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Getting Clients: Approaching The Company

A defining factor in any freelancer or agency’s success in gaining new business is their ability to market their skills effectively. In this three-part series, we will explore ways in which designers can strategically promote themselves to get new clients. Securing new business by approaching companies can be a very challenging process, full of pitfalls. Here, we will look at 10 steps to impressing potential clients and avoiding the most common mistakes.

Step One: Be Focused Link

Step One: Be Focused

A focused approach to work is paramount for success. Freelancers often take on every job opportunity that presents itself. Although this would rapidly expand your showcase of work, more often that not it leaves you over-stretched, with a portfolio of odds and ends instead of specialized results. Focus instead on who you would like to work with. This could be based on a several factors, such as:

  • Industry
    By specializing in a particular industry, such as health care or retail, you build a portfolio of relevant experience. Although this could limit your workload initially, you will be actively working towards identifying yourself as someone with expertise in your chosen field.
  • Media
    Deciding which media and platforms to specialize in is important for any firm or individual. For many, the choice is between specializing in print and digital communication. This distinction will, again, allow you to focus and build relevant knowledge that you can then to offer your clients.
  • Geographical location
    You may also wish to focus your efforts on a particular geographical location. This could be a neighborhood, city or region. By doing so, your advertising in local media can be more personal and targeted, and you ensure easy traveling between you and clients.

Step Two: Be Insightful Link

Step Two: Be Insightful

Once you have established the kind of organizations you would like to work with, learn how their businesses work. Visit a range of websites in the field and ask yourself some key questions, such as:

  • Who do they work with?
    Knowing who your clients work with will give you an indication of how you can be of service to them. For example, an insurance firm looking to target university students might need to refresh its flyer and leaflet campaign in time for the beginning of term.
  • What are the company’s ethics?
    Most established organizations put a vision statement on their website. This will give you key insight into a company’s values, history, growth and future direction. This information is invaluable because it will help you better understand how the business operates and, thus, how you can tailor your approach to it. For example, if the company has a progressive stance on sustainability and the environment, you could approach them with ideas for paperless advertising and communication.
  • Does it have an advertising budget?
    Although this will not be explicitly stated, by reviewing a business’ prior advertising, you will be able to estimate how much capital it typically invests in design per annum. Again, this allows you to tailor your marketing proposal to its budget.

These kinds of questions will give you important insight into the services that an organization requires and, therefore, what services you can offer.

Step Three: Be Personal Link

Step Three: Be Personal

The power of face-to-face contact should not be underestimated. A common temptation for graphic designers is to manage their small empire from behind a desk over the Internet. Although work can be found online, the relationship between client and designer is often fleeting. Build strong links with your clients, which will increase the likelihood of repeat business.

One of the most important skills to learn, then, is face-to-face meetings. Meeting a client face to face forces them to give you their undivided attention. You will be able to convey your passion much more effectively and personally.

Actively seek out opportunities to meet potential clients face to face. Cold-calling or emailing can be a tiring and disheartening experience and may give you limited results. Instead, when approaching a business for the first time, find out the name and contact details of the marketing director, which you can often find on the company’s website. If it’s not there, make a quick phone call to to ask for it.

Before making your first contact with a client, do your research. Familiarize yourself with their business and understand of what they do. When you’re ready to make contact, have a few short sentences prepared that summarize the specific information you wish to communicate. This should include your:

  • Introduction
    Explain who you are and why you are calling. Although this may seem obvious, establishing these facts is crucial to presenting yourself clearly and memorably. This could be as simple as: “Good afternoon. My name is Peter Smart, and I am calling on behalf of Roam Design…”
  • Hook or pitch
    Once you have established who you are, engage your potential client. Mentioning that you specialize in their particular industry and that you offer a range of tailored services is an attractive proposition and good way to begin. Alternatively, you could begin with a hook. A hook is a one-off special offer that makes your services more attractive. This could be offering 50% off the cost of design work in November or a free hour of consultation.
  • Call to action
    Establish the next step your client should take. Offer to meet them and consult in person, at a time and location suitable to them.

Step Four: Be Prepared Link

Step Four: Be Prepared

Once you have arranged your meeting, research the company more extensively. Make notes on key areas of interest to develop later. For example, you could look at the company’s:

  • Advertising
    The company’s media presence is a good indication of its capacities in communication. Look at where it advertises, how it does it and where it doesn’t advertise. If it does not advertise online, you could present this as a possibility.
  • Branding
    If possible, source a variety of the company’s marketing material. Examine it and note anything you would do differently.
  • Website
    Does the company have a website? If not, this could be a great opportunity to expand its online presence. If it does, look at the structure, content and presentation. Note areas for improvement and, more importantly, why they could be improved.

Having an informed opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of the company’s current marketing and perceived identity allow you to guide it to services that would benefit it. You may also find it helpful to compare its advertising to that of its competitors.

Also, prepare your “elevator pitch,” which is a brief summary of your business, its aims and how it helps clients. Being able to explain what you do concisely demonstrates that your business goals are clear and your approach targeted.

Step Five: Be Unique Link

Step Five: Be Unique

Standing out from the crowd is difficult, especially if you are an emerging talent. To stand out, come up with original ideas on how the company can market itself. Suggest options it may not have yet considered, such as viral marketing, Web-based promotion or targeted leafleting, and demonstrate how they would improve business.

Impress the client and exceed its expectations. If you are going to propose a website redesign, take time before your meeting to produce a few drafts of what it could look like. You could present alongside a concise wireframe showing how the information could be better presented. Alternatively, if you will be proposing to refresh the company’s branding and identity, bring some visual stimuli to support your argument. Don’t present a whole new identity, but rather suggest colors, layouts, typefaces and advertising formats that could guide the conversation.

The client will want evidence of your skill to deliver on your ideas, so bring your portfolio along to impress them, along with references and endorsements from previous clients.

Step Six: Be Professional Link

Step Six: Be Professional

Your first meeting with the potential client is of paramount importance because it will determine whether you gain their business. To make a good impression, be meticulous in your preparation. Research and plan you presentation well so that you are confident in your delivery and can support your proposals with facts. This means you should have a firm grasp of the figures and costs associated with your proposal.

For example, if you will be proposing an inner-city billboard and bus-stop marketing campaign, know the costs involved in producing large-format printing and renting advertising space. Find out the number of people who will see the advertisements daily. This will give the client a balanced appreciation of both the outlay and the benefits of your proposal.

Equally important is your appearance. Invest in a suit or smart business-wear. This will impress upon them that you are serious about what you do, which will make them take you seriously, too.

Step Seven: Be Attentive Link

Step Seven: Be Attentive

Listen to the client. This step is often missed by designers who are overly keen to explain their innovative ideas.

Listening is a powerful tool. It shows you truly care about what the client has to say. Take notes on any information they offer about the company, its plans and immediate requirements.

Step Eight: Be Resourceful Link

Step Eight: Be Resourceful

Every meeting with a client is an opportunity and should not be taken lightly. Approach meetings resourcefully and demonstrate your professionalism. You could even prepare a package of materials to leave with them, including:

  • Business card
    Always have a business card on hand. It should have your name, contact details and, ideally, a website where they can see samples of your work.
  • Samples of work
    You might also want to leave a mini-printed portfolio of some of your best and most relevant work. Even if you don’t win that particular project, your details and experience will be in their file for future reference.
  • Curriculum Vitae
    A CV is a useful record of relevant work experience and is a good place to list your previous clients and technical competencies.

Remember, the decision about which freelancer to hire may not rest with one person in the organization. By adhering to this simple step, you allow others who are involved in the process to see your work at their convenience, making your application even stronger.

Step Nine: Be Committed Link

Step Nine: Be Committed

If you do not hear from the client immediately, don’t panic or give up hope. Wait a few days, and then send a polite email, thanking them for their time. In the email, reiterate in brief your proposal and mention how you would love to work with them. Then wait. If you receive no response within three weeks of your meeting, you may wan to re-inquire by telephone. Chances are, they have not forgotten about you; moreover, your call will demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment.

Step Ten: Evaluate Link

Step Ten: Be Evaluative

Whether or not your meeting was successful, you can learn something from it. Evaluate your performance, what you did well and, importantly, what you could improve. Learn from your mistakes, and rectify them for your next venture. Your ability to do this plays a vital role in your future success.

Conclusion Link

These are just ten of the key steps to consider when approaching a company. Remember: be bold, be proactive and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Every person has their own methods of finding work, but learning these steps could be the difference between realizing a dream and settling for second best.

The following articles may be of interest:


Footnotes Link

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Starting his company at the age of 15, Peter Smart runs exciting Creative Marketing Consultancy, Roam Design, based in Southampton, UK. With an impressive portfolio, Roam Design now works alongside both domestic and international clients.

  1. 1

    Hey SM,
    Great tips again. Thanks!
    You help a lot for young freelancers like me…
    Cheers :)

  2. 2

    India Spiritual

    November 9, 2009 3:22 am

    You just summed up the entire Business Development lifecycle in this post. Its really great. Points are really valid.

  3. 3

    VictoriaAnn Design

    November 9, 2009 3:22 am

    This is a really good article. Provides lots of hints and tips to someone who is sometimes unsure of which move to make next (i.e. me!).

  4. 4

    Brian Smithson

    November 9, 2009 3:48 am

    A really good article, touching on several points new designers get wrong initially.

    I am going to be pedantic, however, and point out that there are a few typos in the piece. This doesn’t reinforce the ‘be professional’ approach :-)

  5. 5

    Focused, yes… but I wouldn’t start being too picky with the clients I take on. I’d spend more time choosing the right client based based on their ability to pay and refer more work. There’s a time and place for everything and now isn’t the time to nitpick on developing niches.

    That said, the rest of the article was spot on. Most valuable was the face-to-face communication. Although the idea of running your business from your laptops without having to deal with anyone sounds ideal, it’s not realistic.

    The one thing I’d add is publicity. Few creatives are utilizing it. It’s crazy how many times I see designers not getting paid for their work. If you’re inevitably going to work pro-bono, do it as an open case study / experiment and publicize it. It’s a win-win for all involved. It works.

  6. 6

    chris olbekson

    November 9, 2009 4:09 am

    Great resource. Some of these simple business steps are often overlooked in today’s high paced society.

  7. 7

    Very timely post – I do agree with having a velvet rope policy – for clients – The drain on creativity can cost so much more than the money they pay you that it is not worth it to take on a client you are not excited about.

    The face 2 face meeting section was absolutely right on – I will now have to set-up some meetings (hate them)

    @thrivan – great suggestion about those clients who don’t or won’t pay –

  8. 8

    Awesome post.. thank you

  9. 9

    Good concise and informative article.

    Although step 11 should be “Avoid cliché stock photography” :)

  10. 10

    Useful tips Peter

  11. 11

    awesome, useful tips

  12. 12

    Thanks to Peter for the good tips and thanks to SM for providing them.
    I found out that sometimes face-to-face meetings work very well in the lunch time. Food make people more relaxed and the conversation seems to “flow” better.
    @chopeh: I agree 100%, I try to offer unique photos asking a photographer to take the right pictures or taking them myself (I’m not a pro but I’m passionate about it)

  13. 13

    This is a good list for referring to for sales activities. I would disagree with some of your Step 5 suggestions of doing creative work before you actually have a company as a client. It is better to bring examples of how you have helped another client – the process, before and after results, etc. – rather than spending time creating work you may never be paid for. I would be interested to hear any suggestions for “getting” face-to-face appointments. I am doing a lot of cold calling right now and I’m finding it difficult to get people to commit to a meeting with you. People are notorious for not returning emails or phone calls, so this makes appointment-getting almost impossible.

    Thanks again, looking forward to the next part of the series.

    • 14

      Francis Baptiste

      January 11, 2010 1:41 pm

      yeah, I’d have to agree with that. I was always told to never do any creative before you have the job, or people will expect you to do loads of work for free, or under value your services.

  14. 15

    Osvaldo Osorio

    November 9, 2009 7:30 am

    Very practical and good tips!…. Thank you.

  15. 16

    Hey Peter- Nice article…except that the whole thing was plagiarized from an article I submitted earlier to the editors of Smashing Magazine.

    • 17

      Smashing Editorial

      November 9, 2009 2:55 pm

      This is not true, Chris. The author of this article has never seen your post.

    • 18

      Francis Baptiste

      January 11, 2010 1:43 pm

      Ouch. You really think you’re the only one with advice on how to approach clients.
      Great article Peter.

  16. 19

    Design Informer

    November 9, 2009 9:54 am

    So true. Being personal often gets me the jobs.

  17. 20

    Excellent post. Thank you so much for that information. I feel strong and confident from reading it and you’ve really laid out the steps brilliantly. Take Care!

  18. 21

    Great article….

    Thanks SM

  19. 23

    “If you are going to propose a website redesign, take time before your meeting to produce a few drafts of what it could look like.”

    I certainly hope Smashing Magazine isn’t proposing spec work. If so, Smashing Magazine fail :

  20. 26

    Case Ernsting

    November 9, 2009 1:26 pm

    Would you place these steps in any specific order? In my mind, Step 7 at the top of the list in terms of “vitality to success”. What would you list as #1?


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