How to Evaluate Prospective Clients and Choose the Best Ones
You want good clients and not bad clients, but how can you tell the difference?
If you’ve been a freelance web designer for a while (and especially if you have a strong online presence), this has probably happened to you. Out of the blue, you get an email asking about your web design services from someone you have never heard of working for a company you have never heard of.
Yay! You might think it’s time for a celebration. But as an experienced freelancer, you know to be careful. You know that it’s important to evaluate prospective clients. You shouldn’t agree to work for every single prospect who contacts you.
First of all, you want to make sure that their inquiry is legitimate. And you should also consider whether they are the right client for you.
In this post, I’ll list a few steps to help you figure out how to evaluate clients. At the end of the post, share your tips about how you evaluate clients.
Step 1: Know Your Ideal Client
The first step in attracting the right kinds of clients is to identify specifically what types of clients and projects you want. If you’re struggling with this, think about the clients that you’re currently attracting and why they are not right for you. Once you know the types of clients that you would like to work with you can develop a plan to promote your services specifically to those people.
If you haven’t already done so, you should build a profile of the type of clients you prefer to work with. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do I prefer a laid-back client, or a more formal relationship?
- Are my clients my collaborators, or do I prefer clients with a more hands-off approach?
- Is my ideal client technologically savvy or do they need some help with technology?
- Is there an industry that I usually work in?
- What type of web design do I typically do (and what type do I prefer to do)?
Once you understand what type of client you prefer to work with, you can take steps to target that type of client in your marketing. Most importantly, you can use your ideal client profile to evaluate potential clients.
Some examples of the types of clients and projects that you might want to target could include e-commerce websites (or more specifically, Magento, Shopify, etc.), WordPress themes, Drupal development, band websites, photography portfolio sites, church websites, and so on. You may also want to work with clients in a particular budget range, geographical location, or company size.
How you identify your ideal client is up to you, but the more specific you can be the easier it will be to target that type of client.
Step 2: Check the Social Profile
One of the first steps I always take when someone contacts my about my freelancing services is to look at their social media profiles. While it’s true that once in a while you’ll encounter someone who has no social media presence at all, most people do have some sort of profile on one or more of the social media platforms.
Here are the social sites I look at and what I look for:
- LinkedIn. You can learn a lot about a prospect by looking at their LinkedIn profile. You can tell what their area of expertise is, what their past employment has been, and even what their skills are. I recommend also looking for recommendations.
- Twitter. If the person has a Twitter profile, I look to see whether the profile is filled out. Do they have an image with their profile? Does their profile link back to their website? Finally, I look at what sort of tweets they are sharing. Are the tweets professional?
- Google+. Google+ is known for a more technical audience, so a presence here could indicate a more Internet-savvy prospect. Again, I look to see if the profile is filled out and whether it links back to a website. It’s also important to look at what the prospect is sharing.
If the person’s social media profiles or shares are unprofessional, that can be a red flag about doing business with them.
Step 3: Check the Existing Website
If the prospect passes the social media hurdle, it’s time for me to look at their website. Since you’re a web designer and presumably the client is interested in hiring you to change their web design, you don’t necessarily want to be too critical of their current design. In fact, they may not have a website yet.
If the client has a website, here’s what I look for:
- Domain. Does the client host the website on their own domain? It’s a huge red flag if the client website is hosted on someone else’s domain like WordPress or Tumblr.
- About page. I always read the About page of a prospective client’s website to learn what the client thinks is important about their business.
- Blog. If they have a blog attached to their website, I read a few of their most recent posts.
- The rest. You may also want to read about the company’s product or service, any executive bios they have posted, and anything else on their site that catches your attention.
As you can see, a client’s website can tell you a lot.
Step 4: Check the Online Reputation
Another step you can take to check out a prospective client is to find out what others are saying about their company. Your first line of defense is the search engine. I typically type in a phrase like:
“Complaints about [company name]”
“Review of [product name]”
Even though the results will indicate what clients think of your prospect’s company, they may indirectly indicate how the company will treat a freelancer. After all, if they don’t treat their own clients well, how likely is it that they will treat a freelancer well?
Here are some other places to check:
- Better Business Bureau. In the United States and Canada, the Better Business Bureau maintains a directory of accredited businesses and charities. They also keep a listing of complaints against businesses. While not every business is listed here, many are.
- Google Apps MarketPlace. If the company creates software applications, you may able to find customer reviews on the Google Apps MarketPlace.
- GlassDoor. Officially, this site is for potential employees of a company. However, if they treat their employees badly, how might they treat a freelancer?
Step 5: Ask Questions
The final step in evaluating a potential client is to ask questions about the project. You may even wish to schedule a phone call or (if you live nearby) a face-to-face meeting. An advantage to doing all the homework in Steps 1 to 4 is that by now you already know a great deal about the prospective client.
If you still have questions about the client, it’s important to ask them before you start to work with them. Naturally, you want to get all of the specifics about the project you will be working on.
To get an idea of how the client works, you can also ask the following questions:
- Do they prefer frequent progress updates, or will you work mostly independently?
- Will they be available to answer questions?
- What is their preferred method of communication (IM, phone, or email)?
A final filter to help you determine whether a client is a good fit is prepayment. I always recommend that freelancers require a new client to pay some or all of the project fee upfront. Most good clients will have no problem doing so.
Step 6: Target Them with Your Portfolio Site
One of the most effective ways to attract the right kinds of clients is to make your portfolio welcoming and appealing to those people and projects that you are targeting. This could include any number of things, including use of effective page titles, headlines, graphics, testimonials, work samples, and even calls to action.
As an example, let’s assume that you want to target clients with e-commerce projects. In this case you could include e-commerce development in your page titles and headlines on the portfolio site. This could help to improve your site’s rankings for searches related to e-commerce, and once on the site it will help these types of clients to see that you would be a good fit for their project.
You may want to showcase your work samples from other e-commerce projects over your other types of work samples. You could also include testimonials or case studies from past e-commerce projects.
All of these things will help to align your portfolio site with the specific type of client that you want to attract. Taking it a step further, you could also include a blog on your portfolio site where you publish articles about different topics that would be relevant to this audience. This content would help to attract more search traffic and it could help visitors to feel more comfortable about hiring you for their design or development project.
Step 7: Showcase Your Most Relevant Work
As was mentioned in the previous point, you should showcase the work that is most relevant to this target audience. You may want to showcase other items from your portfolio that are not specifically geared towards this target audience, and that is fine because quality work can still show your talent without being directly applicable to their project. However, what you don’t want to do is to not showcase any past projects that are relevant to the clients and projects that you are targeting. So if you don’t already have some quality work samples on those types of projects you will need to get some as soon as possible.
Case studies often help more than just visuals from your past projects because with a case study you can provide details about the project, what was accomplished, and how it impacted the client. When clients in your target audience read case studies about successful projects that have a lot in common with their own project they will be naturally more drawn to your services.
Step 8: Use a Teaser to Attract Attention
One option that some designers use very effectively is to give away a free product or resource as a teaser. For example, you could write a detailed article about the keys to successful e-commerce websites and give it away from your website as a PDF download. Those in your target audience are likely to be interested in this article/report and it could be very helpful to them while also branding yourself as an expert on the subject. Of course, somewhere in the PDF you could include your contact information (or a link to your contact page) and a call to action for readers to reach out to you regarding their own project.
You could require that visitors opt-in to a mailing list in order to get the download, which would allow you to have contact with these people going forward. If the free teaser product is of high value you may even be able to get bloggers who reach a similar audience to mention it, increasing exposure and hopefully leading to more clients.
I’ve seen a few examples of this type of teaser in use by designers and developers who specialize in working with membership websites. Visitors can get a free report or e-book about running a membership website, but most of them will need to hire someone to help set up their membership site, so the author would then be a natural choice for them. As you can see, this approach has a lot of potential for attracting the right type of clients. Of course, on the negative side it will take some work to develop the teaser, but you’ll probably find it to be well worth the time.
Step 9: Demonstrate Your Expertise
If you want specific types of clients to hire you for their projects you should strive to position yourself as an expert in that particular area. There are a number of ways that you could do this, and some will depend on the type of client or project you are targeting. For example, if you are looking to work on projects related to a specific e-commerce system or CMS there may be some type of certification that you can earn. As a certified partner you would bring a great deal of credibility to any related project.
In addition to certifications, there may be associations that you could join. Any certifications or associations should be mentioned on your portfolio site so that potential clients see that you are an expert.
Other options for demonstrating your expertise can include blog posts, books, and podcasts. Blog posts and podcasts could be published at your portfolio site, or you could get involved with large publications in the industry that would provide some added exposure and credibility.
Step 10: Get a Connection
If you don’t have much experience working with clients in your target market you will need to find a way in. This could involve doing some work for free or at a deep discount for a client that would provide you with valuable experience and some work to showcase in your portfolio. Obviously, this isn’t something that you would continue to do going forward, but if it helps to get your foot in the door it could be worth the time and effort.
If this is something you are going to do, look to find a client and a project that will have an impact on other potential clients. Look for a client that is well connected and well respected, and maybe they will be willing to introduce you to other potential clients in exchange for your work.
If you do already have sufficient work samples in your portfolio, getting a connection could involve collaborating with someone who provides related services to your ideal clients. For example, if you’re offering e-commerce design you may be able to find a developer that handles the coding of e-commerce sites but doesn’t like to handle the visual design. A collaboration could be mutually beneficial.
Step 11: Advertise in the Right Places
If you have an advertising budget you will want to make sure that you are getting the most bang for your buck. In order to do so you will need to be placing your ads where they will be seen by those in your target audience. Some possible examples include sponsored reviews on highly relevant blogs that your audience would read, banners on those blogs or other websites with the same audience, a well-managed pay-per-click campaign that targets the right searches, and sponsored tweets from influential Twitter users in the industry.
Step 12: Consider Packages
Although I am not a big fan of package-based pricing in general, if you are targeting a very specific audience or type of product it may be effective. Packages work best when your projects are often very close to each other in terms of time required by you and what is needed by the client.
Back to our e-commerce example, you may want to offer packages for setting up e-commerce websites. The packages could include a new design, development, and set up of a specific number of products. For details that may vary significantly from one project to another you can also offer upgrades or add-ons to the base package prices.
Package-based pricing can help clients to have a more concrete idea of what to expect in terms of pricing, as opposed to having to get custom quotes from several different designers. Also, from your perspective, packages can help to save time on proposals since most projects will ideally fit into a package.
In terms of attracting the right clients, packages show exactly what you are most interested in offering, and if a client’s project fits within one of your packages it is clear that this project may be a good fit for both parties. In terms of pricing, if your ideal client has a specific budget range you can reduce the number of inquiries that you get from clients outside of this budget range by pricing your packages accordingly. For example, if you feel that you are wasting a lot of time talking with clients who have budgets much smaller than you are able to work with, packages will discourage those clients from contacting you because they will see that your packages are higher than they can afford.
How do you evaluate prospective clients?