Why you should say “no” to clients and become a specialist

Laura Foley

As a creative professional, it’s tempting to try to be all things to all people in order to get more business. Freelancers routinely agree to do work they’re not especially good at to avoid turning away paying work by saying “no” to clients and prospects. But is that a good business strategy? Saying “yes” to every type of work doesn’t position you as an expert because nobody is great at everything.

Here’s a scenario that you as a creative professional might encounter. You’re pitching your services to a hot prospect. You’ve told him your capabilities, shown him your portfolio/writing samples/websites/etc., and have impressed him with your references.

“That’s great!” the prospect exclaims. “But I need to know if you can also…” and then he goes on to ask if you provide a service that you in fact don’t. It could be designing websites, illustration, technical writing, presentation design, anything. In your haste to get the contract you say something along the lines of:

“Sure, I’ve designed a website before.”

“Illustration? Yeah! How do you want it done—pencil, computer, oil paint? You need a cartoon or something more realistic?”

“I write copy for all kinds of businesses, so technical writing should not be a problem.”

“Presentation design? OK, I have a copy of Keynote, I could do that.”

You think you sound like a flexible problem solver. Whatever the client wants, you can provide! You are a one-stop shop! Even if you’ve never performed that service before, you have just demonstrated that you’re willing to learn if that’s what it takes to win his business.

Except…that might not be the message you’re sending.

When you quickly agree to perform any service the client asks for, you could be broadcasting a very different message:

“I have only designed one website in my life.”

“I am not a professional illustrator and don’t have a preferred medium or style.”

“I will learn how to do technical writing by taking on your project.”

“I’ve never used Keynote before.”

People spend their marketing budgets on projects that have a chance of providing a good return on investment. If they sense that you’re learning as you go, they’ll know that they’re taking a big risk in hiring you to do the work.

I experienced this from the client’s perspective when I visited an event where a local zoo had set up an information table. I was trying to find a location for my Cub Scout group’s annual sleepover. Having heard of zoos that offered special overnight programs for Scouts, I approached the table and asked about it.

She looked confused. “Um, actually, nobody’s ever asked us that before. But…yeah!” she said, brightening. “We could do that! Why don’t you take one of our brochures and give me a call?”

I took one of the brochures but didn’t make the call. Why? Because she told me they don’t have an established overnight program. I didn’t want my Scouts and their families to be a case study for how to run (or how not to run) a successful program. During these events, the host institution typically offers about five hours of supervised activities, serves dinner and breakfast, and has adequate space for large groups of people to sleep. In addition, some places distribute goody bags to the guests. An overnight program is a big deal and a lot of work. Did this woman know what she’d be getting herself into? I didn’t think so and didn’t want to use my group to find out.

So what’s the answer if you are a solo creative? Specialization. If there’s one message we get from the Creative Freelancer Conference year after year it’s the importance of developing a niche. If you primarily design websites for bakeries, for example, then you can market yourself as the best bakery website designer. You build your client base, learning the common situations that all bakeries deal with so that you can anticipate people’s concerns even before they articulate them. You become the expert in bakery marketing by concentrating solely on bakeries. On the other hand, if you design websites for anybody who throws money at you then you’re more of a commodity.

Being a generalist makes it harder to differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace.

Sure, by specializing you’ll be turning down paying work. But if you take on the work and don’t do a great job, then you could damage your reputation and quickly end the relationship with your client that you worked so hard to develop.

A better solution than taking on all challenges is to refer clients to your colleagues. “I specialize in designing websites, not logos. But I can recommend a logo designer who does great work!” This way, not only do you reinforce your expertise to the client, you prove yourself to be a helpful professional with a network of skilled specialists.

If you’ve identified yourself as a solo freelancer, your clients and prospects know that you’ll be doing all of the work they ask you to do. Ever hear the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”? So have they. By specializing in one type of client or service, you can position yourself as the best. And don’t we all want to do our best work for our clients?

And if you aren’t sure how to find your specialty, join us, October 29 for Strategies for MDS_FreelanceConference-200x166Creative Freelancers, the first of four quarterly online workshops for creative freelancers and creative entrepreneurs. One of the 4 tracks includes Jill Anderson of www.jilllynndesign.com who will be sharing examples of well positioned homepages of fellow creatives. Sign up today! Use coupon code CFFALL2013 to get access for just $99! 




Creative Freelancer Blog, Getting Started in Freelance Design

About Laura Foley

Laura Foley helps people to be less terrible at PowerPoint. As a Cheater of Death by PowerPoint, she transforms slides into effective marketing tools through workshops, consulting, and presentation design services. A graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Laura has over two decades' experience in presentation design, marketing, and copywriting. She lives in Central Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. Laura is an active member of Hubbardston Cub Scout Pack 12 where she serves as a Bear Den Leader and Pack Trainer. Visit her online at lauramfoley.com where you will find the Cheating Death by PowerPoint blog.