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Getting in the Door… and Staying in

Drumming up new business — from old, current and new clients equally — is probably the number one concern among graphic designers and firms, no matter the size. Obviously there are those lucky enough (ahem, ahem) to have people knocking on their door but they too have to convince those clients to stick around. Still, owners, partners, new business developers, solo designers and freelancers around the world battle (which is what it feels like mostly) for those elusive new accounts.

RFP’s, cold calls, PR, advertising on the Yellow Pages or Craigslist, schmoozing networking, word of mouth, paying Google to come up number one under graphic design searches… you name it, everybody has tried it. From Nike to Smelly Bill’s Burgers it is a taxing process to win their trust and earn their business — how do you do it? How do you get in the door? And how do you stay in?

Thanks to Rick for the topic.

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PUBLISHED ON Mar.08.2004 BY Armin
Jeff G’s comment is:

allusive: Characterized by indirect references.

Not sure if that's the kind of client I would battle for ;-)

I shall write about Proven Client Getting & Retaining Methods later.

On Mar.08.2004 at 09:58 AM
Sam’s comment is:

2 questions first:

Why is "Don't rely on referrals" #1 on DBaker's list of common mistakes? His reasons are unconvincing to me. Am I missing something? On the other hand, 37Signals promote that the majority of their business is referrals. Is it just a matter of style?

Second, I've never been sure what to say in a cold call. Should you have a specific thing you want to do for the client (assuming of course that you've researched them as much as possible), or leave it open? I.e. say "I want to redesign your ass website" or "You do great things, I want to be involved anywhere I can." Personally I always try the former, since the latter might get me only a postcard or some dinky thing, but can the targeted approach lock you out of stuff you didn't know they needed (you say "website" when they actually are thinking about launching a new magazine, for instance)?

For my own stuff, I've been very lucky with referrals, mainly because the restaurant industry here is a small little world and people move around. I rely a lot on the apparent reality that clients hire me as well as my work--easy-to-get-along-with is corporate policy, and I think that helps.

As for cold calls and new clients, patience & persistence seems to be the key. And knowing someone on the inside, of course, if only to find out where to send something. I got a huge project out of a small pro bono thing, which I used t think was a myth. But the key is probably to know as much as possible about who you're talking to, so once you get your foot in the door, you have somethintg meaningful and productive to say.

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:00 AM
Sam’s comment is:

Better than the illusive clients, Jeff...

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:02 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Sorry, my bad, I meant elusive, as in hard to grasp or not tangible.

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:03 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Ellen Shapiro's

new book, "A Designer's Guide to Clients" has some relevant information.

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:20 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

When sending stuff to someone, as in, "sure, send me some work," what do most people do? Is a simple bound book of work samples really effective when pitching yourself to a company? Or should it be some iteration of a marketing brochure with copy to back up the visuals?

For the most part, I've been freelancing for other agencies, so they're happy with a PDF of my work and then a face-to-face with my portfolio. And the clients I've had have generally been because we knew each other, so I didn't need to introduce myself and my company to them formally. But I'm uncomfortable with the idea of just presenting my book to a potential client. Any thoughts?

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:23 AM
Sam’s comment is:

>>But I'm uncomfortable with the idea of just presenting my book to a potential client.

I do this Jon--they call, we meet, I bring work. The main thing I've found is clients can relate to actual pieces rather your standard designer portfolio with photos of your work. that's just in my experience so it's limited.

Also, when meeting a new client: don't wear underwear. You'll worry a lot less about your breath. Try getting tips like that from Ellen Shapiro!

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:28 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

Sam, I see Baker's reasoning in that you might do fine with referrals but active lead searching can get you work — for clients you want to work with — that wouldn't come through a referral, perhaps because they are in a different field than most of your other clients and are out of your referral circle. I don't think referrals are bad for business and doubt that he thinks so either.

Also, as a matter of business principle, I don't think it's smart to assume that business will come to you. Better to be proactive and go out searching for work for when the referral business gets slow.

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:29 AM
scott’s comment is:

Why is "Don't rely on referrals" #1 on DBaker's list of common mistakes? His reasons are unconvincing to me. Am I missing something? On the other hand, 37Signals promote that the majority of their business is referrals.

I may be a David Baker convert (I've attended a couple of his seminars and highly recommend them), but I get this. If your business is totally based on referrals, you are not in control of the kind of projects you are being offered and/or doing.

By actively marketing yourself and your point of view, your potential clients are pre-screened through your own filter(s). Since first hearing this concept (from David, back in 2001) we've done just that and the difference in our work is notable.

Meanwhile, I second the recommendation of Ellen Shapiro's Designer's Guide to Clients and would add Cathy Fishel's Inside the Business of Graphic Design, Cam Foote's The Creative Business Guide to Running a Graphic Design Business and David's own Persuading newsletter to the list.

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:32 AM
marian’s comment is:

My former business was built entirely on referrals. We always had work. We always had work of the same kind. Referrals tend to get you lateral work -- if you're in a niche you want to be in, that's great, but if you're trying to get out of that niche or just expand your experience it's not great. I still haven't figured out what, exactly is the best way to approach a potential client who has never heard of you, but I'm working on it.

Once you have the client, keeping them is easy (barring major personality conflicts). Be responsive, return their calls and communicate. The stories I hear about designers who disappear for weeks on end, not returning calls and then missing deadlines, well all I have to say is Holy Shit.

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:57 AM
Armin’s comment is:

On this same topic, for those of you in New York, you might want to stop by and say hi to Scott (and Debbie) at Art of the pitch. It sounds like an interesting event — specially because their clients will be there, a great opportunity to hear how they responded to the designer's pitch.

On Mar.08.2004 at 11:01 AM
Sam’s comment is:

I see what y'all are saying about referrals, and I think I was misunderstanding Baker to say don't do referral work. Of course one wouldn't want to rely on it or be based totally on it (37signals excepted, but man are they in a niche, on purpose), but I think Marian makes an important point that you already might be in a niche(s) where you want to be.

On Mar.08.2004 at 11:15 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Any "funny" stories of how you started a relationship with a client (i.e. spilled coffee on him/her on the train, you took out your wallet to pay for the dry cleaning and accidentally dropped a business card which s/he picks up and goes so you are a graphic designer huh?)

On Mar.08.2004 at 02:08 PM
Brady’s comment is:

Re: AIGA NY / Art of the pitch...

I wish I could be in the city for that one. It should be an incredible evening. Maybe they will consider posting the audio from the event?

Miss. Moneypenny! Get Ms. Oberman on the phone for me, would you?

Or... Our good friend, Debbie, could bootleg it for us!

On Mar.08.2004 at 02:22 PM
Jeff G’s comment is:

I still haven't figured out what, exactly is the best way to approach a potential client who has never heard of you, but I'm working on it.

This is what worked for me.

Background: I had just moved to the UK. I didn't know anyone, didn't have any money, had a family to feed. My portfolio was weak. I needed to show potential clients that I was the professional full-time designer I could be, not the the part-time amateur I had been.


I picked companies that I wanted to do work for. Usually these were smallish businesses that were doing well, but that had very badly designed printed communications.


I redesigned one of their brochures or adverts.


I went and showed it to the boss. Sometimes with an appointment. Sometimes without.

At least 90% of the time I got work. And I hardly ever had to show my portfolio. I was usually hired on the strength of the piece I made for them. I find that people really respond to something with their logo on it. I think that for someone who is poor, and has no connections this method is unbeatble.

I've had no trouble keeping my clients, at least the ones who require design work on a regular basis. Because of the type of companies I pursued, I was the one who made them look good for the first time. They appreciate that.

Today most of my work comes by referral. But I am trying to figure out how to get hired by some not local who have seen my work in publications, but who don't know they need me yet. I am reading this thread with great interest. More pearls of wisdom, please!

On Mar.08.2004 at 03:47 PM
Jeff G’s comment is:

Any "funny" stories of how you started a relationship with a client

At the second meeting of with of my favourite clients the no.2 peson in the company started talking about the need to get more quotes and interview more designers first. I went into the meeting thinking I was already hired. She then got up abruptly and left the room. When she came back I had the job again. They told me later she had gone to douse her crystal.

Her crystal seems to like me. Everytime they've checked with it so far it's rotated in my direction.

On Mar.08.2004 at 03:54 PM
marian’s comment is:

Any "funny" stories

And there I was just about to say that this time, just this once, "Armin, you're on crack ..."

On Mar.08.2004 at 04:38 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Huh? What'd I do?

On Mar.08.2004 at 04:49 PM
Javier’s comment is:

We get bored quickly, and like to break into a new "niche" on a regular basis. We have been able to do this by being patient and consistent. We try to call or mail something to prospects at least once per quarter. I find it usually takes about 6 months to land the elusive attractive client, from first contact to the start of the first project.

It also helps if you know someone in the business. Our first restaurant projects came from my partner's best friend and her cousin. Once we had a couple under our belt, we could better pitch others. And the word gets around.

Funny story - we recently completed and identity redesign for a small pizza joint near fenway park.

We have ordered a lot of pizza from them - so when the owner needed design work - he called us.

Eat Pizza = Get Work.

On Mar.08.2004 at 07:10 PM
marian’s comment is:

Huh? What'd I do?

Sorry I was just teasing re the incredibly implausible accidental client ... and then there was the crystal story. So hey. What do I know?

On Mar.08.2004 at 10:37 PM
bryony’s comment is:

Personally I don't have much experience in this area, but what I can offer is more of an observation about how things are done in the company I work for. It starts by researching the company, learing who is who and then contacting the right people by phone, mail and/or email (the one that fits best), and following up with them until we hopefully get a chance to present our capabilities.

If this is the case, we prepare a 50-80 page book detailing what we do, how we go about doing it, client roster, case studies (that relate to the "future" client) and a gallery of work. This is presented and it usually has two outcomes: a) they are impressed and take a few days/weeks to get back to us and we are hired, or b) they are so intimidated that we never hear back from them.

I should add that we usually aim at clients with big wallets who don't really know they want to spend what we want them to spend, and this is another important aspect of our pitch and the outcome.

On Mar.09.2004 at 08:37 AM
Armin’s comment is:

I have posted another David Baker article (I know how much some of you love 'em) related to this topic.

How do you gauge new clients? What makes you go I want to work with this company to I'm running as fast and far as I can from this one?

> Sorry I was just teasing re the incredibly implausible accidental client ... and then there was the crystal story.


On Mar.09.2004 at 09:49 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

When meeting with clients, how do you dress? This may seem like a obvious answer to some, but I have seen so many different positions on this. Do you support the known stereotypes, i.e. modern glasses trendy clothes? Or do you take the chameleon approach and wear what it typically worn by the client?

In college I was taught to wear the hip trendy clothes because it was supposed to make clients feel like they were dealing with a Designer. Jeans were even viewed as okay.

On Mar.09.2004 at 11:06 AM
Juna’s comment is:

Did anyone advertise in the yellow pages or a magazine? If so, how did it work out?

On Mar.09.2004 at 12:14 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> When meeting with clients, how do you dress?

"Business Casual" I guess. But as the relationship progresses the attire gets less meetingy.

I've been surprised at the lack of comments here — not that I'm saying you have to comment but it seems like a thread ripe for advice and sharing, no?

I don't have much to share because I don't do much of the initial cold-calling.

I can offer this: much like Javier's pizza story, I landed a freelance job from my cleaning service at home. After I e-mailed the owner from my work account and left the siganture that says "designer" he asked what type of design I did… next thing you know, I did his web site for a nice modicum sum. Not as exciting as the crystal story though.

Also, on retaining clients: don't be a slacker, get your shit done on time and with quality — which is what you are supposed to do anyway.

On Mar.09.2004 at 12:30 PM
KM’s comment is:

I think a lot of designers underestimate the power of personality. No matter how good the portfolio, the client will not want to work with an arrogant asshole. Sell yourself, not your work.

I have this one story: While at Bau-Da, we were doing a photo shoot for a client. The model's husband said he had some friends in a band that were being signed to a major label. We shrugged it of because everyone seems to 'have a friend in a band.' The next day the art director from Capitol Records contacted us requesting a portfolio to show to a new artist. Turns out it was the 'friends' band' and it led to a great relationship that envolved several CD packages, photo shoots and videos.

On Mar.09.2004 at 01:16 PM
Greg’s comment is:

I've been surprised at the lack of comments here -Armin

In response, I will quote you again:

Greg, I wouldn't read too much into that. Fact is, this is a forum that people devote their free time (which sometimes is slim) to.

Sorry...I read that and couldn't resist. All in good fun.

On Mar.09.2004 at 02:11 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Well, if that's the case, you should be working, not quoting me ; )

Serisouly though, yeah I know. But still, I thought we would have more sharing (again, no pressure).

…maybe we need another pet thread.

On Mar.09.2004 at 02:14 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

I have a yellow lab. (soft cricket chirping)

On Mar.09.2004 at 04:02 PM
Jeff G’s comment is:

Juna, I ran a quarter page advert in our local free business magazine about three times. Result: one response from someone who had no money. But I read somewhere that people need to see an ad seven times before they respond, or something like that.

On Mar.09.2004 at 04:46 PM
Juna ’s comment is:

Thanks for the info Jeff.

We ran a small ad in the yellow pages and got one good call. The other calls were for people wanting work or just trying to sell us stuff. How many companies actually use the yellow pages to find graphic designers?

On Mar.09.2004 at 05:54 PM
ps’s comment is:

i guess for me its a combination type thing. one element alone won't do it all, but combined and over time results will happen.

i do some cold calling which i did without much success until i picked up a book about coldcalling which did wonders. i still hate it, but now i get meetings from them.

i send out cards, one each month to a mailinglist.

i ran some industry specific ads in a small trade publication that supported the mailings.

i tell my clients what kind of referrals i'm looking for.

i pay all my vendors early -- that way they'll speak highly of my firm.

the best meetings are when i don't need to show a portfolio. that way the meeting is about my client's challenges, not about our past work.

i try to fire the clients that i like least.

i deliver what i promise.

i don't charge too little. (well, i still do sometimes...)

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:28 PM
marian’s comment is:

I'm interested in this "what to wear" thing because it's something my beau and i have ... er .. disagreed about frequently (he's an environmental designer). He's all Business Attire and is always on my case to put on the black pants, white shirt, long black jacket (and gave me a half-hour diatribe about ironing and shoe-shining the other day -- fair enough).

I on the other hand favour a certain amount of funk. I like to be a little bit weird (well, I am, so)--but I think if people are hiring creative, they'll actually be reassured by imagination in how you dress.

On the other hand, out here on the west coast, many designers think nothing of showing up to meetings in ... fleece! Somehow, that seems reprehensible, but maybe I'm just intolerant.

On Mar.09.2004 at 08:19 PM
marian’s comment is:

BTW, Armin, I don't think it's this topic, I think it's a Monday (and Tuesday) thing. I've noticed people just don't post as much in the early part of the week. Not sure why.

On Mar.09.2004 at 08:22 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Marian doesn't shine her shoes

Being the superficial person that I am, you should know that I always look at the shoes.

Whenever we've had a difficult meeting with a marketing person; when we're interviewing someone; when we're meeting a new client -- the shoes give you that extra bit of information.

So Marian, if you ever come to New York and take me up on my lunch offer -- shine 'em!

On Mar.09.2004 at 10:26 PM
Lea ’s comment is:

Marian, a teacher once told us in class it might be a good idea to dress to match your portfolio at an interview or showing. He suggested that when one girl presented a mailer she created, and both the mailer and the designer wore matching colours, completely by coincidence. Or since your mailer is supposed to reflect your personality, it only made sense that even by co-incidence in every day life it would match your look. ;-)

On Mar.09.2004 at 11:58 PM
Aaron’s comment is:

Something that has worked wonders for me — if you can manage to get work from a popular or established company, than you you have some great leverage for its peers. Most industries are very aware of their competitors, and clients really perk their ears when you can say "My experience with (your competitor) has taught me this, this and this". Growing companies like to follow in the established footsteps of their larger neighbors.

Also, if you're going after a client that has a product or a retail location, try making a big purchase when the manager is there before you do any cold calls or proposals. Not only will you gain experience about their business, but companies love to feel like they are "trading" for your services. It may be a bit of a gamble to spend $100 on bakery items just for a lead, but there can't be a better time to to introduce your business and leave a card than at the register. (Hopefully you like french bread!)

On Mar.10.2004 at 03:55 AM
jesse’s comment is:

On Mar.10.2004 at 08:20 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Oy*. Sorry, I didn't mean to get all needy, whiny and wanty about it… of course, that's how it came off I guess. I was just "worried" we had run out of advice.

* Oy not directed at sasparrilla, I could never be mad at sasparrilla (is it a he or a she?).

On Mar.10.2004 at 08:35 AM
jesse’s comment is:

Don't worry, Armin, he (Sasparilla) still loves you.

I don't think your comment came off as needy or whiny. I think Marian is right, it's just early in the week, early in the morning. Maybe even the time of year? I know I'm busier than usual right now gearing up for spring events.

On Mar.10.2004 at 08:52 AM
Valon’s comment is:

Hey everyone: I know this thread was posted months ago, but if anyone reads it - I have a question that needs attention.

I ran across many companies that offer to deliver RFPs and RFQs to your e-mail daily for a certain $fee. I am wondering if anyone knows of any credible agencies, locations, or sources where it is easy to find out clients that post RFPs and are interested in hiring a design firm for their needs.

AIGA's "Art of The Pitch" was incredible few months ago, however no one mentioned about sources and leads of where firms find out about the companies that are out there looking to hire a design firm.

Whoever will have an answer to this extensive and somewhat ambiguous question; I will be indebted to forever...Many thanks

On Jul.08.2004 at 06:39 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Hmm. Great post, don't know how I missed it originally. Probably was out of town.

So Valon, to answer your question — the only types of companies that post RFPs publicly (that I know of) are either government-based, civic orgs, or nonprofits like the Port authority, City Transit Commissions, Public Health department, etc. Usually it's by law that they must post those processes.

Normal company RFPs are like wedding invites — they only get sent to a pre-selected list.

I've never heard of a service that will deliver credible RFPs to your proverbial doorstep. Sounds too good to be true, like offers for free Vegas vacations and the likes. There are services that will sell you client lists, events lists, and other marketing fodder — but it's up to you to mine opportunities from them.

I've worked in a number of design firms, from small to large. They all market the same ways, many of which have already been mentioned. Here are some additional suggestions.

1. Network until your gums bleed from smiling.

2. Persistently chase down all referrals, and referrals of referrals, and friends of referrals of referrals until you know people are starting to duck your calls by reputation.

3. Join any and all types of relevant business groups and organizations in your area and attend all of their boring breakfasts, lunches, and dinner events. The Chamber of Commerce, AMA, the Small Business Group, the Urban Business Group, the Creative Business Group, and so on. Stop when you can't keep track of their names anymore.

4. Make friends and network w/ your competitors, ad agencies, and PR agencies—and pretend you really like their work. You never know how, where, and who leads will come from.

5. Don't assume your friends, family, and church knows about what you do either. Sometimes the best leads can come from next door neighbors.

6. Did I mention to be persistent? People change jobs on a frequent basis. Call your marketing list again every 3 months. Read through the local business trade rags, especially the "New Employment" section to see who has gone where, and who now works for who.

And lastly,

7. Consider hiring a sales pro to add to your team. A seasoned professional will have a Rolodex-full list of contacts that's worth its weight in gold. That's why they make so much money.

On Jul.09.2004 at 08:07 PM