“Money isn’t everything” when it comes to retaining design firm clients

How Professional Graphic Designers Retain Clients

Yes, it’s a tired cliché. But not too tired to still be appropriate in certain situations, such as client relationships. Maybe at the beginning of a relationship with a client, money–your fee–was the key to getting that first project. Along, of course, with your portfolio and the quality of your work.

Later, other considerations may have come into play: do you deliver on time, are you easy or difficult to work with; are you consistent, dependable, flexible.

Often when I’m asked how long I’ve been married, the person asking the question will react to the answer with something like, “wow! That’s terrific.”  Like it’s an amazing achievement.  When I’m asked the same question about how long I’ve had a particular graphic design client, and I answer ten years, or 20 years, I’ll get a similar reaction. “Wow, That’s terrific.” And they’ll want to know how I’ve done it.

Client’s are people. Really! So many of the same considerations and issues that we deal with on an interpersonal level, are often at play in developing and maintaining business relationships.

For example, commitment matters. And understanding. A commitment to understand the needs of the client. To listen and to respond with solutions that are appropriate for the client and their audiences. Your client may have certain expectations about what you bring to the table. If they are narrow, it’s your job to broaden those expectations. You need to establish yourself as their trusted advisor and problem solver, not narrowly as their graphic and web designer.

You’ve probably participated in those surveys at the end of a phone call to customer service or tech support. Among the questions often asked is, did the representative take “ownership” of your problem?  Did they appear to care about your problem? Did they address it like it was their problem as well?

When you can answer yes, it feels good. You get a sense of relief that this problem will be taken care of. You feel that you’re in good hands.

To achieve this with a client you have to understand their business and their brand. Know what makes the company or the particular person you deal with, click. It’s not something they offer up voluntarily. They’re not necessarily withholding anything. But because you’re seen by them in terms of how you define yourself and your capabilities and services, they will only give you what they think you need.  It’s your job to change their perception of you and your value to them.

To do that you’ve got to look behind the curtain. Do the research.  Look into their history, their accomplishments, even their failures and their struggles. Yes, Google them. Look for news about their brand. How are they seen by their peers?  To quote the late Yogi Berra, “you can see a lot by just looking.”

With this knowledge you can take ownership of their problem. The client may be asking you to complete a specific task…create a website, produce a brochure. But you have to look behind the specifics to the purpose or objective. Share your observations and thinking. Of course, this isn’t something you can do right out of the box. Like any relationship, it develops overtime. But even early on, instead of addressing something as a “project” or an “assignment,” see it as a problem that needs to be solved.

As a problem solver you become a resource.  You have value beyond the single project or task. When you view a “project” as a solution to a problem, you can offer more creative solutions. The client may be asking for a brochure, but you know that they would be better served by something else, i.e. a brand refresh, new smartphone friendly web design or more engaging presentation design.  You might even recommend a totally different medium from another source. In the process you’re building trust and a relationship.  It becomes apparent that you’re acting in the client’s interest, not just in your own self-interest.

This is an ongoing and changing process that’s continually being revised and refined because you and the client are evolving.  Again, like any relationship it’s not static. But by being responsive, flexible and understanding, it can go beyond just one or a couple of interactions…projects…but instead evolve into an enduring, long term, mutually beneficial and valuable business relationship.

About the author: Tom Weinkle is a founder and partner of Vortex Communications, a graphic and website design firm who offers brand agency services, graphic and WordPress web design, build, troubleshooting and training services along with search optimization, social media and inbound marketing services. Based in Miami, Florida, Tom has over 25 years of experience in branding and visual communications for the healthcare, medical, law, accounting, software, financial services and banking industries.

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