How to Evaluate a Design Client’s Fit

Stop wasting time with clients that aren’t right for your business. With these tips and questions, you can determine if a client is a good fit from the get-go.

Whenever I work within certain constraints, like a time frame or even word limits, I become very aware of whether I’m wasting any time or space that could have been used more effectively. The same concerns arise when trying to identify if a client will be a good fit—you don’t want to waste time or effort. But, before I explain how to decide if a client is a good fit, I’ll first make a few foundational statements that will inform everything that follows. If you agree or are intrigued by these ideas about marketing, you’ll find that the questions I outline will help you focus your time on clients who will be a good match for your firm.



First, marketing is not primarily about getting new work. I say this because most creatives don’t market their services well or consistently, yet they’re still busy. Second, marketing is about control. More specifically, it’s about distributed control. The control the design client has is no mystery, and you see demonstrations of it every day. But the control you have in the relationship is simply one thing: the decision to share or withhold your expertise. Third, the degree of control you have in a client relationship isn’t quantified until you play that card. When you do play it, the amount of control you have is measured in days: The days, in the client’s eyes, it would take to replace you with a substitute.

Fourth, this changes the marketing equation because it’s not about getting work, which happens without marketing, but getting a certain kind of work where distributed control is more likely. In other words, marketing gives you options. It gives you options to fill that one spot on your client roster with the better of the two choices that your marketing has unearthed. Since principals seldom have the necessary courage otherwise, these options are easier to implement because the only other alternative is to turn down work that isn’t a good fit. Over time, this would lead to downsizing your agency so that it can remain profitable. And that’s very painful to do.

After you fall in love with someone is not the ideal time to determine what you’re looking for in a spouse. Making the effort to qualify clients is time well spent.

Last, the most wasteful part of the marketing process is dating prospects who aren’t marriage material. That occurs when you fail to properly qualify from the start. Or, you meet with a prospective client in person when it would be perfectly acceptable to qualify the client via phone. In fact, doing so by phone not only saves time, but it’s more congruent with your position as an expert. Experts don’t have coffee with prospects to see if they should work together. Instead, they have well-established procedures that frequently turn the typical marketing process on its head: The prospect has to apply to work with them.

These are the five assumptions I’m working from when I suggest how to approach qualifying prospective clients. So first, you need to evaluate your marketing process and recognize that you may need to make changes. Working from these ideas, I suggest some features you might want to look for in prospects that will make it more likely that they’ll be good clients. I’ve also outlined questions to ask over the phone so you can efficiently determine if the prospective client will be a good fit for your business.


These questions will help you determine if a client is a good fit for your firm, even during a short phone conversation. And you’ll better understand where the potential client is coming from if you do choose to work with them.

1. What firm are you using at the moment? You should never be a potential client’s first firm because these clients don’t even know what they don’t know, like how long it takes to do things well or how much a firm typically charges for these services to make a profit on a project.

2. What about the relationship with that firm is leading you to consider a change? Listen for lack of leadership, lack of proactivity, lack of fresh ideas, lack of research, etc.

3. What is it about our firm that interests you? The only acceptable answer is “unique expertise;” not geography, turnaround, pricing, relationships—not anything else.

4. Who would be the ultimate decision-maker for the larger initiatives? You want to know if you’ll have access to them, but you also want to know if that person will be spending their own money, which is never a good idea. People are too tight when they’re spending their own money.

5. So it looks like we’d be working with you if you decide that this will be a good fit. Are there certain budget constraints that you must work within, or are you free to decide where your budget should most effectively be spent? If we couple this question with the previous one, you’re looking for someone with full budget authority over someone else’s money. If they say something like, “I have budget authority, but I just get things rubber-stamped as a final step.” This means that they have no real power at all.

6. If this relationship develops as we both hope, how is the budget information used when we give you reliable guideposts about each project? Are you able to give us an indication of the budget? And, if so, are we able to outline all the things we can do for that amount, or do you prefer to describe your needs and then have us develop a scope and cost without any parameters from you? This is actually an issue where you’ll find yourself compromising more than you’d like. But, it’s good to ask because the prospect’s answer is the best manner of determining how much they trust you. If you can’t get all the information that would be helpful for you, be sure to ask if the funds have been “allocated” for this project (I borrowed this critical wording from Blair Enns of

7. What kinds of projects do you do in a typical year? If you’re at a point where you can be bolder, just ask: What’s your total marketing spend in a typical year? The new prospect isn’t likely to give you all of their work at once, trusting you, instead, to first work on a project in order to test the relationship. But before you start that project, you want to know if the client will be big enough for two things to happen: 1) for you to do effective work for them by getting into their situation deeply enough; and 2) for you to spread out the front-end loaded learning curve enough to make money on the entire relationship, even if that’s difficult on the first project. The formula for this is some pretty deep math, but the shortcut is this: Take your total full-time equivalent (FTE) count of employees and look for at least $10,000/year for each. Ideally you’d be looking for $15,000/year for each. So if you have a 10 person firm, you’d be hoping that this new client would spend a least $100,000/year in fees, but $150,000 would be a safer number. The ideal minimum yearly spend would then fluctuate with the size of your firm, as it should.

8. Let’s talk about this first project you’re looking for help with. The first project we do for a client is typically in the $____k range. What do you have in mind? You’re looking for all sorts of things here, but on the money front, you want to know what this first project will be worth. While the ideal total size is fairly predictable mathematically, as we looked at in the previous question, the minimum size of your first project is not. It depends on what field you specialize in, but typically it will run from $20,000 to $100,000. Just pick a number that stretches you a little, and publish it. It makes no sense to begin a relationship with a project smaller than that. In order to really show the new client your abilities, you’ll have to over-service them to a very ugly degree unless that first project is worth your firm’s minimum.

9. I’ve enjoyed hearing about this new direction for your company. It makes a lot of sense to me, too, based on other similar clients we’ve worked with. Is part of the planning next year to bring parts of your website into alignment with this new initiative? All I’ve done here is pick an easy way to push back on the client a little, and since you’ll have ready access to their website, it’s one of the easier things to pick on. Essentially, you want to push back just a little to see how they’ll react: Do they welcome the perceptive and candid feedback, or are they defensive? An alternative is to say: Over the years I’ve heard ___ about the company. Is there any truth to that, or is that inaccurate information that a competitor might be spreading?

Finally, reflect on the conversation and ask yourself: What does your instinct tell you about whether the potential client would be respectful to your employees, and whether they would be fun to work with? Your instincts on the matter will nearly always be correct. Did you enjoy the conversation? Did they take the time to speak with you patiently? Was there any laughter at all over anything?

What we’re doing here is acknowledging that the client will change very little during the relationship, so we’re looking to predict what that relationship will be like if it turns into a serious one.

The important thing is to qualify your prospective clients carefully. You don’t need to follow a specific criteria. But the time to decide on the specific criteria is before you’re actually faced with the decision about a particular prospect. After you fall in love with someone is not the ideal time to determine what you’re looking for in a spouse. Making the effort to qualify clients is time well spent. There’s only so much “shaping” you’ll be able to do once they’re on board. And when do you want to know the truth about what a client will be like to work with: now or later?


After answering the nine questions, I’d like you to consider doing two things with your final list. First, type out your answers on a one-page form and complete the form (on your own) before you present the prospect as one that deserves further pursuit by your firm. This will help you know where you’re compromising, and it could possibly lead to an alternative method of accounting for that lack of fit.

Second, trim the list down a bit, change the language to a warmer, more inviting tone and publish it on your website. This is an important point because you’ll quickly find that prospects are typically more honest in assessing their fit than you are. That’s because you’re driven to turn the opportunity into money, even if that means lying to yourself. A primary purpose of your website is to be so specific about identifying the clients you do your best work for that the prospect who doesn’t fit will self-select themselves out of the running before you have a chance to compromise and talk yourself into the fit.

But what if a new, more honest approach on your part yields fewer clients than you need? Then quit feeding the machine every day, and reduce the clients that you need by downsizing your firm. Why do you feel the obligation to let the marketplace determine how big you are? No one gives that power away while fully understanding what they are doing, but they give it away nonetheless. And the marketplace doesn’t give a damn about making sure your firm’s size is a good fit for you personally. Take your life back!

T6894If you’re a graphic designer looking for real-life advice and long-term success, The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients by acclaimed designer Ellen Shapiro is the book for you. Not only does she reveal the secrets behind getting the clients you want to recognize your name and brand, but she also discusses how to land those clients and create a positive and productive working relationship with them.