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How to land your dream clients — a step-by-step guide

A proven, proactive, cold-email strategy for freelance creatives that will help you win more meaningful projects, build trusting client relationships, and earn more money.

If you run your own independent design business, clients are your life-blood. You need to know how to best serve the ones you have, and always consider where the next new clients are going to come from.

When you start out, you take any clients willing to give you a project. That’s fine. That’s how you pay your dues and gain experience.

Then one day, you realise you have the privilege of saying no. Even if you need the work, declining that bad job becomes more important to your happiness and the development of your career than taking it. You start finding your niche, getting busier, and turning down more work, so you can focus on the clients and project that are truly interesting and inspiring to you. You finally have the opportunity to define what matters most to you, and who you’d like to be working for.

So you take a moment to really think about it. Which businesses align with my interests? My passions? My values? My ethics? And of course, my strengths?

You’ve started to define your dream clients. Now, how do you get them?

I’m going to outline a communication strategy that I’ve personally used to land some of my favourite clients. These were clients that I proactively identified, researched, targeted, reached out to, and eventually sold. They turned into interesting, enjoyable jobs; favourite portfolio pieces; and successful, award winning design outcomes.

The Setup

There are some prerequisites to this process that you must take care of first. That means this strategy won’t work if you’re just starting out. You need time to build your experience and reputation; refine your processes and messaging.

1. The Dream Client Definition

If you’re satisfied you’ve laid the foundation to make this strategy a success, here’s the first step.

Define your ideal clients

Here are a few ways to you think about that definition:

Here’s an example of a definition I created for one of my ideal client types:

That’s looking like a pretty clear definition, eh?

But we’ve forgotten one very important thing…

Clients aren’t companies, they’re people.

Now we need to think about what person I’m working for within that company:

Let’s continue with my example above…

Now we’re cooking with gas!

We’ve identified the type of company we’d dream of working with, but also the specific person we want to appeal to, and the specific challenge we are going to help them with.

I followed this process to define a few different kinds of ideal clients in different industries that I was interested in. However, it’s important to maintain some focus here. Define as many ideal clients types as you like. Then pick out the one or two definitions you’re most excited about and take action on them first.

Now we’re ready to find clients who match this definition.

Are you working for cost-clients or value-clients?

Knowing the difference will mean everything to your freelance business.

2. The Business Research

Search wide and far

Google is your friend here. Search the hell out of the industry you’ve picked to start making a list of potential matches. If there are directories or other industry websites you can make use of, that could speed things up for you. Try different search terms to refine towards the definition of your ideal client.

Start local if you live in a big enough market, as you’ll have more success with this strategy if you contact local businesses. Expand to a larger area only if you fail to find enough local prospects.

It’s important to note that you often have more success with this the further down the search results you go. Companies with excellent websites, strong brands and reputations, and savvy digital marketing will naturally appear higher in your results. But they are the companies that, generally, will need your services the least. You may have the trawl through results past page 10 or 20 to starting finding the gold. It’s a balance. You want to find the sweet spot of clients who are good and successful in their own right, but who are struggling in some areas where you can be of most value to them.

Make a big spreadsheet. Write down company names, websites, and other contact info. Initially, do this as quickly as possible and record as many potential targets as you can.

Narrow it down

When you’ve exhausted your search, go back through the list to qualify each company.

It’s useful to take notes for the ones you feel are the most promising matches. Record what about them is most appealing to you. And record where they are struggling the most (where you can provide the most value to them).

Following on from my architecture example:

I identified a dozen local architecture practices who’s work I admire, but who’s websites were failing them miserably. I was actually surprised at how many great, reputable studios had horrendously outdated websites. It wasn’t that difficult to identify a strong batch of targets who desperately needed my services, and who I’d be delighted to work with.

Now we need to dig deeper into each company and find out who to talk to. As per my definition above, I wanted to work with smaller firms where I could work directly with the boss, so this meant I needed to research and identify who those people are within my target dream clients. Use their websites, LinkedIn, etc. to find this info. Record their names and email addresses. Phone numbers if you can find them too. Right now you’re defining who you will address your initial communications too. It’s very important that you personalise this. You need to know exactly who you’re talking too. The last thing you want to do is send an email through a web form and you have no idea who is reading it on the other end.

The result of this step should be a spreadsheet with a huge list of potential clients. You’ve highlighted which ones are the most promising targets, and you’ve researched and recorded names and contact details for the clients you want to approach first.

3. The Careful First Approach

This is the most crucial step in the process. Doing this wrong can bomb your chances entirely. This takes the finesse of a finely crafted message delivered in just the right context.

Are you ready to contact those dream clients you identified before? Deep breaths now.

Email or call?

I choose email, hands down. It’s a less intrusive form of communication. A phone call puts pressure on the other party to think on their feet and make decisions on the spot. That’s the opposite of what we want.

It’s the same reason you’d send a text instead of calling a mate. Unless it’s an urgent matter — which ours isn’t — etiquette dictates we use an email here.

An email is passive. It can be read at their leisure and responded to on their own schedule. This is perfect. Our message is a bit cheeky. They are going to be a little suspicious of it so we want to do everything else we can to put them at ease. Delivering our message in the right context is important.

Be sure you send these as plain text emails. No HTML, no Mailchimp. Nothing that could give any impression this is could be a bulk email, or even remotely spammy.

How to craft the message — get personal, be genuine

There are five key parts to this initial communication and you need them all working in sync and in the right order for maximum chance at success.

  1. Address
  2. Your personal hook
  3. Introduce yourself
  4. How can I help you?
  5. Call to action

Let’s examine what the ideal email includes

Take a look at a sample email I sent to one of my architecture target clients.

The businesses and names are fake, but the rest is very similar to real emails I sent following this strategy:

Subject: Web design proposal for Matthew Johns Architects

Dear Matt,

I’ve been a long-time admirer of your architecture and have had the pleasure of experiencing one of your homes on an architecture tour a few years ago. I’m fascinated by how you blur the lines between inside and out, and create open spaces that also feel intimate.

My name is Benek Lisefski. I’m an independent Auckland web & interaction designer with over 15 years experience working with local and international companies to create exceptional brands and web experiences. See my website at http://benek.nz

I’m also a passionate architecture enthusiast. I’m reaching out to the NZ practices I most admire, like yours, to see if you’d like to partner with me to build an innovative website that better showcases your work and achievements.

If your current website isn’t performing how you want it to, please get in touch with me for a free consultation to discuss your web design requirements. You’ll find I’m honest, reliable, easy to work with, and produce extremely high quality results for fair prices. Heaps of good references available on request or via my LinkedIn profile.

If you’re interested in chatting about how you can achieve more with your website, you can contact me on:

{insert various contact options here}

Thanks for your time.
Benek

Here’s another email I sent to a potential client in an entirely different industry:

Subject: Can I help you with ecommerce design?

Hello Sean,

I was introduced to your products this summer as my son has just started surf club at Auckland’s Red Beach SLSC. I love that you’re a NZ company striving to push the limits of design and manufacturing to create exceptional products for people who love our oceans, and those all across the world. Those are the types of qualities that I find make for the most successful projects and collaborations.

My name is Benek Lisefski. I’m an independent Auckland web & interaction designer with over 15 years experience working with local and international companies to create exceptional brands and web experiences. See my website at http://benek.nz

I noticed your website, while it looks relatively new, doesn’t have any ecommerce capabilities. You may not have the interest or budget to upgrade it now, but is this something you have considered?

I can help you with strategy, planning, and re-designing for an exceptional ecommerce user experience.

I have a passion for the surf industry, years of experience in ecommerce design, and connections with many of NZ’s top ecommerce web development agencies. If you are considering an upgrade to your current website, please get in touch with me for a no-obligation initial conversation.

{insert various contact options here}

All the best,
Benek

What reaction did these emails get?

The first was responded to within 24 hours. The reaction was positive — they were in desperate need of a better website and the timing of me coming along to aid them was perfect. We arranged to meet over coffee where I talked the owner through my questionnaire in person to gather the details required to prepare a proposal and price estimate. I landed that job, enjoyed it thoroughly, the client was very satisfied, design turned out great, and the website was an award finalist. The project has since helped me land two more jobs with other local architecture studios.

The second email was replied to almost immediately. At the client’s request I followed up via phone. He mentioned that he almost ignored my email because he gets plenty of spammy emails a day, but on closer inspection could tell that this was genuine and that I was, in fact, excellent at what I do. We talked about their business needs and how I could help. A project hasn’t materialised yet but we’re still in discussions.

Don’t copy this email template too closely. It’s important to write one in your communication style, suited to your skills and experiences. It needs to be genuine and sound like you, so you provide a consistent message and communication style throughout your relationship with your potential client.

Notice that both emails follow a similar structure and include all the main points required, but very little of them are actually the same templated text. It’s crucial that you customise and personalise each email to the recipient and their business.

You can start out with an email template or saved draft to remind you of the structure, but don’t think it’s enough to fill in a new recipient name and business name and call it quits. The effectiveness of these emails relies on how well you customise and target each one to the recipient. Notice how at least 50% of each message above has been written uniquely for each potential client, to establish a genuine connection for my hook, personal intro, and explanation of how I can help.

A note about communication strategy

Don’t go emailing every good target on your list right away. It’s better to send them in small groups. This will help you manage responses. What if a large percentage of them turn into new jobs? You need to start a dialogue with few enough of them that you can handle the influx of leads if it goes really well. And then once you’ve gone through the follow up cycle with that first group, start on the next.

It’s better to hold off on communicating with your favourite leads, and pick some second tier ones to start with first. This will be really difficult to do because you may be excited about the most interesting prospects. However you may find it takes a few rounds of these to perfect your message to get the most response. You want time to craft that winning email before you waste your best leads. Pace yourself.

When you do get a reply, make sure to mark the reply date and method in your spreadsheet so you know which ones to follow up on.

But what if you don’t get a response?

4. The Gentle Follow Up

How long to wait?

I give the recipient 7–10 days to reply. People are busy. Even if you’re the type of person that won’t let an email sit in your inbox for more than 12 or 24 hours without replying, not everyone is like that. Most aren’t.

Even if they’re interested, they might not be in a position to reply right away. They might need to confer with business partners. They might want time to research you a bit! Give them time to respond in their own way. Let the ball sit in their court for a while and put it out of your mind. Don’t take it personally if you don’t get a response.

You may, of course, also get responses that are less favourable. They may say “thanks, but we’ve already got someone else working on a new design for us”. Or “thanks, but we’re not in a position to do that project right now”. Take it as a good sign that they were polite enough to respond even when not interested. It’s far better for you to know that, than to go on wondering.

The follow up

If after 7–10 days you haven’t gotten a reply, now’s your one and only chance to follow up. Again, I prefer email here, but you could also consider a phone call.

In this situation a phone call is less intrusive because your email may have already broken the ice. If you call them up you can ask “did you get a chance to read my email from last week?”. If they say yes, but were just too busy to respond, then you’ve got your foot in the door to carry on your conversation and feel them out. If they say no, repeat your email pitch to them over the phone and see what kind of reaction you get.

If emailing your follow up, be tactful. Don’t assume the best or the worst. Assume they probably didn’t see your email. You can duplicate all or most of your original email (so they don’t have to go hunt down your first one to see what it said), but add an extra intro at the top similar to:

Subject: Re: web design proposal for Matthew Johns Architects

Hello Matt,

I emailed you last week about helping you design and build a new website for Matthew Johns Architects. I’m following up to see if you had a chance to consider my proposal. Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to arrange a time to talk.

I’ve copied my original email below for your convenience

You may be surprised at how many recipients needs this little nudge of a follow up. Sometimes they see an email and then forget about it, or their inbox was overflowing and they missed it the first time around. A little reminder will spur a few more into action.

Important! This is the end of your communication with this potential client. If you don’t hear back after your follow up email or phone call, the dialogue is over. Do not spam them with any more follow ups of any kind. It’s time for you to forget about this lead and move on to others.

5. The Deal Sealer

So you’ve got a few favourable replies from exciting potential clients. How to you proceed?

This is equally as important as the strategy of your initial outreach. It’s vital to remember that these clients didn’t come to you in the same way as most of your others, so you need to treat the rest of the relationship in a slightly special way too.

Most of my clients come to me referred by others (word of mouth) or they found my website or other online profile through a search (organic). In both of these cases, these clients are somewhat pre-qualified. They’ve already heard good things about me from someone they trust, or they’ve already checkout out my website and credentials enough to know they like the look of me and my work. Obviously the word of mouth clients are better prospects but even the organic search clients come to me with some existing level of understanding, respect, and hopefully trust.

These clients are different

When you proactively reach out to a potential client, they don’t come with any of that. They haven’t been looking for you. They’ve probably never heard of you before and have no idea what you’re all about. You need to work much harder to build that trust. In every little bit of communication you have with this client following your initial cold-email, you need to be doing these things:

You need to make them at-ease. You need to build respect, and likewise show them the same level of respect for their expertise in their own field. You need them to feel 100% confident that you’re the right person for the job.

How to talk to potential clients

Nail that first interview, and they’ll be begging to work with you.

What not to do

Don’t work for free or on spec.

Don’t present them a design mockup you spent hours on the day before,trying to impress them with your ideas before you’ve even gotten the job (let along a complete brief of the requirements!). This de-values you. Not the start you’re looking for if you want this to be a dream client.

Don’t turn into a sleazy salesperson.

Getting your foot in door may get you excited to charm them and talk yourself up. Afterall, you do need to impress them and build trust. But don’t try to pull out all the stops on the “first date”. Slowly build that trust in a genuine and natural way as the relationship evolves.

Don’t do all the talking. Listen.

One of the most impressive attributes of a good designer is his/her ability to absorb a deep understanding of the client’s business, their goals, and their problems. Spend a good part of your time (whether by email, phone, or in person) asking smart questions and listening to answers. Repeat back what you’ve heard and understood — you’ll be surprised at how well this alone builds trust and confidence.

If all goes well, you’ll “meet” your potential new client, talk through their goals with them, write up thorough proposal, win the job, and carry on doing work that you love. But that’s not automatic. You have to win the job first.

The final hurdles

Collect your potential client’s design requirements efficiently, in-person or by questionnaire. Follow up with them about every last little question until you understand their needs without a shadow of doubt. Being thorough and asking questions helps you of course, but it also makes your client feel confident that you understand their needs intimately enough to produce an exceptional solution.

Write up a well designed, thoughtfully presented proposal which outlines your new client’s design requirements and how you’re going to achieve them. Be honest and transparent about pricing. Be clear about what you provide them and what you don’t. Also, be clear about what commitment you expect from them in order to keep the project progressing with enough momentum.

These early communications in the relationship are what your client bases his/her opinion of you on, which will have an effect on how you interact with each other for the entire project. Set a tone of extreme professionalism and expertise. Establish clear expectations for your client early and often.

6. The Working Relationship

Once you win the job, it’s more like business as usual. Assuming you already have a good process for managing jobs and working with clients, keep doing what you’re doing. However, be aware of these potential deviations from your normal procedures.

Don’t fight this urge. Make peace with the fact that you might put more time and effort into this project than you budgeted for, because you’ll want to get all the details perfect.

But more importantly, don’t get caught up in the whirlwind either. Don’t impose a particular solution or style on this project because you want to end up with a trendy Behance case study. The outcomes you create for your client’s unique business needs must always remain where the buck stops. The alignment of those requirements with your own skills and vision is where your best design work happens. Let that process happen. Don’t attempt to reshape it out of your misguided passion or ambition.

The first project I worked on following this process, I went way over budget, but didn’t charge the client a penny extra. I absorbed thousands of dollars of my time because I was simply passionate about doing this one well, and I didn’t mind if it became less profitable as a result. The rewards of overdeliverying can be far greater than a slight increase in profit margin.

7. The Rewards

If you follow this process with success, and start earning design projects for dream clients in industries you’re truly passionate about, the roll-on effects can be huge.

You may earn more money, but that’s not the main goal. Bigger, better clients may have larger budgets for more finely crafted work. Let the finely crafted work be the driving force. The bigger budget is just a means to support that kind of work, not a chance to squeeze out greater profit. Your goal for this process should be attaining more work you love, do well, and get greater satisfaction from, rather than earning more. However you’ll find they usually go hand in hand.

Your passion for delivering an excellent outcome on this job should lead to high quality work — work which no doubt will land a spot in your portfolio. If the stars align and what you help build for this client is outstanding, you may even win an award for it.

For the example architecture client I’ve used throughout this story, the website we created ended up being a finalist in New Zealand’s premier national design awards. Sharing the experience of the awards night with my client, even though we didn’t win a top prize, was a extra bonus layer to a already very satisfying work relationship.

Last, but certainly not least…

Good work leads to more of the same.

That first successful project for a client you love in an industry you’re passionate about may open the floodgates to new work for similar clients. After the first architecture client I gained this way, I was able to quickly follow it with two more interesting architecture web design jobs within the next year. With each one I gained more experience and expanded my understanding of the ideal design solutions for the unique challenges that market presents.

You may find that if you follow this strategy to form relationships with a few key clients in each of your industries of greatest interest, you open yourself up to many new streams of word of mouth referrals that you could have only dreamed of a year or two earlier. It could be the spark that sets your freelance career in the direction you always wanted it to go. If you simply dedicate yourself to putting some extra effort to bend the path of your business closer to your dream clients.

If your dream clients aren’t coming to you, go straight to them. The worst that can happen is nothing different than what you’ve got now. The best that can happen is a complete transformation into a freelance career you enjoy profoundly and cherish every day.

Isn’t that worth a try?

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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