m not saying you have to always work for top dollar, but don’t dilute your value with the free price tag. Think about it. Have you ever felt like you were receiving real value with anything that was totally free?
  • Respect your time: It’s easy to come across very eager when a new lead comes into your inbox, but if you find it almost nearly impossible to schedule a meeting or call with a prospect, it is best to decline the opportunity. Your time is important and it should not be wasted on someone who doesn't value it from the beginning.
  • First impressions matter: When working with a new prospect, how the experience goes in the beginning will often be similar to how the rest of a project will go. It’s easy to try to give the benefit of the doubt, but be honest with your evaluation. Are you truly a good fit? Remember, they contacted you first. Chances are they need you more than you need them, and just like they are evaluating you, you also should be doing the same in return.
  • Trading services rarely ever works: Similar to working for free, it’s easy to fall into the trading of services trap. It can work, but it really only works for the person who initiated the offer in the beginning. I’ve found because design has an aspect of subjectivity to it, you simply can never really place a clear cap on a trade of services for design. You’ll constantly wonder if you’re providing equal value to the other person. And how do you determine when you’ve reached the end of your agreement? When the other person says it’s of equal value?
  • You’re not a rescuer: Nobody can do their best work under pressure. If someone approaches you with an unrealistic deadline or they have been abandoned by their previous designer or developer, it’s probably a sign that this project is probably not a great fit. By nature no one is going to just give up on project, unless they just aren’t enjoying it anymore or previous agreements are not being met.
  • Think twice about request for proposals: RFP’s come off as almost a sign of status in our industry. I fell for it too. Being added to a list of qualified companies or designers to fulfill a company’s needs gives you a feeling of acceptance. I’m not saying all RFP’s are bad, but unless they are truly game changers, I simply have learned to stay away from them. The time it takes to fulfill each RFP, combined with the unexpected waiting game simply gets in my way of nurturing existing relationships, which is where the true money is.
  • You don’t have to say yes to every referral: Most of my projects have come through referrals. The best ones are when they have been warmed up nicely by a client who has great respect for you. However, just because a lead is a referral from someone, it’s okay to still say no if that referral doesn't seem to be a good fit at the time. If done correctly, there will be no hard feelings on either side.
  • You’re not a shiny new car: It’s hard to believe, but I’ve actually had potential clients want to test drive my ideas. What I mean is that they wanted me to do some work for them for free, before they chose to fully invest in me. As you can guess, I don’t recommend that. If they can’t tell by looking at your portfolio and after having discussions with you about value you can bring to their project, then they are not a fit. Also, it would be really easy for them to say that they didn’t like your idea, and then run off with it anyway. What we create takes time and time is not available to test out.
  • One size, simply doesn’t fit all: There was a time, when I took pride in being able to design around a number of segments and styles. Although it’s a great skill, it rarely works when finding the perfect client. Yes, you can make a living by trying to design for everyone, but the ideal scenario is when you’re creating the type of solutions that come natural to you. It simply will just be easier and the client will pay you more for that expertise. From time to time, I may challenge myself and take on a project to push myself, but generally I always want to be true to what comes natural to me.
  • A great client truly makes a difference: Early on in my career I always thought it was the budget that made the difference between a project that turned out great vs a project that turned out just okay. The truth is, budget only plays a tiny role. To create great solutions you have to have a trusting relationship with your client. You both need to work together towards the same goal with respect for each other. The right client will respect your decision and value your ideas which in turn enables you to create your best work.
  • It’s all about the golden rule: To me this is a no brainer. I expect others to treat me as I would treat them. If a prospect clearly is not respectful to what I can give them, it’s not going to work out. I’ve worked with mean people, or even on projects that I didn’t entirely agree with in the past and I’m happy to decline them in exchange for a happier life.

My Takeaway:

It’s very easy to get in the habit of taking any project that falls into your lap. This is probably mostly contributed to the fact that it’s flattering to know that someone likes your designs and as a bonus wants to pay you for them. We all need money to live right?

If you’ve been working with clients for a while, you’ll find the process of finding client fit a bit scary at first. I did too. You’ll probably find yourself saying no, more than yes. Just know that this is okay. The more projects that you complete that are with good clients, you’ll find that your portfolio, referrals and leads will become higher in quality.

Because I like to be honest, if you’re just now starting out freelancing, and are concerned about building your portfolio up, creating some really awesome fake projects that you are proud of is much better than any real life solutions that you’re not proud of.

Finding client fit and building a strong client foundation is not easy, and takes time and patience. The more you practice, the better you’ll be at it. The key is to be honest with yourself and know where your strengths lie so that you are only taking on projects that you can fulfill with confidence as you grow as a designer. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you’re not ready for higher quality clients, don’t take them on. Remember, you’re in control of who’s the right fit for your needs at any given time.

Communication and feedback is important to me, so I’d love to continue the conversation with you all on Twitter. Have you had any experiences where someone was trying to take advantage of you? What other red flags that I did not mention do you like to look out for?

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