How to Find the Right Clients

Finding the Right Client Match

I’ve had to fire clients a few times in my career. It’s an awkward, un-fun task that could (likely) be avoided if I’d done a better job qualifying them at the start.

Finding the right clients to work with is a bit like dating. You get to know each other up front, asking questions, doing a little Google stalking, checking with friends to see what they know.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out: You have different goals, one party needs more than the other can give, or you’re just plain awkward together. Other times the chemistry is spot-on: you have good rapport, a common ground via shared friends, and you’re passionate about the same things.

Not every customer is right for me and I’m not right for every customer, and that’s okay.

A couple of months ago my Aunt Kali was in town visiting. She’s allergic to seafood – not just shellfish – but all seafood. So guess what? No matter how amazing the new seafood restaurant Waters is, it’s not for Kali. We ate pizza instead.

Is Waters a bad restaurant? No, it’s actually rather delicious! It just wasn’t right for Kali.

Just because two people aren’t right for each other isn’t a poor reflection on either party. Sometimes it’s just not a fit. If you can figure out whether you and a potential client are a fit before you start doing business together, you’ll be a happier freelancer, you’ll create enthusiastic (and long-term) customers, and be more likely to enjoy the work you do daily.

How to Find the Right Clients

Figuring out the best way to find the right clients will look a bit differently for each of you, but here are some general rules I’ve found helpful.

Define Your Ideal Customer

Narrow down the field of potential clients, by defining your ideal customer. I bet you already have some ideas of the type of customer you want to serve. Maybe one of the following appeals most to you?

  • Small owner/operator-run businesses
  • Agencies looking for subcontractors
  • Large corporations
  • Non-profits
  • Local (or not!)

Jennifer Bourn at Bourn Creative has written some great articles on profiling your ideal client. If you don’t know who your ideal client is, spend some time working through her suggested exercises and figure it out.

Define Your Ideal Project

Think back to the projects you’ve had the most fun working on. Maybe it was the subject, or the technology, the length of time, or the other people you worked with. Now think about the projects you’ve dreaded, where you couldn’t send that last invoice fast enough.

What were the differences between those types of projects?

Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. – Malcolm Gladwell

Find projects and work you enjoy and use it as a basis to go after clients offering those sorts of projects.

Help Clients Qualify Themselves

Think back to my Aunt Kali. If she pulls up to a restaurant with a banner outside that says “Best Lobster Bisque EVAH! You’ll love our seafood!” she doesn’t need to bother getting out of the car. She’s qualified herself.

Serve your potential customers by offering education and information. Do so in a way that’s attractive to the clients you want, but isn’t disrespectful to the clients you don’t. For instance, I only want to work with clients I can truly help and bring value to. If you “just want a website,” I’m not the right service provider for you. Allow me to recommend some other great resources to help you with your project.

Thanks to Curtis McHale, I recently found Ruby developer Eric Davis’ site He uses a combination of pre-qualifying information on his home page along with a short drip-email campaign to educate clients of what it’s like working with him, helping potential clients qualify themselves. He does it in a way that offers value and good information at every step, not just a series of hoops to jump through for the sake of hoop jumping.

Ask the Right Questions

My potential clients aren’t web developers – that’s why they’re coming to me. Their framework, or mental model, is likely very different than mine. Part of my job is to step into their shoes, figure out their style, and ask the questions that help me figure out whether this is a client I’d like to work with and a project I’d like to work on.

It’s basic discovery.

I had a voice conversation via Google Hangout with one of my readers last week (perhaps a potential client) and we found ourselves at a bit of a stuck point. He wanted to know how my skill set could add value to him and I needed to know, in broad strokes, what he was trying to accomplish before I could offer an answer.

It was a great conversation and a learning opportunity for me as I realized that I don’t always know what the right questions are. Maybe Chris Lema would be willing to guest-blog a companion post. :)

I’ve Got Work to Do

It’s rare that the right clients simply fall into your lap. It takes work to build up your referral network, earn trust in your business arena, and hone your message to attract the right clients. I’ve tweaked the daylight out of my contact page (and my site in general) and will continue to experiment to get better at finding the right client.

A final note before you move on with your day… the right client for me isn’t necessarily the right client for you. Your qualifications and “perfect matches” look different from mine. That’s why I think there’s plenty of room in the market for competitors, but that’s a post for another day (or for Matt Medeiros to write).

Carrie Dils

I’m a recommended Genesis Developer with 15+ years experience in web design and development. I'm creative, resourceful, and ready to put my mind to your project. Want to discuss your WordPress project? Let's talk!


  1. says

    This is so true!

    A few years ago, I really wanted to do WordPress and social media work close to home. A local company had what seemed like the perfect job description – but I was reluctant. I had heard mixed reviews about this place and wasn’t sure I wanted to give up a sure thing for something that may or may not work out. I ended up doing a freelance project for the company – which confirmed my suspicions. It was NOT a good fit. The project was short-term, but took forever because the client could not stay focused and changed his mind every day (multiple times) about what he wanted. We started out with a great product that turned into a generic piece I don’t keep in my portfolio. I lost money on the project, based on the time I had to put in, but it was the best money I’ve ever lost – and a great learning experience.

    • says

      Hi Angela,
      You’re right that there’s no way to replace that kinda of learning experience except just learning it! The older I get, the more I tend to trust my gut feel.

      Here’s to many successes for you!

  2. says

    Luckily I was a client that Carrie didn’t fire… although I changed my mind after getting serious about what I determined the new site should include. Homework and research on my part helped me refine my objective and present my ideas clearly to CD.

    My recommendation for small business people considering hiring (insert your designer’s name) is to start researching current trends in web design, note specific sites and what you like (and dislike), and what your ideal client has been contacting you for. (That’s an idea for a free e-book Carrie)

    Again, for me, working with Carrie made me realize that I was under utilized my PR successes in 2013 that needed to be on my site as 3rd party endorsements. Also, reading The Moz Blog and watching Whiteboard Friday gave me ideas to really think about that would help me help Carrie understand my concept.

    Finding the right client is tough in any business, but what everyone needs is paying clients. Having clients who come to you “already sold on you” is the ideal and makes life much easier. Look at your own product or site and see if you would want to hire yourself over the competition.

    • says

      Haha – far from it! Great advice from the client perspective, Doug. It’s just as important for a client to hone in on the right service partner as it is for the relationship to work in reverse. Takes a little more effort than “just taking whatever comes,” but so worth it to find those win/win opportunities.

  3. says

    Profiling customers for yourself is just as important as profiling customers for your client’s web project.

    Sometimes we live in the grey area of taking on the projects that don’t meet our “standard” and it’s always tricky water to navigate. We don’t live in a perfect world, but controlling the expectations early on is a no brainer – but often forgotten in the midst of work, marketing, and onboarding.

    And yes, I do plan on writing a post about this :)

  4. says

    I’ve always found that I get better clients when I’m busy than I do when I’m not. Reflecting on that, I’m realizing that’s because when I’m busy I do a far better job of the pre-qualifying Carrie talks about here. Thanks for the reminder, Carrie!

  5. says

    Loved your post, Carrie. The principle of “know your audience / know your ideal customer” is so powerful. It creates focus. I started out building my consulting brand identity around some terrible assumptions — for one thing, I wanted to stay broad and serve any customer that needed management consulting and strategic HR advice. As I got more honest with myself, I saw it was natural to focus strictly on organizations that have technology-intensive workforces (e.g., software companies) since those are the people I’ve worked with for most of my career. (Took me a while to make this decision — I guess I’m a slow learner!)

  6. says

    Great timing on article. Most of my clients are small businesses starting with little or nothing online and I approach projects from a holistic “business development” view where a quality Genesis site I can build is just part of their success online. So one of my clients who took me to lunch yesterday so thrilled with the project we just finished wanted to refer me to all his attorney friends and was surprised with my apprehension to do so and asked why?

    I explained the procedure he unknowingly went through before deciding to accept him as a client that included a few mock ups, his reaction to them, his ability to effectively communicate what he liked/didn’t like and if his expectations seemed realistic. Unorthodox but works like a charm and I can still hear him laughing (and agreeing)!

  7. Ginger says

    Great stuff and very similar to the real estate business. You have to be prepared to walk away…a delicate balancing act for sure. Thankfully I was also one Carrie didn’t have to “fire” :-) I was ready to jump in for the full combo plate and she suggested an hour of consulting first. The more I got into WP and Genesis the more I realized I would rather go it on my own since I was enjoying the learning experience so much! It’s slower but I enjoy taking my time. As a former developer, this made a lot more sense.

  8. says

    This is a real thought-provoker! And you can guess why I decided I needed to look this article up and finally read through it… :)

    So yeah, I have a client that I don’t like, and I wasn’t sure why. In going back through my clients I liked, I think I’ve found a definite pattern. It’s not agency vs. small business, although agencies tend to be better at this, it’s really just having a client that generally knows what they want. I’m not a consultant. I’m not a designer. I can do a little of both when needed, but really what I want is a client that can say “Do this” and then later “No, forget that. Let’s do this.” I don’t mind someone who tries a few different looks, who rearranges the furniture (within limit). I do mind someone who constantly asks “what do you think about this?” Because my answer is almost always “I have no idea.”

    And sure enough, just looked at my last message from the client in question, and it ended with “What do you think?” Aaargh!

    Also, anyone who buys a theme from Themeforest! I *hate* those themes!

    OK, rant over…

    • says

      You bring up a great point about knowing yourself and what types of work your best suited to do. Part of your “match” process should say up front what you said here – “Consulting is not my thing, but development is. If you know you need X, I’m your guy!”

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