Do you vet potential new design clients?

How do you know that you’re the right designer for a project? Or maybe the question should be, how do you know a potential new design client is right for you?

In the past, I’ve covered what to ask during a discovery session, 50 questions to ask every new design client, and four vital questions to ask your design clients about their projects.

Almost all of the questions covered in those episodes are for building relationships with your clients after you’ve decided to work with them. But I don’t think I’ve ever talked about that first contact with a potential new client before.

First contact.

The first contact refers to those times your phone rings with an unknown number, or emails you receive from unknown people or the conversations that start when someone finds out you’re a designer.

How do you determine during those initial first few minutes of contact if this potential new client is someone worth investing your time and energy? Because as a designer, you will hear from people who you don’t want anything to do with.

So what do you do? You conduct a quick, impromptu interview.

First contact questions.

Here are some questions I like to ask before getting too deep into a conversation. If I’m not satisfied with the answers, I politely end things before I waste too much of my valuable time.

1) What can I help you with?

Cut to the chase. There’s no reason to have a conversation with someone if you cannot help them. The first thing you should do is ask the client what it is they need your help with.

Many people don’t know what graphic or web designers do. In the past, I’ve had people ask me if I could redesign their restaurant’s floor plan, create blueprints of their new building, develop software or apps for them, design 3D prototypes in C.A.D. and many more things I’m not capable of doing. So before wasting your time, find out if this person does indeed require your skillset.

2) How do you expect me to help?

Once you’ve determined the client can benefit from your skillset, the next step is to find out what they expect from working with a designer and if it’s worth your time.

Some clients are not looking for your design or creative skills. They’re looking for a person who can take the idea they already have and recreate it on paper or pixels.

Some designers don’t mind that kind of mindless work, but I don’t. If the conversation starts with “I know exactly what I want, but I need someone to do it for me.” then there’s little chance I’ll end up working with that client. I went into business for myself so that I can work WITH clients, not FOR clients.

Now I understand that you may not be in a position to turn down work. If that’s the case, I suggest trying to turn the conversation towards how you can offer more to the client than being a simple instruction follower.

3) Is there a deadline for your project?

To grow and prosper in this field of design, you must form relationships with your clients, which is difficult if you’re working on a tight deadline.

For existing clients, it’s not as big a deal since you already know them. But the first time you work with a new client, you should take the time to get to know them, their business and how best to assist them.

Of course, deadlines are subjective. A two-month period for a small website project allows ample time for relationship building. However, if they say they need their site launched by next Wednesday, I suggest you pass. Regardless of how simple it sounds, if they’re that rushed and under pressure, that stress will be passed on to you.

Determine if the deadline is a constraint you’re comfortable working within.

4) What’s your position regarding this project?

I ask this question because I want to know if the person contacting me is the one I’ll be dealing with for the project.

I’ve agreed to too many projects in the past only to find out later the person I thought I was working with turned out to be a middle person, and once the project started, I was dealing with someone different. I don’t like to find out after I’m hired that the person that I talked to is now out of the picture, and I’m left dealing with someone else that I haven’t vetted.

If I’m going to be working with the Owner, CEO, Chairman or whoever, I want to know, and I want to meet or talk to them before I agree to anything.

5) What budget did you have in mind?

I know, budget is not a topic you like bringing up. But wouldn’t you rather get it over with now, instead of later during a discovery or pitch meeting after investing your valuable time?

I like to know right from the start if a client can afford me. If their budget is $500 for a website or $150 for a logo design, I can politely end the conversation, wish them all the best and get back to whatever it was I was working on when they called.

Of course, I’m being harsh here. I don’t merely brush a client off because their dollar sign is low. I explain why I charge the prices I do, and on some occasions, the person is convinced and realizes that increasing their investment is beneficial to them. But most times, after explaining why their budget doesn’t fit my prices, we part ways. If they can’t afford me, they can’t afford me. That’s just the way it is.

6) Are they able to pay my deposit?

The last interview question is about payment. Depending on the project, I insist on at least a 50% deposit before starting any work. I’m strict about this. “Can you get started while we mail you a check?.” Or “It's fine, our accounting department will take care of it so go ahead and start.” are not good enough excuses. I need the money in hand before I start on anything.

If the client makes excuses, pressures me to get started, or complains about paying a deposit before we begin, I can only imagine how the rest of the project will go. In these cases, it’s best to turn down the project.

Interview the client before hearing them out.

Of course, there are many other questions you should ask a new client before agreeing to work with them. The purpose of the interview is to vet the client and quickly determine if it’s worth spending any more time discussing their project.

In some cases, even vetted clients don’t work out. But most occasions, you can save a lot of valuable time, and possibly some big headaches by asking questions and quickly determining if the conversation is worth prolonging.

What questions do you ask to vet potential new design clients?

Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.

Thank you to Wireframe for supporting this episode of the podcast.

Check out the new season of Wireframe by Adobe – Wireframe is a podcast all about how UX can help technology fit into our lives.

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