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
- 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 littlestreamsoftware.com. 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).