Designers: 10 Tips for Gaining High Quality Clients … and More of Them

Every freelance designer has to start somewhere. Many of us begin by designing business cards and brochures for friends and family, and might move on to bidding for jobs on sites like elance and finding clients on Craigslist. It’s definitely possible to build a successful design business from these sources, but what happens when you’re looking to grow your income and dramatically increase your chargeable rate?
Don’t think just because you’re struggling now, that the life of a freelance designer is devoid of comfortable earnings. Finding higher-paying clients is possible for any designer, provided you take the time to provide them a service they consider worthy of a larger fee.

I’ve been steadily raising my rates as a creative over the last five years, raising my hourly rate from about $15 up to $75, and increasing my billable hours and growing my business. Here’s what has helped me gain more higher-paying clients:

1. Describe Your Ideal Client: 

Before you begin hunting for higher paying clients, it’s best to figure out exactly who those clients are, so you can tailor your marketing towards them. Opting to go after higher-paying work often means changing the type of clients you take on – e. g. when I started out, I did design work for small craft businesses and online e-commerce stores, which I loved, but never made much money on. As I started chasing higher-paid jobs, I focused my attention on SMEs, who still gave me a lot of creative work but who had a decent budget for marketing and understood the value of my skills.

2. Update Your Portfolio:

As a designer, you live and die by your portfolio. Potential clients look at your previous designs to decide if you’re the right designer for their project. Before you begin any new marketing efforts, update your portfolio. Go through every piece and make sure it represents the best of your abilities. Tweak the way you present projects to show off their best features. And remove anything you’re not 100% happy about. Better to have 10 beautiful projects on display than 30 mediocre ones.

3. Build Your Platform: 

Your “platform” is the basis of your marketing campaign – the value statement you make about your design skills and the results you can get for a client. Your platform focuses on building a name for yourself within a particular market niche.

For most designers, your platform will consist of a brilliantly-designed website and blog, some online design portfolios, and other branding materials – business cards, a physical portfolio, etc. You might also explore other ways of building a platform as a designer, such as speaking at business conferences about design approaches, or teaching courses on design, or writing an eBook on the subject.

4. Present a Professional Face: 

If you want higher-paying clients, you’ve got to demonstrate that you’re worth a premium rate. Part of your new marketing plan is ensuring you demonstrate to clients that you take your business seriously. A business owner paying you a high fee wants a professional experience. They don’t want disjointed emails and an invoice made from a MS Word template. They don’t want a contract that reads like it was written by an untrained monkey. They want clear deadlines and processes and an easy way to check on their job status.

So invest in workflow management software, create professional, branded invoices and contracts, and hire a lawyer to draw up a contract document. If you take your business seriously, so will your client.

5. Think about your offerings: 

As a designer, what are you offering your clients? Can you rework your offerings to be more attractive to your new ideal client? For example, many designers put together “packages” based on common services their clients require – such as a website package, a print collateral package, or an eBook-design package.

6. Be Picky About New Clients: 

As a designer, you are first and foremost a business owner, and its bad business practice to prioritize short term cash flow over long-term growth. This means, don’t take on low-paying clients because you need the money – instead, focus your efforts on growing your business so you can take on those higher-paid clients. Remember, low-paying work only leads to more low-paying work – the best way to stop this cycle is to simply stop accepting low-paid work.

7. Use In-Person networks: 

Think about the people you do business with – chances are, you found them through a referral from a friend or colleague. Everyone knows a plumber or florist or web developer who is brilliant at what they do – you want to be the designer recommended by everyone you know.

A great way to learn more about face-to-face networking and giving and receiving referrals is to join a professional networking group. Business Network International (BNI) is the largest and most successful group of this type in the world, but there are many others. Your local chamber of commerce also offers excellent networking events, as do industry conferences and local business groups. Go along with a stack of business cards and start shaking hands!

8. Ask for the referral: 

When you gain that first major client, use that job as leverage to more projects. First of all, do a fantastic job. When your client is praising you for said fantastic job, that’s when you let them know you’re looking for more work and that you’d love it if they could refer you to other companies they might know who need a designer.

Asking for the referral is one of the simplest ways to gain new business. Often the thought of giving a referral doesn’t occur to the client until you mention it. It never hurts to ask!

9. Raise your rates on current clients: 

Wouldn’t the ideal solution be to turn your current clients into higher-paying clients? Well, perhaps you can. When was the last time you alerted your current clients of a rates rise? If it has been more than a year since you raised your rates, then it might be time to give your current clients the news that rates of going up.

Sure, you will probably lose some of your clients – but you’ll be surprised how many will stay with you despite a rate increase. If someone already has a good working relationship with you and feels as though your work is worth the fee, then they will want to remain with you.

10. Enter design awards. 

Sure, awards don’t mean much other side of the design community, but they are an excellent way to give your resume a bit of oomph and allow you to add “award winning designer” in front of your name. Plus, most design awards come with some great free publicity in local papers and websites. Find design awards online or through local design and advertising schools, and enter your best work. You never know what might come of it!

Higher-paying design clients DO exist. They have problems that need to be solved, just like all your other clients. Don’t be intimidated by the thought of working with higher-paying clients – they need your skills to transform their brands, sell their products and create beautiful collateral. Are you ready to design for the big time?

As a designer, what was the turning point that enabled you to find higher-paying clients? What tips can you offer to other designers?

Photo Credit:event photography.

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