by Fabio Muniz
I have spent most of my career as a Product Designer working as a freelancer. When I was just starting out, I used to spend a lot of time diving into design theory and learning how to find clients, build my brand and how to manage my time, but I didn’t pay much attention to thinking how I would build strong relationships with clients once I actually got them. I assumed it would simply work out. It wasn’t the case, there were several bumps along the road, and I made a lot of mistakes.
However, after years of work (and having eventually researched the subject), it’s now much easier for me to build great relationships with new clients. I learned a lot, and I want to share those learnings with you.
Why you should build great relationships
First things first, you should understand why it is essential to build amazing relationships with your clients. Unless you, at your core, know and hold true that this is essential, reading this article (and a thousand other ones) won’t serve any purpose.
If you build great client relationships, your projects will flow much more smoothly. Your mental load will be incredibly reduced and you will actually be excited to get work done. You won’t dread client meetings; on the contrary, you will be excited to meet them and show them your work. And if they don’t like it, you won’t be mad and the relationship won’t be damaged – you’ll be prepared to work around any issues and actually enjoy the process.
If you build great relationships, your clients will return to you when they have new projects. If their friends need to hire someone, they will be happy to reference you because it was such a great experience. They trust you and they believe in your work and if you need something, you’ll be able to count on them too.
You won’t dread reference check calls anymore.
If you build great relationships with your clients, you won’t tweet that being a freelancer is actually pure suffering and modern day slavery, because if you really dedicate yourself to it, being a freelancer is an amazing journey.
To summarize, there are only benefits that come from nurturing good relationships.
A quick note on choosing the right clients
Before we dive into actionable tips, I have to address one major key: Choosing the right clients.
It is very common for beginner designers to think that they should say yes to everything in order to get experience. Or, when times are tough, that you should say yes to anything that comes up.
Yes, you do need experience when you are just starting out—but you need the right kind of experience. You need to take on projects that will help you grow. Projects with clients from hell will hurt you much more than they will help you.
And yes, when times are tough, there is an impulse to say yes to anything, but remember that saying yes to something means saying no to something else that could come up. Spending your time working on projects that stress you out and don’t produce value is a waste of your time and won’t help you get to a better place.
You must – in the two circumstances I mentioned, or if you are simply looking for new clients – screen any new potential clients. You need to look for red flags, and be very cautious here. If the project you are about to take appears that it will give you more problems than benefits, be firm and say no. I will soon be writing about how to do due diligence on clients, but for now, just keep this in mind.
Now, on to how to build great relationships.
Understanding their point of view
You must understand your client’s point of view. Empathy is essential for any relationship—business or personal—and you can’t try to skip this or take it for granted.
Your client hired you for a reason and you should be fully aware of what that reason is. You need to understand why they are working on a certain project, what they are trying to achieve with it, what their ambitions are and what they are expecting of you. You need to give this a lot of thought—put yourself in your client’s shoes and learn to think like them.
This approach is true whether that client is a solo entrepreneur, a small business, an agency or a large corporation. Make sure you understand them. It’s a major key to success.
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Communication is key
You’ll notice that a good number of the elements that make good freelancer-client relationships also make good personal relationships. One of those elements is communication.
Many issues that arise from bad relationships are a result of poor communication; failing to communicate frequently enough or not communicating at all. You have to make sure this doesn’t happen. Frequent, clear and open communication should be a habit, it should make you feel good. It’s not reporting, it’s a conversation.
Make sure you provide regular status updates. Make sure you communicate progress. Talk about what you are working on, get your client’s input. Involve them in the process, and make sure they feel good while doing so.
Don’t build the habit of having a chat when the projects starts and then only having another one when presenting the final work. Build the habit of keeping in touch. If your schedule is crazy and every now and then you become unreachable for a weekend, let them know. Your client will appreciate it.
Going even further, get back to past clients. Show them that you care and try to understand what happened after you delivered and finished the contract. Maintain the relationships you built. It will pay off, I promise.
Send your clients hand-written thank you notes after a project ends. It’s a delightful thing and it will make them smile.
As I mentioned earlier, what makes a good personal relationship also makes a good business relationship. One very good example is boundaries. You should have clear boundaries with your clients—you shouldn’t be afraid to make clear what is, and what isn’t, acceptable.
Is reaching out to you over Whatsapp at 3am a no-no? Then say so and make it clear. You are ok with multiple revisions? Let your client know because they might have had experience with freelancers that do just one or two.
Are you expecting the client will pay for stock images or custom illustrations? Well, they might not, so set the rules clear here. And a key part of nailing this down is having a clear, strong contract in place before the project starts.
Don’t overlook the contract—there are great tools (hellobonsai.com is a good example) that provide you with professional contracts you can customize, and if you make an effort towards you and your client arriving at an agreement, it will make your work relationship much better and stronger.
Be a human. Don’t put up a “business persona”; act as your normal self would act. Be honest about what you can and are willing to do, be open and firm about how long it takes to finish work and have empathy when managing expectations. Don’t lie, don’t mislead your clients, don’t pretend to be someone you are not.
You can be ambitious, you can take risks and do challenging work, but be conscientious about it. Be mindful. About your work, your relationship and your client. This is key.
Provide them access to your network
Provide value, build relationships based on trust. A fantastic way of doing that is by providing clients access to your own personal network. You probably know great developers, illustrators, marketers, founders, investors and many others. If your client needs one of these to help them go further with their business, help them. Give them access.
It will pay off. They will be thankful—and if they grow their business, you will get benefits from it. It will also make them much more comfortable sharing their own network with you.
But don’t do it thinking about getting something from it. Do it because you truly want to help your client. Give, give, give.
Walk the Extra Mile
Zig Ziglar is, in my personal opinion, amazing. If you haven’t heard of him (where exactly have you been living?), Ziglar was an amazing salesman, author and motivational speaker. A phrase of his that I like the most is “there are no traffic jams on the extra mile.” An entrepreneur and very good friend of mine once told me exactly this when I went that extra mile, doing more work than was asked for, and it stuck in my head.
Most freelancers only do the work they have been hired to do and nothing more but as a freelancer, you have the opportunity to go the extra mile and delight the client. You have before you the opportunity to go a step further and provide more value than is expected. You could put together a presentation video and wow them, or actually prototype those extra interactions and then see the expression on their face.
Do it. Go the Extra Mile. It will make you memorable and your client won’t forget your efforts. And even if they don’t show appreciation, at least you’ll know you did your very best—plus a little more.
Yes, you can be friends
I said it earlier and I’ll say it once more: don’t put up a business persona, be yourself.
Get to know your clients. Get to know who they really are—what is their story, what they are building for the world, what kind of food they like. Do they have children? Do they like to travel? Put in the hours to learn about them. Show that you care, that you are not just in it for the money, that you want to truly help them.
If you feel like that person isn’t someone you’d be friends with, you might want to rethink the clients you accept. You should be excited to be a part of their journey—and they be a part of yours—your relationship should, if time is given, naturally become a friendship.
Again, be a human. Your client is one too. You will do well together.
To wrap up, of course there is more to building great relationships—I couldn’t possibly cover everything in this single article, but this is a solid foundation. Be sure you understand everything here, then go and do more reading, research, talk to people. Write down notes. And more importantly, be mindful: improve yourself based on your past and current relationships with your clients and always keep learning.
Fabio Muniz is a Product Designer who contracts for TestLodge, an online test management tool that allows QA teams to manage their software testing efforts with ease. You can contact Fabio and learn more about his work at fabio.design.
Learn more about building client relationships as a freelance designer in the online course, How to Start Your Own Freelance Business, from HOW Design University.