Five on Design  |  Episode 36  |  May 8, 2018

How to screen clients and projects

Starting out as a freelancer, getting your first project and client is a very exciting deal. It’s a great feeling that someone is choosing sto spend their money to work with you. Naturally, you’re going to be eager to get started right away.

Eventually though, you might begin to realize that the client you’re working with isn’t all they were cracked up to be. Before you know it, you’re regretting the project altogether.

If only there was a process you could have gone through at the get-go to filter out a personality like this.

Having an on-boarding process sounds like work, but it’s amazing how many headaches it can prevent in the long run.

When I started out, I was pretty much taking any client that would even give me the attention or the time of day and offer to pay my rates. What I learned from this, was that there were some red flags in the sales phase that would end up meaning the client wasn’t a good fit for me. 

So I sat down and started going through my approach. I looked at how potential clients were finding me and started building an on-boaring process. 

I looked at what questions I needed answers to that would help me figure out if I could get along with them.

Building out a comprehensive contact form on my website was a good first step.

You don’t need to go through and ask questions or make it a huge, giant thing. As you start doing more work and learning more about what you’re looking for in a client, you can narrow the form down to what’s important. Ideally though, it should be easy to quickly fill out, but enough to get a general idea of who is reaching out to you.

Good questions you can start by asking include budget, timeline, and what the client is expecting from you. 

Using these questions positions the client on the classic quick, cheap or good” chart. Which two items are they prioritizing?

By being able to gauge where they were at was super helpful. If what they were looking for here didn’t line up with what I expect in a client, it made it easy to send an initial response turning down the project. 

If things do sound good, though, a phone call comes next. 

The goal is to continue learning more about the client and the project. A good topic is diving into the style or expectations of the project. We all kind of have a style or that look to what we do, and I usually try and aim a few questions in this direction. I personally have a very grid-like, Swiss design aesthetic that I enjoy doing the most. I’ve found that if I have a potential client that isn’t into that, then it’s a sign I’m not a good fit for the project.

If I were to take the project on, it’s likely the client wouldn’t be happy with where my style is going instead of what they were expecting.

I got caught in this once with a client who was expecting a free-flowing, flowery-type design. I wasn’t able to execute it to their satisfaction. There wasn’t anything wrong with their taste, it simply wasn’t a matchup for my talent versus what the client was looking for.

Last, see how they respond to some of your initial advice or suggestions. I’ve found that if they aren’t receptive to your advice, they may not be willing to appreciate it later on when it matters. This can be a big flag that that often sends me packing here.

At the end of the day, you have to feel comfortable working with the clients or projects that that you’re willing to take on. The one thing that I always leave everybody with is if something doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to turn around and run.

You don’t have to go through an entire on-boarding process to make this decision. Sometimes getting a vibe in your stomach early on is all you need. Remember: it’s okay to go off of your gut if you don’t like how things are going.

But no matter what, if you have a solid onboarding process and a way to screen clients, you’ll find yourself with fewer headaches, than if you were taking on every single project that comes your way no matter what.