Advice for dealing with design clients

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Whether you are doing it solo as a freelance designer, or run your own design studio, your chances of success are pretty slim unless you learn to manage client relationships properly.

I have been running my own design business for around 2.5 years now, and while I don’t pretend I know everything, there are a few tricks I have picked up along the way.

In this post, I will be sharing 15 rapid-fire bits of advice on how to manage client relationships, while still maintaining your sanity.

1. First impressions are the most important

It’s a cliché, but its true.

If your personal brand looks cheap and unprofessional, that is the calibre of client you will attract. You only have yourself to blame.

2. Always get paid upfront

The vast majority of clients are trustworthy and will compensate you for your services within a reasonable amount of time. There will however be the occasional low-life who will  for whatever reason not pay up.

To minimise the potential risk across the board, I recommend requesting at least 50% (even higher if possible) of your fee upfront with all clients, and the rest to be paid once the project is completed.

When you depend on your business to put food on your table, at least you can rely on the deposit to provide some peace of mind.

3. Don’t call yourself a freelancer

The term is overused and gets no respect. ‘Consultant’ sets a better tone.

4. Never negotiate on price

Negotiating design pricing is a slippery slope. Someone will always be cheaper, so sell yourself based on ability and experience.

Set a reasonable price, then justify it.

5. Be honest about your capabilities

And lean to recognise when a project is outside your skillset, or simply too large to handle.

This presents a good opportunity to refer the project to a colleague, or bring in someone else to collaborate with.

6. Learn to pick up the phone

A client relationship is much less likely to turn sour if you have previously spoken to them on the phone. It’s a touch more effort, but well worth it.

7. Practice selling your design decisions

Learning how to explain and justify your design decisions is a critical skill. A skill that separates the professionals from the amateurs.

Practice makes perfect, even if it’s with yourself in front of the mirror.

8. Push your clients to discover who they are

Few clients provide a comprehensive brief upfront. Never stop pushing them until you completely understand their business, goals, and the direction they want to head.

Not all clients understand how critical this step is. Provide the correct guidance, and they will thank you later.

9. Under promise, and over deliver

You will never have to struggle with making a deadline again.

Personally, I add on 1 week to the expected completion date of most projects. The extra time is rarely needed, but this approach has saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

10. The client is not your boss

The client is your partner.

11. Take a strategic approach

Help your client understand the strategic value of design and you will gain their respect. Don’t be a taxi driver.

12. Maintain Communication

When working on lengthy projects, don’t forget to keep your client in the loop.

I personally use recurring Google Calendar reminders for each project – ensuring that I touch-base at least once per week.

13. Not all projects are groundbreaking or exciting

That’s just the way it is. Accept it.

Your local accountant still deserves your respect, and a solid brand identity.

14. You will encounter difficult clients

It comes with the territory. Deal with it.

If a client over steps the line of what you consider reasonable cut them loose and move on. Just be professional about it.

Every negative experience provides a unique learning opportunity.

15. You will encounter wonderful clients

Take care of them, and go that extra mile.

They help you realise why you got into this profession in the first place.


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