The web designers' guide to winning new clients

25th Jun 2009 | 11:30

The web designers' guide to winning new clients

Essential advice to help you secure more work

How to win new clients

So you've finally taken the plunge: you've left your cosy, salaried job to strike out on your own. Whether you're going freelance or teaming up with others, you're taking a step into the brave new world of being your own boss.

Be honest: why should anyone hire you – a newcomer to the market?

One answer is to do something to get yourself known. Yes, it's time to start networking. It's free, and while it's not necessarily easy, it's often the best way to get yourself on the radar. Networking involves filling up your contacts book, meeting like-minded people and letting others know you're ready and willing to work.

Even if no commissions are generated immediately, it's all about making yourself and your skills known. Four months down the line, a company may decide they need a web designer or web developer and remember meeting you or receiving your business card. (You don't have business cards? Add it to the to-do list. You don't have a to-do list? Write one.)

There is an ever-increasing number of web conferences, so try to attend as many as possible when you're starting out and then perhaps be more selective when your business is established and thriving. Some may be local events such as a Drupalcon, others require a bit more spending. But the longterm rewards are likely to be greater too – you get out what you put in.

The annual SXSW (South by Southwest) festival in Austin, Texas is a great example of an event that attracts like-minded people from all over the world. On a smaller but more local scale, check out Refreshing Cities to see if there's a like-minded community of web designers and developers holding regular events near you.

Another tool not to be underestimated is contributing to and interacting with your market. For example, if you're a studio that designs websites but has a strong focus on user experience design, then write a company blog about that subject.

The benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, if you're providing relevant, and more importantly, free content, then chances are your website will see an increase in traffic. Secondly, your page rank in Google will also increase. Giving a little quality content away for nothing may make the difference in landing that next big project.

Blogging is as good a place as any to start. If you're in a creative industry then the chances are you'll have plenty of opinions and knowledge to share. The people you admire are probably blogging too, and prospective clients might be as well. Having your own blog enables you to reach those people, to start a conversation with them, and to post on their blogs.

Of course, it can become time-consuming, particularly when you have a lot of people commenting and asking questions. This is where other social networking sites prove their worth. Facebook, though it seems to have reached its peak, is still a great way for people to interact via groups and events. Twitter seems to be on everyone's agenda at the moment, brought to the fore via celebrities such as @stephenfry and politicians like @barackobama.

The concept (state what you're doing in 140 characters or less) may be alien at first but stick with it and it can be used as a very powerful networking device. My experience of Twitter has been overwhelmingly positive. My company, Mark Boulton Design, used it recently to both market and manage the sale of a PDF book, and we continue to use it as part of our customer service offering.

My own account allows me to tweet about anything that takes my fancy – narrative theories, what I'm eating, cool websites I have stumbled upon. As I work on more projects, I meet more people, so naturally I follow more people. Throughout the day I have a constant stream of tweets on my screen, which ensures my knowledge of the industry continues to grow and it provides an increased opportunity for me to contribute and interact with other people involved in project management, design and the web.

Ultimately, whatever method you prefer, it's all about immersing yourself in the industry. So long as you're commenting and contributing, you won't fail to meet and connect with the right people. These days, the focus for many clients is interactivity and user generated content, and what better way to understand your clients' needs than by using the very platforms and services they want to integrate into their new website?

Crafting proposals

Okay, so here's the scenario. You've been blogging for a few months, you're relatively well known on Twitter, you're starting to carve a name for yourself in the industry and you now have a few enquiries about your services. But despite the prospective client approaching you, it doesn't mean the job is in the bag – you have to fend off the competition.

This is where communication, and carefully considered and crafted proposals, are fundamental. From the moment you receive an email from a prospective client, the whole process is a reflection of you and your organisation. It's also the start of a conversation, which may become the start of a long-term professional relationship if your bid for the project is successful. This is worth keeping in mind.

At Mark Boulton Design, whenever we receive an email enquiry about new work, we send an acknowledgement email. In this we say thanks for the project brief, ask any questions that may have arisen from their email, and let the client know when we aim to get our response back to them. If you find later on that you won't meet that proposed date, let them know.

I've found that a friendly email to keep the conversation going works wonders. These emails are also a good opportunity to ask questions. Asking incisive questions is important, partly because you'll need the answers to write an effective proposal, but also because it shows you've carefully considered and thoroughly read their brief.

In my company, we pride ourselves on attractive, easy to read proposals. Often, the proposal will be the major factor in deciding whether you've been shortlisted for the project, so every minute invested in perfecting them is a minute well spent.

Getting the balance right

Getting the balance right

Okay, so let's look at proposals in more detail. We have a front cover, information about the company, bios of the team, a detailed explanation of our work process, the costs and schedule for the project, and highlights from our portfolio, with images. There's a skill, I think, in getting the balance right between too much and not enough information.

With no hard and fast rules, it's a case of trial and error when you first put your proposal together. A lot of this information is standard and once you get it right you'll have a template for future proposals, with only specific pages that need rewriting to be relevant to a particular project. The beauty, though, is often in the details. This is your chance to get noticed.

In our company, we always put the prospective client's name at the top of every page in a relatively small font. It's a simple finishing touch that shows we've taken time preparing the document. Layout, typography and use of images are all important too. After all, if your proposals look messy and unattractive then what sort of reflection is that on your work?

Practice what you preach: make your proposals easy on the eye and a pleasurable reading experience. Remember that the prospective client will probably be reading several at any given time. A proposal is an overview of your company, its people, its services and process, and its previous work. It's not a portfolio, though, so take care not to have page after page of your work history.

Choose a few case studies that are most relevant to the company you're sending the proposal to. We usually include three detailed case studies, each on its own page, and then a back page that features four others.

Never assume

So you have your proposal together. It reads well and looks great. Don't send it just yet. Spell-check it and proof read it. Then check it again. Don't assume it's all fine. You'd be surprised at how many project briefs or documents suffer from sloppy spelling and grammar.

One more word of warning. Don't become complacent and simply use this template proposal for the next three years. It may be good now but in three years you'll have different achievements to include in your bio, more relevant case studies from your portfolio, and perhaps new team members to add.

Check the proposal templates often to make sure they're as up to date as possible. It'll save a lot of embarrassment further down the line.

Meet and greet

Great news! They loved your proposal and you're shortlisted. Now comes the presentation. This is a bit more difficult to plan for, as each prospective client will have their own format. Some may prefer an informal chat over lunch, while others will expect an all-singing, all-dancing presentation. Find out exactly who you're meeting, what their roles are, and what agenda or format they want the meeting to follow.

Make sure you know what you'll be required to discuss, what handouts are needed (if any) and anything else that's relevant. Make like a boy scout and be prepared. This is your opportunity to shine. If you've been shortlisted then your potential clients must be convinced you can deliver what they need. Remember, these meetings are as much about them deciding if they like you as people and can work with you as it is your portfolio and credentials.

My tip here is, again: plan and research. Don't turn up and simply regurgitate your proposal – they'll be expecting more information. Presentations/meetings should be a natural progression from your proposal. Expand on the information it contains, ask questions and answer theirs. It's a two-way conversation.

In keeping with my earlier point about keeping communication active, after I've met with potential clients I send them an email to thank them for taking the time to meet. I'll add that they should feel free to contact us if they have any further questions. Treat them well You've got your first clients – congratulations! But now the real work begins – how you treat your new clients will be a fundamental factor in winning more.

Inevitably, they'll know other people in the industry, so if you continually miss your deadlines, don't respond to emails or fail to provide the agreed deliverables, they'll tell others and all your hard work will be tarnished.

Now, as you continually put all of this into practice I have one final tool to share. It's something we all have but is often left hiding under the desk. Confidence.

You're the expert: if a customer wants to hire you then it's because you're good at what you do and because your work will best service their needs. So throughout the whole process that's written about here, be confident – when networking, when writing about yourself in proposals, when presenting to and meeting people, and when delivering your services. And don't forget, even if you get to the stage where you have work booked in for the next 12 months, it doesn't mean you stop blogging and networking. Keep your profile up!

Overstretching yourself

Of course if you execute all of the above successfully, then you may find yourself in the enviable position of having too much interest in your offerings. And while the problems of success are obviously more attractive than the problems of failure, they're problems nonetheless. It's important to avoid overstretching yourself.

Take care to avoid thinking of each job as more money in the bank, and don't take on too much. If the calendar looks empty in a few months' time, it doesn't mean you need to fill it up now. By taking on too much it may feel as if you're heading in the right direction but it can also mean that you're spread too thinly and end up working all the hours available. This in turn means that the quality of your work is compromised, customer service becomes less than acceptable and your business starts on a downward spiral.

Plan for tomorrow by writing monthly and even quarterly to-do lists. Setting goals over a set time period will help you focus on the business and better plan when you can schedule work. It also means you can keep an eye on the future.

Try to at least keep up with the industry, so that when you speak to prospective clients you'll be able to relate to their needs and talk about the long-term future of their site, as well as securing your own future in this lucrative and competitive industry.

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First published in .net Issue 189

Liked this? Then check out Web designers - how to make the perfect pitch

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