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How to build trust with clients

7 lessons from a freelance design career


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Jon Robinson

3 years ago | 10 min read

I was recently interviewed by Adam Rahn of video production company Droi Media for his podcast, Freelanswers (video at the end of the article). We spent some time talking about how we each got started in freelancing, how to go about finding clients, and some of the hurdles commonly faced in the industry.

The conversation eventually centered around a common question: How do you build trust with clients? The following essay is the culmination of a reflection on my freelance career.

Lesson 1: Getting started is easy. Now, figure out what the hell you’re doing.

Let’s be honest. Many of us come out of design school not really knowing what we’re getting into. But we’re certain of two things: We need experience, and we need to build a portfolio. So we figure “I’ll just freelance!” Problem solved.

Most of us have been there: That period when you’re close to graduation and the realization that you don’t have any job offers—or you haven’t really tried yet—starts to hit, so you decide to just go into business for yourself. It seems like a solid enough plan at the time. “I’ll tell people I’m a designer.

And they’ll probably need some design so they’ll pay me to design some stuff.”

Then reality hits: “I’m an average kid coming out of art school, and I know nothing about business.”

Look out world, here comes a freelancer. Illustration by Ouch.pics

This is why I often advise designers entering the field to give full-time employment and freelancing a shot to see which feels right. Enjoy the comfort of employment while building your own client base; test the waters before making the jump to freelancing full-time.

And, honestly, you may find that this model will suit you for longer than you expect.

Lesson 2: Every project won’t be valuable, but every experience will be.

Most people like to brag about their atypical career path. That’s definitely not me. I got started working at a local print shop, making plates for large-scale offset presses in addition to pre-press desktop work.

After a 3-year-stint at a not-for-profit design gig I was able to break into the agency world, where I spent 10 years working in branding, consumer package design, and user experience.

Now I work for a global consulting firm, leading product development for Fortune 500 companies. It’s a long way from that print shop and the days of inhaling chemical fumes.

But along the way I’ve always freelanced, only recently hitting a point where I can no longer support freelance clients in a typical way.

When I was at that print shop, and tangentially finishing up my undergrad education, the Eureka company (maybe known as Electrolux at the time) was headquartered in the same town (it’s since relocated).

And—I shit you not—I pulled a tab off of a bulletin board flier advertising for freelance designers, and spent the next few months doing vacuum cleaner illustrations for packaging. That’s how I got my first freelance client.

And it didn’t go well.

The relationship was so hands-off that I often had to track down items myself—the bags, cloths, filters, and even vacuum models—to create 3D mechanical drawings for consumer packaging. Being a young kid, I was really taken advantage of.

At least I got paid for all the work I did, after I worked up the courage to go over to this guy’s house and demand he write me a check. After that, I was ready to move on to the next thing.

Celebrate all experiences. Illustration by Ouch.pics

It may not have been an ideal experience. But it helped me learn what I type of work I valued, and how valuable my time was to me.

Lesson 3: Be open to anything. Take time to find something you love.

With the dry taste of vacuum cleaner dust behind me, I started to explore a lot of different opportunities. Everything from designing T-shirts to programs for local arts organizations; designing and developing mobile apps and websites to publishing children’s books.

I found my stride when I started working with entrepreneurs. I got really excited about helping people get their ideas off the ground. And websites were the service where I really found a niche. For a time I became the guy in my business circle that could get a quality site up and running in a short time frame, at a good price.

The real value was in the delivery: I defined a price and a time frame, and I delivered within that expectation. Repeat business came because my clients knew they could trust me to do what I promised, and do it well.

Be patient. Illustration by Ouch.pics

There are two reasons I was able to find and maintain a steady stream of freelance opportunities so that I could keep moving: I networked like crazy and I took pride in client satisfaction. This is how I learned the importance of building trust with clients, and how that trust can lead to some great word-of-mouth advertising (the best kind, because it’s free!).

One of my favorite freelance projects was one that I never made a cent on, but I got a free trip out of it! In 2015 I got to work with a team publishing a children’s book—the connection made through a mutual contact—who flew me out to work from the Facebook offices in Manhattan for a few days.

It just happened to be the right opportunity at the right time. My wife and I had just learned that we were going to have a daughter, and the book was written with a message that was very empowering to young girls. So no lack of budget was gonna cause me to turn that one down.

Lesson 4: Put in time to build trust with your clients. When that fails, know when to walk away.

After a couple years working in the industry, I got most of my business organically. When you deliver consistently on projects, people are quick to recommend you to their friends and colleagues.

Eventually the value of freelancing shifted from exploring opportunities and building my portfolio to working with new people and building relationships.

In turn, I learned that many of my early client difficulties were a result of me not establishing the proper trust. That certainly came with experience. The truth of the trade is: Every client is different.

Some can be difficult to work with while others seem too good to be true, trusting the value that you bring to their project and allowing you the freedom to do it right.

Honesty and communication of your value and knowledge up-front are the most important steps in developing trust with freelance clients. Know when to disagree, know when to walk away, and always be honest.

Relationships are more important than projects. Illustration by Ouch.pics

No matter how long you work in this industry, you’ll never completely escape situations where you have little control over client expectations.

Someone will reach out to you about a project, and you’ll get the impression that they want to work with you, in particular, only to realize they just want the work done, and done the way they want it.

That’s not the type of work I’m here to do.

When it comes to design, too many people still see this industry as a trade. They figure that anyone can do the job they way they want, and are just looking to hire someone to execute their idea, at their direction.

All the research and knowledge in the world won’t steer them away from the logo they drew on a napkin at 2 a.m. in some bar.

Lesson 5: Constantly learn and build your expertise, and your brand.

If you’re getting started, then treat it as a learning opportunity. You’re most likely not an expert yet, but you need to start developing yourself as one.

You need to remember that your client may be the expert at their business, or their industry, but it’s your job to be the expert in design (you’ll eventually become an expert on their business).

The client can’t be the expert at all things, but they will certainly try to be. You have to have to be able to back up your work and your ideas, or else you’re likely going to lose in that power struggle.

The more effectively you can communicate your understanding of the problem, and work with your client to develop high-performing solutions, the more trust you are going to build with that person.

Always meet your deadlines and deliver on promises. Nothing starts to break down trust like constant apologies for being behind on deliverables. And a break down in trust leads to a break down in working relationships.

Also, be honest with your branding. I don’t mean your logo or your name, but how you will present yourself with clients. If it’s just you, and will likely always be you, then don’t try to fool people and make yourself seem bigger than yourself. I often think about how Aaron Draplin refers to Draplin Design Company as “we,” even though it’s really just him.

Level up. Illustration by Ouch.pics

No one is confusing you with an agency. Let your skill and your passion, not your size, sell your company.

Also, spend the money and get some help from a lawyer to create a solid contract. You’re creating a business for yourself, and will often be the sole representative for that business, so take good care of it.

Lesson 6: Build something for yourself, not exclusively for your clients.

I became interested pretty early in design education, and started working on a master’s degree—for the most part—so that I could start teaching. I’ve been lucky enough to teach at 4 different universities over the last 7 years.

Sharing knowledge with others also helps me learn, and now I’m driven by this idea that we learn better when we do it together. Eventually I began exploring that passion in another way, by speaking at conferences.

Then I came to consulting, and realized that not only does a lot of teaching happen when you are a consultant, but it’s also a lot like freelancing.

The biggest difference between what I do now versus what I did before (in the agency world) is I no longer work for my clients, I work with my clients.

I don’t build things for people, I build things with people. A big part of my job is making other people’s jobs, and lives, better. And I still get an opportunity to work with clients in varied industries solving different problems.

Leverage your knowledge and interests to build something for you. Illustration by Ouch.pics

I’d say the majority of my freelance work today is more consulting than anything, mainly because I don’t have the time to produce. I’ve got plenty of time to talk though, and I’m always up for answering questions about app development, mainly because it’s such a big scary thing for someone that has an idea for an app but doesn’t know what they’re getting themselves into.

One of my colleagues has a setup where he charges people for 1 hour meetings, no more, just to answer their questions about creating a new thing—like a brand, a blog, or an app—with no commitment to do that work. It’s like a mini Q+A consulting deal.

I think this is a great stride for our industry because it stresses that design work is knowledge work, not skilled labor. Our ideas and expertise provide the real value. It also emphasizes that our time is just as valuable as the things we create.

Lesson 7: Work on, or around, your time. Not theirs.

I don’t have a lot of time to meet with clients face-to-face, so I prefer to work with people that aren’t located in my area. It’s just easier to do the remote thing when physical meetings aren’t possible to begin with.

Luckily I’ve been doing this long enough, and have a decent amount of experience working remotely, that it works fairly well for both sides. My advice is: Get on video calls as much as you can and always—always—present your work. Don’t send your clients PDFs with some bullet point notes. Don’t forward a DropBox link and just say “here it is.”

Schedule time to present and allow your clients to ask questions to avoid miscommunication, or misinterpretation.

Bonus: It’s also easier to avoid pro-bono work when you’re working remote and, likely, have no vested interest in your client’s city. While I do believe in pro-bono work and, on occasion, donate my time for the right cause, I’m still trying to run a business and my time is valuable.

Damn, it feels good to work on your own time. Illustration by Ouch.pics

When kicking off a new client relationship, be honest with them about your other commitments and expected working schedule. Always be up front with how long something will take, and how much effort is needed.

As long as you do good work, and deliver on time, no one should be concerned about when you work or how long something will take.

I think this is one of the reasons I never had luck freelancing for agencies. Everything always has too much immediacy about it. Usually, if you get a freelance project from an agency it’s because someone realized at the last minute that they weren’t going to get it done, so now they’re trying to make it your problem.

Do you really want to put yourself in stressful situations that cause you to work a 70 hour week just to meet someone else’s (likely imaginary) deadline? I don’t.

This article was originally published on medium

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