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Episode #4: Stop Trying to Compete With Fiverr

Learn How to Set Yourself Apart From Other Designers

Why should a client hire you when they can pay $50 to Fiverr or 99Designs, or set up a Wix, Weebly or Squarespace site themselves? Instead of being livid about what these commoditized services have done to the industry, take advantage of what they’re not offering and what they don’t do well, so you can get taken more seriously and command the fees you deserve.


Show Notes

Additional Resource

WordPress consultants: this is not mentioned in this podcast but this is a must-see.


I’m going to talk about how to set yourself apart from commoditized design services and other designers, so you can position yourself as an expert and not an order taker.

From talking with aspiring designers who want to work for themselves or who already are, I know many of you perceive commoditized design services such as Fiverr and 99Designs for logo and print design, and DIY web services such as Wix, Weebly and Squarespace to be a huge threat to your ability to make a living as a logo designer, print designer or website designer. Potential clients go running to use those services, not yours, because they’re cheaper or because they’re supposedly so easy for them to use.

So why should a client hire you when they can pay $50 for a logo or other design work? You must have the answer to this question and be able to explain it to your prospect, or they will put you in the same box as those other services. I’m not a minister, but I gotta preach! Get ready for some tough love about how you can answer this question and how can you get taken more seriously, so you can command higher fees. First…

Stop competing on price!

When the focus is on pricing, there is always someone willing to do it cheaper. You know what? Let them! Do you want to build a career chasing money, or do you want to build a profitable business for yourself?

Just as some people are perfectly happy paying $40 for filet mignon, some clients are happy to pay a premium rate for premium services. There is a correlation between the rate and the type of client you attract.

A lot of clients believe that you get what you pay for. But clients who’re looking for cheap services and not focusing on the impact those will have on their business don’t understand the value of a good logo, branding or website. They think it’s just about creating something “pretty” and that the difference between them doing it or you doing it is that you have software to do it. They don’t understand that it’s not just a design, but an investment in their business, something that will produce results for them.

If they don’t understand that, you may or may not be able to convince them. That’s ok, because if they still don’t understand, they usually end up being a crappy client. They will try to tell you how to design (I mean, if they’re the expert, why aren’t they doing the work, right?!). They might be rude or condescending. Heck! They might even claim they aren’t happy with the end result and fight you on the invoice, trying to get a discount or get out of paying. If they don’t want to invest in their own business, that shouldn’t become your problem! So let it be someone else’s. In other words, it can be a great way to weed out potentially bad clients.

Pricing your services too low can be a red flag to a potential client. Years ago, when I was just starting out on my own, I submitted a proposal to a prospect, and mine was among several from larger design firms. My business was smaller and had lower overhead costs, so I could be more profitable at a lower rate. Plus, I honestly did not know what anyone else was charging for any type of work at that time. However, because the pricing from those other firms was pretty similar and mine was much lower, the prospect did not choose me—and that was the reason given. Their perception—although completely inaccurate—was that the quality of my work must not be as good and that I must not have understood all of the work that was involved. It didn’t matter to them that I could knock it out of the park for that fee or that my overhead costs were lower.

Focus on value.

When a potential or existing client comes to you, they are asking for a logo, a brochure, a website or something else. In other words, they are asking for a tangible or digital product, right? Wrong! That’s not actually what they need. What they’re really asking for is something much deeper:

  • to look more professional, so they can be taken seriously by potential clients, sponsors or investors;
  • to convince potential customers or clients to buy a product or use their service;
  • to attract new people to sign up for a mailing list on their website, so they can market to them later and try to earn their business.

Find out the deeper need and the results they’re trying to achieve.

Understand the client’s business.

What do you offer that those services and most other designers don’t? Whether you’re designing a logo or providing print or website design, you’re not providing designs off an assembly line or acting as an order taker at a fast food joint. You’re a consultant; you’re an expert. So act like it! Get to know your client’s business. Do your research in that industry. Have a phone, video or in-person consultation and ask questions such as the following:

  • What does your company/organization do? What services or products do you offer?
  • What are your main goals with this project? (i.e., to appear more professional, to show a change in direction for the company, to change what people currently think about you, etc.)
  • Who is your ideal client or customer? What job title do they hold? How old are they? What gender are they? Where do they hang out online? What are their interests?
  • How do you want them to feel when they interact with your brand? (i.e., safe and secure, edgy and excited, exclusive and cool, etc.)
  • Who are your competitors in this space? What are they doing that you think is working?
  • What is your budget or expectation of cost? (There may or may not be a solution you can provide within their budget, but you’ll find out up front, which means you won’t waste time putting together a proposal and chasing work if it’s not possible.)

If you’re not asking these types of questions, then how can you create a solution? Remember, design is a visual way to solve a problem. You have to understand the problem before you can provide a solution. In his article “Crowdsourcing: An Irreversible Movement,” David C. Baker said that clients see little value in design and instead value problem-solving, that design is seen as a means to an end.

So, listen: clients only care about what the work you do for them will do for them! It doesn’t matter how good a design is if it doesn’t resonate with the client’s audience and solve their problem, meaning get results for them. Help the client understand how your design choices relate to their audience and their goals. When you go to provide an estimate, don’t just provide a simple estimate. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a full-fledged proposal, but I recommend including the benefits the client will get from the work you will be doing. This all comes from the answers they give you to the questions I mentioned. For example, with website work, instead of stating:

Website design: $_____

Make site mobile-friendly: $_____

Address security issues: $_____

Address speed issues: $_____

… you would say:

Create a new website design that attracts your target audience: $_____

Modify site to be mobile-friendly for ease of use by people on a phone and for better search engine rank by Google: $_____

Address security issues to help prevent the site from getting hacked and taken down by the web host: $_____

Address speed issues so that visitors don’t get frustrated and leave: $_____

Focus on quality, not quantity.

Some clients may like companies like Fiverr or 99Designs because they get a lot of designs or unlimited revisions, etc. They think it’s better to see more designs than fewer. Eye roll. Um, no. This is an incorrect perception—that they’re getting more for their money, that quantity is more important than quality. If they have to see that many designs, therein lies a big problem! The designer didn’t understand the target customer or client, or the designer didn’t understand the client’s business, so they didn’t take the appropriate direction in the first place. Or the client just has no idea what they wanted and really doesn’t understand their own target audience.

I’ve actually gotten clients because of these types of services. Many times, I’ve been contacted by potential clients who have already tried these types of services and were not only not happy with the results but super frustrated—with time lost, money spent, poor designs to choose from, the designer just didn’t get it, etc.

This can actually make selling your design services easier!

Provide better deliverables.

Sometimes people who use these other services are satisfied—until:

  • the client goes to send files to a printer, and the printer informs them that the files are not the proper type or of high enough resolution.
  • the logo needs to be scaled up or used in one color for an embroidered shirt but because the designer created the logo in Photoshop—and with a lot of special effects—it renders it useless in situations like these.
  • the client gets a cease-and-desist letter from or, even worse, sued for infringement by a company with a similar logo design but different name, or by a stock image company as a result of the designer illegally using a stock icon. That could mean a license wasn’t purchased, or that a license was purchased but the designer wasn’t allowed to use it in a logo design. In these cases, the logo ends up costing the client much more money than they initially spent on the logo design—plus, quite possibly, their reputation. Now, having said that, it’s not your job to pay an attorney to do a search to make sure your design work isn’t infringing on the rights of another company. The client can do that if they like. But you should do some due diligence and make a good-faith effort to not create something in the likeness of someone else’s work.
  • the client gets a shiny new WordPress website from the designer that they have no idea how to use, or a Wix website that isn’t ranking well with search engines.

These are only a few examples of real-life situations where the clients are left to fend for themselves, they have existing needs not being met or new ones to be addressed, problems to be solved… These are opportunities for you to provide better deliverables. If you already know how to properly provide the deliverables for the type of work, this is a slam dunk. If not, then…

When you create a logo…

  • Include a brand guide (even if small) that details a list of the files and when and how to use them, as well as business card and envelope design. Check out episode 2 of my podcast on 10 logo design mistakes to avoid for how to create the brand guide and files and what to include.
  • For an additional fee, add on other deliverables that will add value to the client by helping them achieve their goals—and be sure to explain the benefits of what you’re providing. For example, you could provide Word and PowerPoint templates already set up with their brand colors and fonts, which saves them time when they go to add their content, and they will appear more professional to their audience.

When you design a brochure or publication…

Consult with the client about how the work be used: print only, on a website, a file distributed via e-mail? What do you have to consider as a result?

  • If it’s for print, make sure you select an appropriate paper choice based on the thickness of the publication and its shelf life, understand how ink colors can shift on various paper stocks, know how to set your file up properly for any folds, etc. (I cover a lot of these details and more in episode 3 of my podcast, Perfect Your Print Process, so I won’t go into too much detail here.)
  • If it’s a digital file for a website, find out if it also needs to be accessible to people with disabilities. That may be a legal requirement for them to adhere to, especially if they are a government or nonprofit organization getting funding from the U.S. government. Accessibility work will be an additional cost if you are not trained in this area and it’s not part of your normal work process, as it will require that the work be done by an accessibility consultant. If the publication has multiple sections, make it easier for the reader to find information by providing your client with a PDF that is set to open with bookmarks to various sections. You create the bookmarks in your page layout program or add them later in Acrobat. To do this in InDesign, you would highlight the name of the section to be bookmarked, go to the Bookmarks panel, click in the upper right and select New Bookmark. After that, simply open the document in Acrobat and go to File > Properties > Initial View, change the Navigation Tab to Bookmarks Panel and Page, and hit Save. When the document is re-opened, it will show you the bookmarks as clickable sections that the reader can click on and skip around.
  • If the file will be e-mailed, then file size will be a consideration, unless the client will be including a link in an e-mail, as opposed to the file itself. So you want to make sure that’s an optimized file, not a 20MB print file.

When you design a website…

Now, with web design, you may ask yourself what’s different about what you can offer vs Wix, Weebly and Squarespace—even WordPress. Well, a lot! You’re providing a customized service. You’re learning about the client’s needs and providing the actual service, the work. I hear all the time, “But anyone can do a Google search and find out how to create a website!” Yeah, but what’s your point? Some clients may be capable of working in one of those platforms but that doesn’t mean they want to or have the time. It also doesn’t make them a designer anymore than Quickbooks makes me an accountant.

Your service provides expertise, convenience and time savings for them—and that is worth something. The client needs an expert to help them with a professional design, figure out what content goes where, the best plugins to use to achieve their needs, how to integrate their e-mail newsletter service with their website, how to set up their backups, and so on. Christina Hawkins of Global Spex wrote a fantastic in-depth article about this called “Website Builders vs. Website Consultants.”

If the client has an existing website and it’s in WordPress, you can offer a free or paid audit of their website to identify technical issues—with WordPress, the theme, plugins, security, search engine optimization, speed, etc.—or nontechnical issues such as improper formatting of headings. I really like a service called My Web Audit for this because it saves so much time as opposed to doing it all manually, and you can add in your own custom points that you manually check for. I added in an entire section to our audits about website accessibility, so I can demonstrate to a client that their site cannot be properly navigated by blind visitors using screen readers, or visitors who have limited use of their right hand and need to use an assistive device instead of a mouse.

Plus, putting up a website does not mean they will come—or stay. There is a lot more to do, which may involve search engine optimization, image optimization, security, etc., to make sure the website works as a marketing tool, bringing in new visitors, loading quickly so they don’t leave, and staying secure so it doesn’t get hacked and taken down by the host.

Position yourself as a professional.

You want to be seen as an expert, so you’ve got to show it! Do you want to be the McDonalds of the design industry (that’s fine if you choose to do that and can be profitable), or do you want to be the Spago of the design industry? Each serves a different client, just as these other services do. Make sure the way you position yourself—the way you want to be perceived—attracts the type of client you want or plan to go fishing for.

Your title

Do you call yourself a “freelancer”, a “freelance designer”? Something else? There’s nothing wrong with being a freelancer, but let’s face it: “freelancer” has evolved to have a negative connotation. In general, people have come to think of a “freelancer” as being cheaper, providing lower-quality services, sleeping until the afternoon, working whenever they want, wearing pajamas… well, wait, that part is actually true! Why not call yourself a “designer and business owner” instead?

Your website and portfolio

Your website is part of your positioning and tells a story about you. Often, your website is how someone first encounters your business, so make sure it leaves a positive impression. Remember: you only have a few seconds to make a first impression, so you want to be sure it’s a good one.

Do some branding work for yourself, just as you would for a client: a professional logo design, professional-looking website with contact information featured prominently and a contact form. And, yes, I know what they say about doctors being their own worst patients… So if you find it hard to do for yourself, trade services with a colleague to get it done.

While it may be free and easy to have your portfolio on Behance, instead invest a few bucks in a branded domain name and hosting—and, for crying out loud, please use your brand e-mail address, not a Gmail or Yahoo one!

Unless you’re just getting started and don’t have a lot of work, it’s a good idea to show only your best work and the type of work you want to do on your website, along with some case studies that provide information about what the client’s problem was (and I don’t mean an attitude problem, but, again, the problem they came to you with, the reason for the design), how you solved it (meaning, how you approached it) and then the results. So follow up after the project has been completed and ask.

For instance, here’s what I have on my website about a logo and website redesign for a nonprofit.

I have large, clear images of the work as mockups, so the work can be viewed in its actual form. So if it was printed and it folds, you can see that. If it’s a website, you can see it on a monitor, tablet and phone, but you can also see full-page screenshots.

I provide the background—that this client is a nonprofit organization that facilitates the rescue of animals from county shelters in North Carolina to other parts of the country.

I state the problem:

Problem: The website was not mobile friendly, so it wasn’t showing up in Google mobile search results. There were many broken links to pages and images, and it was not easy to find important information quickly. It also had a dated design and lacked calls to action. The branding was inconsistent: one logo was used on the website, while a different one was used on social media. The logo was in need of an updated look without a complete redesign. The only logo files that were available were web quality; therefore, the logo did not produce well in print such as in brochures or shirts.

I describe the solution and result:

Solution: We created a mobile-friendly website design with less content (which we helped curate), restructuring the navigation in the process. We used their existing brand colors and refreshed the logo design, giving them both a playful feel. On the website, we used icons to visually show how each donation is used, making it easy for visitors to donate a preset amount or one of their choice. As a result, donations increased 33% in the first three months.

I polished it off with a testimonial from the client.

By the way, I also redesigned that particular website free of charge because of my passion to save shelter animals, so I noted that on the page as well. You never know, the fact that you did some good will could appeal to a client (although that’s not why you do it but just why you state it on the page) or a client might identify with the same cause.

Finally, clients aren’t going to take you seriously or pay you higher fees if your website has spelling errors or is sloppily put together. If you’re not good at proofreading, ask someone else to help. That’s a good idea anyway, especially if you’ve been looking at your site over and over, because you might miss something.

Your processes

Your processes also help with how you are perceived as a professional—or not. To get taken more seriously, have processes in place from the time a potential client contacts you to after you provide the deliverables. All of this will make you look more professional and help elevate their perception of you. Plus, it can help alleviate a potential client’s skepticism of working with a designer after having a poor experience elsewhere.

In the beginning, you will ask prospective clients the questions I went over earlier. You’ll still ask some of these questions to existing clients when working on new projects, so you can understand the goals they want to achieve.

You’ll provide an estimate or proposal with the benefits of the work you will be doing, as I mentioned earlier. After you’ve sent that to a prospective client, whatever you do, don’t get antsy and send nagging e-mails: “Did you get my e-mail?” “Have you had a chance to review my proposal?” “Do you have any questions?” No, no, no! How annoying would that sound to you if you were on the receiving end, right? Plus, it makes you appear to be in need of work, as opposed to a professional who’s in demand.

Instead, wait a few days and send out an e-mail with a link to a relevant article (from your blog or another) that might be interesting to them. For example, I recently sent a proposal for a logo design and publication design. After a few business days, I sent an e-mail with a link to an article about professional logo design and what to look for. The prospect thanked me. After a few more business days, I hadn’t heard anything else, so I sent an e-mail about preparing copy for a publication, some do’s and don’ts. Again, the prospect thanked me. Still not hearing anything more, I sent another e-mail a few business days later, showing a logo design we had just completed. I provided some helpful information, I didn’t bother her, and she was reminded of the company every time she got one of those e-mails.

When someone decides to work with you, send them a contract for the work, specifying they pay 50% (or other mutually agreed-upon amount up front), with the final payment due before sending the client the deliverables. Never start any work without a contract in place. It doesn’t have to be for every subsequent job. But you need something in writing that spells out the scope of work (how many designs, how many rounds of revisions), the rights they get, the deadline, the rate and the cost for any work that exceeds it. Also specify who will pay for any stock or custom images, printing, fonts, etc. If there will be any rush, overtime or weekend fees, spell those out too. If you have a minimum job fee, put that in there too for future reference.

Only after getting a signed contract should you start work. Once you have that and payment—let me rephrase that: when payment clears—let the client know what to expect, what you are going to do next: present 2 logo, cover or home page designs, for example, from which they will pick one and give you feedback? OK, and by what approximate date? How do you prefer to get feedback? A PDF with sticky notes? Sure. A Word document showing tracked changes? Um, maybe. A new Word document where you have to redo all the text? Heck no! So let them know. Anticipate questions—and address them—before they ask them.

Your communications

Keep regular business hours and don’t respond to clients outside of them unless you’re being paid to do so. Don’t respond to e-mails immediately even during your business hours. It trains the client to think you are always there, as if you have no other clients and are waiting around to hear from them. I’ve had the unfortunate task of having to untrain clients from this. After years of responding within minutes to e-mails, an hour might go by and I’d get an e-mail or call asking, “Did you get my e-mail?” So, trust me, don’t go that route. It’s annoying, and it’s stressful.

Your expertise

Enhance your skills every chance you get on an ongoing basis. It helps you become more better and more efficient, and that is beneficial to the client. Of course, always check your work; don’t be sloppy!

Don’t take for granted what you may know that the client doesn’t know:

  • You have connections to good vendors: hosting companies, printers, etc.
  • You know what image formats and sizes to use.
  • You know what makes a good image and where to find images they can legally use.
  • You know how to properly name web pages and image files for accessibility and better SEO.
  • You know how many characters a good meta description should have.
  • You help the client understand if they need to add more content or if they have too much.

You provide more expertise than you think.

Conclusion

I hope you now understand what you offer and how it’s different from what those other services offer—that you’re not just designing a logo, just designing a brochure or just designing a website. You’ll not only set yourself apart from those services but from many other designers who aren’t taking these steps.

Want to get a competitive edge over other logo designers?

Find out how.

4 comments

  • I just would like to say thanks for all the information you provide! As I have just started my design business it can feel at times like drifting in an ocean of information with no compass. This blog helps to give me a sense of direction and forces me to consider details I would probably have overlooked,

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