Qualifying potential clients; Advice for design students/new designers

qualify graphic design clients

Many of the same questions come up time and time again from design students and fledgling graphic designers. Questions that rank high on the list often revolve around deadlines, charging clients, and how to manage potential clients who have unreasonable expectations.

How to qualify potential clients goes a long way in addressing all 3 of these issues, finding the right clients, and not wasting time on dead end leads.

The following is a recent conversation between myself and a reader of my blog, Chantie Coryell from 6MK, which discusses all these issues.

Chantie asked:

There are so many ways to get fast and cheap logos now that people seem to expect 2-days turnaround time and a $99 invoice. I could probably give a client something in just two days, but will it be a high quality design? Will it be the best graphic representation of their business? No, and I don’t like giving clients a product that I am not proud of (I’m sure most designers feel the same). Good design takes time.

So, my question to you is: what do you typically tell your clients regarding timeframe? I know that every project is different, but if you were to estimate time for a small to medium size identity project, would you tell the client to expect something in weeks? Or months? The logos in this post were likely created after months of work, but non-corporate clients don’t seem willing to wait that long. If I tell a client I need a few weeks to turnaround a project, about 2/3 of the time I hear “a few WEEKS? I don’t think you understand the scope of this project.” Am I slow? Or are some people impatient?

To which I replied:

Time obviously varies depending on the project but as an example, for an individual or small business spending under $1,000 and receiving a logo and business card design, I quote two weeks as a “typical” project.

Obviously for larger scope projects where the client is spending more for development or needs more deliverables, like an identity standards and usage manual, I quote longer.

In my experience, for the example design project above, 2 weeks allows enough time for proper development, presentation, feedback, a couple of revisions if needed, and for everybody to tend to the rest of their daily duties. Both you and your clients will obviously have other things to do during this time. You’re not sitting there twiddling your thumbs waiting for a job to come in, and you can be sure the client isn’t either.

In regards to your comment “a few WEEKS? I don’t think you understand the scope of this project“, my initial reaction is that they themselves understand the scope of the project.

Having not dealt with any of the people you’re referring to I’m obviously making a few assumptions here, but I suspect one or more of the following will be true in most cases:

A) They have no real interest in getting the work done; I think some people view branding/logo design/stationery etc. as just another setup cost, the same as buying printer toner or office chairs. They know they need something but just want to pick something up and cross it off their ‘to-do’ list. They don’t actually see any value in it.

B) The business isn’t actually ready yet; I get plenty of emails from people along the lines of “I’m starting a [type of] business and need a logo” and give barely any other information.

Often they don’t have a brand name chosen yet, they’re still working on the business model and determining if it’s a sound idea and in most cases (not all obviously, this is just in my experience) it’s a half baked venture which they aren’t going to complete.

C) They’re looking for Champagne design on a beer budget; Pretty self explanatory… People see the good work of a professional designer and the cheap price tag of design contest/stock logo image site (but don’t like the work) and think they can get real work for that price.

Obviously I don’t need to tell you that this can’t work, you’re not going to do 10, 20, 30, 40+ hours of work and match a $99 stock image site, are you…

My advice would be to work out a process of qualifying potential clients to separate the good from the bad. A few things I do are:

1) For emails where people submit barely any information, I refer them to my branding/logo design brief submission page. If I never hear back from them (and I don’t in 90% of the cases mentioned in example “B” above, then that’s the end of it.

If they come back with some proper information and show they’re serious about the design work, then I give them the attention they deserve.

2) A phone call does wonders. Similar to the above point, I find that when I ask to schedule a time for a telephone meeting with someone, if they’re serious about the project they’re eager to speak with me. If they’re not, they typically don’t respond.

3) One thing I bring up early when potentially having a face-to-face meeting with a client, is that I don’t do free pitching/speculative work. Having a 5 or 10 minute conversation with someone over the phone obviously isn’t going to ruin you if it doesn’t go anywhere, but there is the potential to waste hours when going to meetings with unreasonable potential clients.

One of the earliest meetings I had ended with the client saying he’d had some of his best results from design contest sites, before asking me to “just” design 1 logo and 2 websites to see how things go. I declined of course, but wasted half the day in the process. I only ever made that mistake once.

In a nutshell, I think the things to remember are these:

1) There is a saying that goes something along the lines of “1% of your customers give you 99% of your problems”. The people asking for 1 day turnarounds with $99 budgets are these people. You don’t want to work with them.

2) Proper businesses don’t do their work for free, and they don’t expect it of others either. They make educated decisions about the service providers they hire and are willing to spend money in order to receive a service and/or product of proportional value. These are the clients you do want.

3) The hours you spend chasing, haggling and catering to the whims of difficult clients is time you could be spending finding and working with great clients.

Obviously you’ll need to find the right balance and process that works for you, but hopefully that’s been of some help?

Chantie goes on to say:

…I do need to work on my phone skills. I prefer email, so I tend to put-off contacting people who want me to call on the phone. I would be a better businessperson if I called people back right away.

My reply:

Personally I think the phone call is a must. As a perfect example, I’ve just started work with a new client a few days ago who told me that although I didn’t quote her the cheapest price, she felt my response was the best and I had given her the most attention in a timely manner.

She was still waiting for replies to emails from other designers, and in the mean time I’ve spoken with her twice on the phone and closed the deal. If the designers who had quoted her less had beaten me to the phone call, they could have received the project instead of me.

It’s all too easy to deal with clients via email alone, but as mentioned above, in my experience a telephone call is by far the fastest way to separate quality clients from the time wasters.

How do you qualify your clients? Leave a comment and let me know. Image credit.

9 thoughts on “Qualifying potential clients; Advice for design students/new designers”

  1. Excellent post, Andrew! I’ve just revamped my process for selecting clients. Believe it or not, freelancers get to be just as choosy about who they work for as clients are! Strange concept to wrap your head around, but it’s so freeing once you do :)

  2. Thanks Sheila,

    I agree, when you’re starting out and looking for work it can be tough to refuse potential jobs. As you say though, it’s a much more enjoyable experience working with good clients.

    What’s that old saying, “I’d rather be happy than rich”?

  3. Good advice. I would also say state your fee with confidence. Ask for a signed contract and 50% up front. That will weed out the people who aren’t serious.

    I also like to use the term branding, not logo design when I talk to a client . There is a big difference in the work needed and final outcome. Branding takes strategy, research and then great design.

    Explain the process and the goal that can be achieved. Educate them as to what you really do and then go after clients who appreciate it.

  4. Hi Andrew, great post!

    I have been working on picking up the phone in general when it comes to prospective or even current clients. I have definitely found that things get achieved not only faster, but better. I spent a good hour reading through your blog this morning and what a great collection of articles you have. Definintely bookmarked for future reading :)

  5. All good points, Dyan.

    Like you, I require a 50% deposit up front and have a working agreement with clients. Advice on how to bill clients is another topic that I will have to publish an article on, to discuss the issue in more detail.


    Thanks for your time, hopefully my future articles don’t disappoint.

  6. Great post Andrew. Thanks.

    There seems to be an ever widening divide between professional designers and people that are working for these cheap websites where you get 100 logo options for $99.

    Maybe in the end these sites will be considered a blessing – taking all of the clients that you don’t want to work with anyway – but unfortunately it seems like the client doesn’t even understand what they’re getting into.

    That’s where educating your client or potential client comes into play.

  7. Andrew, excellent post. A follow up phone call is a must.

    Most of us have online forms on our website that we want prospective clients to fill out. When they take the time to fill out the form when do you follow up and how?

    For the past two weeks, I have received an online form after 4pm on Friday. Instead of waiting until Monday or sending an email. I pick up the phone and call them back.

    I say, I know you just filled out my online form and I have no idea what your schedule is for next week so I wanted to follow up today. Most are surprised that I followed up so fast and since they are still thinking about the project they need, they are open to talking on the phone.

    I feel veterans in the business can use this advice just as new designers and student could. With heavy competition in the design business, you always need to try and separate yourself.

    One thing I find very helpful is if your prospective client is local and the project is worth your time, offer to meet your prospective client at their office. I followed up with a prospective client and I was the only web development company to offer to come and meet with the client at their offices so I can better understand their business.

    Two other design companies had already sent a quote before even understanding the client’s business and what they really needed. After our meeting, I had a good understanding of what they really wanted and when I presented a proposal, I won it.

  8. Andrew,

    Thank you for starting this discussion. Two great perspectives John and Brian as well.

    I think many of us have been on both sides – “starving artist” and “the client.” Sharing experiences and advice here are powerful tools to assist both camps.

    If I may add that clients may not always know what they need – especially if the decision-maker is not the point of contact who will be working directly with the designer.

    A face-to-face meeting (or tele/video conference) can save time and money on both sides. In addition, the ability to truly listen (to what is said and may not be said) can help an artist tremendously.

    If the artist’s understanding of what the client needs is very different from what the client says they need and the artist believes she/he is the best candidate, proceed with caution. This could be a red flag for multiple edit rounds and disappointment on both sides.

  9. So, so true about the type of clients you want. Sometimes businesses forget that as well as getting business, you want the right kind of business!

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