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How to talk to potential clients

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

As an independent designer, I’m meeting with new potential clients on a regular basis. They may be a small business who ask me to visit them so I can get a feel for their company and product (while they get a feel for me). They may be a web dev agency who needs design help, and they want to see how my experience and design processes stack up to their expectations. Or they may even be dream clients I proactively reached out to.

More often than not, this is a “let’s meet over coffee” situation. You sit down at the table with one or two representatives from their company. Hot drinks are ordered, and then it’s down to business. Otherwise, it’s a phone chat or video call.

This doesn’t feel as formal as a job interview would be. But don’t be mistaken — it’s much the same. Your potential client wants to tease out enough info from you to feel confident they know you can deliver for their project. Meanwhile, you’re assessing the client for any red flags, and determining whether their project is the right fit for your interests and skills.

Don’t get too casual or be underprepared. This might be the single most important communication you’ll ever have with this client. Be confident, and most importantly be yourself.

The following tips come from a freelance digital design perspective, but most will apply to any other type of independent creative work.

Your potential client will ask:

1. How long have you been a designer? Where have you worked before, or have you always been freelance?

Answer honestly. Don’t pretend you’re more experienced than you are. Talk their language, not design terms and labels.

Explain the choices you made to get to this point in your design career, and what you learned from each step. Clients want some background to give them context of who they’re talking too and where you’re coming from. Qualifications and name dropping don’t impress; Professionalism, communication skills, experience, and a strong portfolio do.

2. What kinds of projects do you generally work on? What are your strongest skills? What’s your ideal project?

Talk about your core services, but also the breadth of your experience. Clients want to know you specialise in what they need, but also that you can handle anything else they might throw at you.

Talk about what kinds of clients and projects you’re most passionate about helping (of course make sure that definition includes the type of client you’re sitting across from!). Bonus points if you can mention a client you’ve recently worked with that is in their industry or they may even know personally — instant trust builder.

3. Can you walk us through examples of other projects you’ve done that are similar to ours?

This is where your carefully crafted portfolio case studies come into play. Select two or three of your most successful projects that have some overlap in either function, scope, or style to this potential client’s project. Talk them through the design challenges you faced and know how to justify the solutions you implemented. Mention any specific metrics that show the success your design work brought to the project.

Come prepared to show off your work. If you’re not sure they will have a machine, bring your own.

This is where you build huge amounts of trust & confidence. Your potential clients will recognise parts of these projects that match what they think they need, and they’ll be comfortable you can deliver similar results for them.

4. What is your design process? What tools do you use? How do you gather feedback? What will you deliver?

Talk about how you start. Walk them through your ideal process all the way through to the finished product. Tell your clients how they fit into that process and what their responsibilities are. Talk about the tools you may use to help keep tasks organised and design feedback focused.

Tell them exactly what you’re deliverables will be, and of what value those will be to the client. Sketch files? Front-end code? A complete turn-key website or app? A logo and brand guidelines? Don’t assume they know exactly what’s involved — they may have never done this before.

5. How much will this cost?

If this is the first thing they ask, it’s not a good start. Red flag alert! This is probably a “cost-client”.

I generally save this until near the end of the discussion. And “value-clients”usually do too. If all else goes well, they’ve got a lot of confidence in you before cost comes up, which makes your pricing a necessary formality rather than a decision-making factor.

Your preferred pricing method will dictate how you discuss cost. If the client asks for an hourly rate, give it to them instantly and confidently, even if you prefer to not to price that way. (Make sure you know how you’ll answer this before you go into the meeting, so there’s no uncertain long pause before you reply).

Try to read their poker face. How have they reacted to hearing your price? This may be enough to tell the difference between a client worth pursuing and a discussion that’s about over.

Explain how and why you price the way you do, and encourage the client not to judge you on price until you’ve had a chance to put together a formal proposal and price estimate. This will help you connect your price to value, so it’s not compared on hourly rate alone.

What to charge: does value-based pricing live up to the hype?

Demystifying pricing techniques + value pricing implementation tips

6. When are you available?

This can be tricky one for me as I often get booked months in advance, and may go weeks talking to new clients who’s work I have to turn down because they needed it yesterday but I’m not available to start for 2 months.

As with price, if you’ve built a strong level of trust and confidence up until the point, you may find that a good client will be willing to wait until you become available — even if it’s not within their original timeframe.

If they have a strong reason for a hard deadline, and you simply can’t be available for it, there’s no harm in saying so, politely, and walking away from the project. I try to get an indication of expected timeframes before I take this meeting so we don’t waste everyone’s time discussing a project I already know I won’t be able to take on.

If you’re available immediately (a.k.a. desperate for work) don’t be shy to say so too. Frame it as “just finished up a big project, and ready for something new.”

Smoothing out the freelance rollercoaster

How to schedule projects, manage an even workload, and make consistent income from freelancing.

You should ask:

1. How did you hear about me?

It’s an annoying question when asked on a survey or as a web-form requirement, but in-person it’s fine. Gathering data on the performance of your various marketing methods is hugely important. You’ll be very glad to know if they were referred to you by a colleague, saw you on dribbble, or whether it was an organic google search.

2. Tell me more about your business?

You want a deepest possible understanding of your client’s business if you want to excel at serving them. Ask questions about who they employ, how they operate, who their customers are, what their values and passions are?

As an bonus, asking these questions, and genuinely listening to the answers, make you look better too. Nothing instills more confidence in your client than their knowledge that you have a complete understanding of their business and processes. You want to be perceived as a long-term partner, not a one-off gig worker.

3. What are your goals for this project? How will you measure success?

Never go into a project without knowing the metrics for measuring success! Is the client happy if your design work simply satisfies his/her personal preferences? Is a 2% bump in ecommerce conversion rates the goal of this endeavour? Who’s the target market? What do they want? What does this project solve for them?

Your client may not have thought of these answers yet, so give them time to put this info together as part of their brief.

4. Have you done anything like this before?

Is this potential client a techno-noob or savvy web worker? Have they been involved in a project of this type before, or will they need more hand-holding and expectation-setting along the way? You’ll want to find this stuff out so you know what will be required to keep the project and client relationship running smoothly.

5. Do you have a written brief explaining the content and design requirements of the job?

The best clients understand that serious documentation is required for the most successful projects. The worst clients will require you to pry each piece of info from them like pulling teeth. Run away from the second type, but be patient with the ones in the middle. Let them know what you’re requirements are and then give them time to put it together. The level at which they respond will be a good indication of their seriousness to pursue a successful outcome.

6. Are you aware of your role in the design feedback process?

Many clients don’t realise how big a part they play in the speed of progress on a design project. Tell them when you’ll expect design feedback from them, what kind of feedback is most useful, and in what timeframe you expect that feedback for every iteration cycle. This discussion often dovetails with talk of project duration.

7. What’s your timeframe for this job? Is there a specific reason for any deadlines?

Do they have special promotion, product launch, or other firm reason for a project deadline? What is their expected duration for the project? This is all knowledge you can use to help finesse the topic of availability if it’s a challenge to align your schedule with theirs.

8. Do you have an approximate budget in mind?

As with price, I never lead with this. However I won’t let myself get too far down the track of considering a project until I have a general indication of whether the budget is within my range. As with timeframe, this is something I try to get a handle on before I take this meeting, as we’re wasting everyone’s time if we discuss the project for 45 minutes only to discover that their budget is $500.

Master these initial meet & greets, and you’ll leave every one confident you’ve won the job.

I can’t stress enough how much of your success will depend on just being genuine and professional. Answering questions honestly and thoughtfully. Demonstrating adequate communication ability and organisational skills. Showing up on time to prove your reliability.

Why being ultra-professional instantly makes you a top-tier freelancer

More than mastery of your craft or years of experience, being a trustworthy pro gets you a big step ahead of your competition.

This is a lot to cover in your first discussion. If some topics don’t come up naturally, they can wait for a follow up email shortly after the meeting (which is a good idea anyway, even if just to thank them for their time and summarise the next steps).

Your design skills only get you to the meeting. Your business skills win you the job. Be the most professional freelancer they’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and chances are you’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future.

Don’t have enough clients like this coming to you?

Learn how I reach out to dream clients and get inspiring new projects:

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.

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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.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, and Entrepreneurship.