Design Domination Podcast Episode #21: Client Relationships Are Like Dating

Client relationships and getting clients are not that different from dating. Learn how to identify your ideal client, attract them, approach them, spot deal breakers, nurture the relationship and more.

Just as you build and grow personal relationships throughout life, you do the same to get and keep clients. Personal relationships aren’t all that different from client relationships. There are good ones and bad ones. But oftentimes, we creatives are more willing to put up with clients treating us badly because we’re getting paid. But I have good news: you do not have to pimp yourself out for the money! You can have good client relationships and get paid.

So what makes a good relationship in general? Mutual respect and good communication are important, first of all, right? Someone you want to be around… Someone with similar values perhaps… So why don’t we apply these same rules to our client relationships? Why do we sometimes act like it’s all about them? Let them lead the relationship, let them get away with bad behavior? Don’t we have something to offer the relationship? Relationships go both ways, don’t forget.

Just like they say with dating: there are a lot of fish in the sea. It’s all about finding a good match!

Soul Mate = Ideal Client

Let’s start by comparing soul mates and your ideal client. We can put a lot of thought into what we want or don’t want when it comes to people we date or other people we spend time with.

Your soul mate in life might be someone who makes you laugh, is good looking, intelligent, kind and makes a good living. There are probably some bad or not-so-great traits we’re trying to avoid. As we develop more relationships in life, we figure out what traits we do or don’t want. It works the same with clients.

We need to start by identifying our soul mate, AKA our ideal client. Here are some things to think about.


Let’s start with industry. Is there a particular industry that your ideal client is in? Maybe you’re really interested in or know a lot about natural health, or fine arts or restaurants. Those might be clients you can help the most because you know so much about their industry and their needs.

Job title

How about job title? What job title do they hold? Clients holding certain positions may require more handholding than someone in a marketing or communications position who more often works with designers. If a client doesn’t regularly work with designers, they might need a lot of educating. You may or may not mind having to do that.

Type of work

What type of work do you want from your ideal client? A prospect could come to you with work you don’t want to do or don’t know how to do very well. I took on work like that several times early on in my freelancing career.

Once upon a time someone contacted me about needing something laid out in Word (ugh). Well, like most designers, I can’t stand designing anything in Word, and I took it on for the money (even though that wasn’t even good). I spent hours upon hours over several days trying to accomplish this task. I just couldn’t figure out how to do what the client wanted. I was working in a program I wasn’t used to working in. I wasn’t interested in the work, and I wasted tons of time trying to figure out how to try to do what I needed to do. Even worse, the client was underwhelmed with my work—and that was a horrible feeling.

So if you really enjoy designing logos but can’t stand publication layout, focus on logos. Not to say you can’t take on other work, but you can focus on getting the work that you want to do.


What about frequency of work? Would you rather have clients who are wham bam, thank you, ma’am, with fewer large projects, or ones that give you continuous work of any size (some of which you may enjoy and some not)?

These are all points to consider. Think of it like creating a “want” or “in search of” ad for your ideal client.

Dating Profile = Website, Behance and Social Media Profiles

Speaking of “want” ads, think of your professional profiles and online presence like an online dating profile for clients. When you put your photo and information in a dating app, you want it to be really great, right? You list your best qualities, your interests and put your best foot forward to appear as attractive as you can but, more importantly, to attract someone with similar interests—a good match.

Your potential client is searching for a match. So, when they come across your profile—meaning your website, Behance or social media profile, they are checking you out to see if they want to pursue you—what you offer. They will expect that what you do for them will be of similar quality to what you have done for your site or for your work for other clients.

So what impressions do your profiles and your website leave with them? What do they say about you? And I don’t mean just in words. For instance:


Does the design of your site appeal to you or to your ideal client? For example, if you like polka dots and bright colors but you want to attract large tech companies as your client, those probably would not be a good choice. A potential corporate client could end up on your site and think “I’m not in the right place” or “This designer wouldn’t understand our needs.” So think about what the design and style of your website convey and if they align with the audience you want to reach.

I have a colleague who designs and builds websites for lawyers, for example. Her website appeals very much to lawyers. It has a conservative color scheme and she displays work she’s done for other law firms. She even named her business to sound similar to a law firm.


Let’s talk about photos of you. If you have photos on there, are they professional? You don’t necessarily need to be in a suit and tie or pay a fancy photographer, but you don’t want a pic of you doing a keg stand (unless maybe you’re trying to attract breweries).

Spelling and grammar

Are there spelling or grammatical errors? You might think, “Well, I’m a designer. That’s not my job.” If a potential client sees these types of errors, they might think you don’t pay attention to details. If you’re not good at checking that stuff, ask someone who is to help.


Do you state what type of work you love doing or are really great at or specialize in? Specialists charge more and have a higher perceived value by potential clients. It doesn’t mean you can’t take on other work; it’s just who you’re focusing on attracting.

Do you say which types of clients or industries you want to work with? My specialization comment applies here too. If you’re a specialist in a certain area, you could state that.


How about what you say, your choice of words? Do you use the same words as your ideal client and demonstrate that you really get them, that you understand their needs? In other words, you would use different terms when speaking to a corporation versus an association. A corporation may be all about customers, sales and shareholders, while an association may be focused on members and dues. If you don’t know what terms they use, check out their websites or join e-mail lists or Facebook or LinkedIn groups in that industry where they hang out. See what they talk about and the words that they use, what their needs are.


What is the tone of your website? Do you sound confident or needy?


Are your website and accounts all consistent with each other? Do they say the same things, have the same vibe, use the same profile pics? Consistency is part of branding and helps people recognize you.

You want to be on point with all of these things, which is all about your branding. You know, you can’t preach to a client about the importance of branding if yours is in disarray.

So review your website and social media accounts and ask yourself how they make you look. Better yet, ask someone else to evaluate them for you. Even better: find someone in your target audience who is willing to review and provide feedback. It can be very hard for us to step outside of our box and do this for ourselves.

Initial Attraction = Cold Prospect

OK, so we’ve defined our soul mate AKA ideal client and we’re trying to attract them.

Initial attraction in dating is not unlike prospecting with potential clients. Before you date someone, you’re usually attracted to their appearance, right? Maybe you see them from across the room at a party and find them attractive. It’s all based on what you see on the surface. You don’t know each other yet but you want to introduce yourself.

While potential clients may find you, you will also want to look for and reach out to ones who seem attractive to you. If they don’t know you, they are what is called a “cold prospect,” meaning you have no connection to them already. They aren’t a past client or referral from someone you know. They’re someone you found on the internet or social media. They’re someone you are interested in working with who doesn’t know boo about you.

Say you want to get work from a certain company. They don’t know you, but something about them is attractive to you. So, just as you wouldn’t walk up and propose marriage to someone you spot at a party—because that would be crazy, right?—you shouldn’t e-mail a prospect who’s never heard of you and expect them to hand over money and commit to working with you. They don’t know anything about you, your skills, your work, your client list, your work ethic, etc. That’s pretty risky, right?

So you start by warming them up to start building some trust. They will hopefully see that you have something to offer and are not a crazy stalker.

Introduction = Conversation

So how do we get introduced? Well, before you ever contact a prospect, you need to know—or more importantly, believe—what you have to offer and that it’s worth something, that working with you will help them. Come from a place of helping, not making a sale.

The goal is to just to get your name out there and get their attention in their inbox in hopes they even read your e-mail, so you can potentially start a conversation.

Do some research.

Start out by doing some research, looking at websites of potential ideal clients and seeing if there is something you could help them with.

  • Check out their website. If you do website design, assess the look of their website. If you do logo design, check that out. If you design marketing materials or publications, find them on their site. Are they dated? Do they appeal to their audience? Is their branding inconsistent?
  • Find a connection. What is the nature of their business or, if they’re a nonprofit, their work. Do you connect with it in some way? Maybe they’re a restaurant and your parents own a restaurant, so you know all about the inner workings of one. Maybe they’re an organization that helps people with a disability, and your sister has a disability, so you understand their audience and their needs really well.

Find the right contact.

If you decide to contact them, you need to find the individual most likely to work with designers. That’s usually someone in marketing or communications, if they have a department for that. For small businesses, it could be the owner.

You may or may not have to do some digging to find the right contact. If you cannot find their name on their website, look for it on LinkedIn. If you only see their first name on LinkedIn, then search online for their first name, title and company name, and then find out their last name.

Whatever you do, never ever address an e-mail to “sir,” “madam” or “to whom it may concern.” It’s all about the personalization. You do not want to send a general e-mail.

I can’t tell you how many times I get e-mails saying, “Dear madam, attached is my résumé for your review. Contact me if you’re interested in my working with me.” They couldn’t be bothered to look up my name on the website. It’s right there, plain as day.Um, no. Delete!

When you personalize these e-mails, it will demonstrate that you’ve done your homework.

Get their e-mail address.

After you have the person’s name, get their e-mail address. If you cannot find it on their website, do a search for their name and “” (with quotes around that last part), or connect with them on LinkedIn. But be sure to send a personalized and relevant message as you would if you were sending an e-mail.

What I like about LinkedIn is that it provides the opportunity to not only connect to your ideal client, but they may later see content you post that they might be interested in, which acts as a reminder of you to them—and you didn’t do any extra work for that.

Create and personalize your e-mail.

OK, so let’s talk about what’s going to go in the e-mail. In the e-mail (or LinkedIn message, if you’re doing that instead), address them by name.

Use a compelling subject line—not like “Do you need a designer?,” “Do you have any work?,” “Do you need any help?” Those sound needy and are likely to get deleted immediately. They also lead with what you want, not what they want or need. It should always be about them and how you can help them.

Get to the point; be short and sweet. Let them know right away why they should care about reading your message. So state your connection to whatever they do (going back to my restaurant and disability examples). That can entice them to continue reading. Then you could:

  • Express your interest in what they do or sell.
  • Explain briefly how you could help them (think about any issues you found when you were checking out their site, like a poorly designed logo or website).
  • Provide a link to an article that you’ve written or someone else has written that may be of interest to them.

Dmitry Dragilev has a ton of great info on cold e-mails, including examples, on his website. Be sure to check it out.

Follow up.

Let’s go back to the party scenario for a moment… Say you walk up to that person you spotted from across the room. You go over and introduce yourself. One of two things happens:

  1. They excuse themselves. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s them. Maybe they aren’t interested, maybe they’re having a bad day, maybe they ate something that just made them sick and they’re off to the bathroom. Who knows?
  2. You both engage in a conversation. You find out what they do for a living, their interests, etc. Maybe you continue talking, or maybe, after talking to them, they creep you out or you find out something that makes you not want to talk with them anymore. Buh-bye!

The same applies to introducing yourself to prospects with cold e-mails. Don’t expect a reply or make assumptions about why you haven’t gotten a response. People are busy. People have other things going on. It’s not necessarily about you. They may save your e-mail for later. Or maybe it didn’t even make it to their inbox. As Ilise Benun of Marketing Mentor always says,

“Silence is not a ‘no.’”

If they do reply back, it could lead to further conversation via e-mail or a phone call. Maybe you find out more from them and realize you do not want to work with them. Bullet dodged in that case!

It can take several e-mails to get a prospect’s attention, and you may not know if your e-mail made it to their inbox or was opened. However, if you sign up for a free Who Read Me account, you can simply add “” to the end of their e-mail address to track delivery and opens.

If you don’t hear from them, then after a few days, just do a cool follow-up like, “Hey, I thought you might like this article,” or “I thought your post in such-and-such group was really interesting.” Don’t ask, “Did you get my e-mail?” It’s annoying and it sounds needy.

Remember: you’re just being a helpful professional at this point. You have something to offer. Don’t chase them.

If they read your original e-mail but didn’t reply, this may prompt them to do so. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too. Remember: Silence is not a ‘no.’

By the way, you could always switch up sending e-mails with making calls instead.

Mutual Friends = Networking Connections

I’ve talked a lot about approaching cold prospects. But what about warm prospects? A warm prospect would be someone you get introduced to through a mutual introduction. Think of it like meeting a potential romantic match through a mutual friend. In the professional sense, it would be a referral or shared connection on LinkedIn.

The benefit is that there’s already some trust established, sometimes even an endorsement, which makes starting a potential relationship easier.

First Date = Client Meeting

If you and the prospect end up connecting, they may want a meeting—just like a first date. But just like you shouldn’t go on a date and talk about yourself the whole time, focus on the client, discussing their needs and how you can help them. Think of it more as “are we a good fit for each other?”—like a date—rather than being interviewed by them.

In case you don’t know what to ask, you can download my free guide called “17 Questions You Must Ask During a Design Consultation.”

Deal Breakers

When it comes to dating, we all have our deal breakers, right? If you want to have kids and you find out on your first date that your date doesn’t want kids, what would you do? Not go on a second date, hope they change their mind or reconsider your desire to have children?

Have you ever thought about deal breakers in freelancing? If so, you may have some in mind already, but sometimes we don’t know what we don’t want until it slaps us in the face. For instance, my deal breakers are:

  • clients who don’t want to sign an agreement (hey, if things go south, that contract is your pre-nup!);
  • clients who don’t want to make a payment up front;
  • clients who show disrespect, which could be paying late, not showing up for meetings on time or rude clients;
  • clients expecting spec work (no giving away the milk for free, folks!).

There may be a time when you have to decide how much, if any, you are willing to deviate from your policies (payment terms, design rights, etc.) to accommodate certain clients. We all have different thresholds and needs to meet, so sometimes you may be more willing to put up with bad behavior.

But there is absolutely no point in doing work if you don’t get a signed contract and payment up front with new clients. If they don’t want to do that, do not proceed. Do not pass go and do not collect $200. You do not want to lay awake at night hoping you will get paid or that things will work out without a contract in place.

Dating = Working Together

After a few “dates,” that is, working with the client on a few projects, let’s say you see some undesirable behavior. Maybe they are verbally abusive, maybe they want you all to themselves and don’t respect the fact that you have other clients. Maybe they expect you to reply to them at insane hours (I mean, you’re not a heart surgeon on call, for crying out loud).

Watch for the signs and take action. If you don’t want to stay in the relationship, you can simply break up with them. You’re not locked into any commitment, so you can say it’s not a good fit.

You may even suggest they “date a friend,” meaning a colleague. But if they are a dirtbag, you don’t want your friend “dating” them either. Similarly, you don’t want to refer them to a colleague to deal with either. Send them to a service like Fiverr.

If you decide to continue the relationship, set expectations and boundaries. Just like in relationships, you sometimes have to ask for what you need. Will you only be responding during certain hours? Do you want the client to prepare text a certain way? Do you want them to stop sending images embedded in a Word document? Let them know what you want and need.

Nurturing the Relationship

Just like with personal relationships, you need to nurture your client relationships from time to time. Find out what challenges they be might be having that you could help with. For example, do they spend too much time trying to format Word documents? Create a branded template for them set up with paragraph and character styles.

But, again, a relationship takes two. So if the client goes MIA and isn’t reciprocating in the relationship, you might ask yourself: Is it me? Was it something I said? Something I did? Maybe they’re just busy, maybe they got interrupted with a bigger priority. When clients don’t communicate, though, projects can get delayed or you may not get all the information you need to do a good job to get results for them. So if they make a habit of ghosting and it becomes difficult to work with them, well, then it may be time to break up.

Marriage = Contract or Retainer

Just as with marriage or a partnership, you or the client may propose working together long term. A long-term contract or retainer agreement should cement that vow of working together. Remember, if something bad happens, that’s your pre-nup. Otherwise, designers are often the ones who take the hit, sucking up time and costs when things aren’t spelled out up front. Don’t let that happen to you.

Divorce = Firing

If things get really bad or you end up with a case of irreconcilable differences such as you decide you no longer want to to do the type of work they’ve been giving you, you can always divorce the client and part ways.


Just like with dating, there are plenty of fish in the sea, and relationships have two parties. The same applies to clients. You can find good clients who respect you, pay you well and follow your processes.

You don’t need to be everything to everyone. You don’t need to morph into someone you’re not, you don’t need to do work you dislike or don’t know how to do just to get a client. No one will end up happy—and you will be unprofitable. The point of freelancing is to make money, right? So get out there, go fish and find some potentially good matches.

Check out more episodes about clients.

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