TL;DR: Client experiences start long before they meet you. To give your clients an excellent experience when working with you, start by laying a path of crumbs, or positive experiences, so when you do meet, your relationship isn’t starting from square one.
Here’s a common scenario: You’re an agency or freelancer and you see an RFP or an online posting for a project. You say, “Wow, I’m a perfect fit for that!” and inquire for more information or maybe even email in a proposal. Best case scenario, you get an email with more information but the lead goes cold. Worst case scenario, they don’t even respond. But why would the lead go cold? Don’t they see your portfolio and how perfect you are for the job?
In all likelihood, your chances were incredibly low in the first place to land the project no matter how “perfect” of a match your portfolio is. The reason your chances are so poor is because your prospective client’s experience with you had started only when you emailed them. The truth is, the best client experiences start before you make contact with a prospective client for the first time.
So how do you give prospective clients an excellent experience before you have even spoken to them? There are 4 equally important parts of building this foundation online and in person in your community, and they are:
- Focus & Expertise
By building these 4 things for yourself or your agency in your community, you’re building a foundation for more prospective clients to trust you out of the gate. By proactively priming clients before that first interaction, you avoid leaving the client rapport-building efforts until your first sales call, which is a lot of work and pressure for an initial call. Building a client experience that is excellent requires client confidence and trust, and laying the groundwork ahead of time makes the transition from prospective client to client not just more seamless, but also more likely.
Agencies and freelancers who are “known” in a community are always the first to get the inquiry for new work. For example, in Boston, I know Dockyard as the Ember.js shop. Are they the only agency in Boston that are experts at Ember? No way! But if I put my “potential client” hat on, I immediately compare anyone who pitches me on Ember.js projects against Dockyard.
So why do I know Dockyard as the Ember.js shop in Boston? First, a friend mentioned Dockyard when talking about them hiring an excellent Ember.js developer he knew. Second, I was looking through developer Meetup groups and there’s a Boston Ember.js Meetup whose organizer just so happens to be the CEO of Dockyard, Brian Cardarella. And take a look at his tweets, he’s tweeting and retweeting about Ember.js, meaning that if your search term is “boston ember.js agency” in Google – you guessed it, Dockyard comes up first. That’s both physical and virtual presence in the community.
The Filament Group also has an incredibly strong presence, not mainly through Meetups however, but instead via contributions to the development community. They built the most well-known library for responsive images, picturefill, a Grunt.js task for compiling SVG icons, and also wrote the book on Responsible Responsive Design, which has been reviewed by many celebrities in the front-end developer space including Paul Irish, Laura Hogan, Chris Coyier, and Bruce Lawson. When those guys are tweeting about you, you have a pretty epic virtual presence.
Bocoup is another Boston agency whose contributions to the community make them a household name (well, for techies in Boston, at least). You’ll see Boucoup at both conferences around the world and in their contributions to widely known and widely used open source projects like jQuery, Backbone, Ember, Angular, Node, to name a few. They’re also the creators of Grunt.js, the task runner I use on every one of my projects. Bocoup also runs training courses and hosts Meetups. Their presence is impressive and expansive.
You may be saying that as a sole freelancer or small agency you can’t compare or compete with the presences of Dockyard, Bocoup, and The Filament Group. Right now, maybe not. However, these agencies started from somewhere (likely where you are now), so use them as models for the ways you can grow your presence. Even if your presence is solely virtual, you can be a thought leader and collaborator via blogging, Twitter, and open source projects. This presence will be what gets you to front-of-mind with prospective clients and others in your community.
A consistent presence will contribute to your reputation, but so will the work that you do, and the testimonials that you acquire. Do your portfolio pieces speak for themselves? Do they ring with success and glowing reviews from clients?
In addition to having a portfolio, one of the most popular ways to build a reputation is to have case studies. Case studies are like portfolio pieces in the sense that an agency or freelancer is often showing off client work that they’ve done. However, the differentiating factor of case studies is often a qualitative or quantitative review of the processes and results of the project. For example, BEAM, a Boston-based interactive marketing and experience design agency, did a case study for their MINI campaign. In addition to showing image highlights of the project, they also explained the intent of the project and deliverables as well as the result: awards, recognition from media outlets, and improved conversion rates for MINI. As a result, BEAM’s reputation is padded with a big win for their MINI project.
Another reputation builder is to share as much as you sell. Thoughtbot, a Boston-based Rails agency turned mega agency (a bit of everything it seems!), seems to give away as many resources as it sells in its consulting work. Resources include the notorious Playbook, numerous Podcasts, Bourbon mixin library for Sass, and the Laptop shell script for setting up a development environment instantly on your machine. Thoughtbot is constantly providing and maintaining open source materials and tools for developers, designers and other agencies and therefore remaining in view on a daily basis for everyone in the community. Their thought leadership isn’t only in free materials or at their hefty consulting rates though – they have plenty of books for under $50 for you too.
Reputation is the toughest to nail down on this list, and despite the amazing reputations of BEAM and Thoughtbot, this was only a very small peek into ways of building a reputation, because a reputation is something you earn from consistency, hard work, and producing results for clients. No good reputation was built overnight.
Focus & Expertise
Expressing your expertise is very straightforward. You need to identify who you are, what you do well, and what you’re an expert at. Actually, it’s equally as important to identify some of the skills associated with your expertise as it is to admit to yourself the skills in which you don’t excel
An example of this is for people not well versed in “web talk” who use “web developer” and “web designer” interchangeably. When I was doing consulting work as a web developer and someone asked if I was a web designer, I’d politely correct them that I was not a designer. I’m a great front-end developer, but I’m a terrible visual designer. Yes, I am also good a UX work, but put me in Photoshop and ask me to design a button and I’m useless. Put me in CSS and I’ll give you 100 buttons in 5 minutes with 30 different attributes. I knew what I was good at when solely a developer, and just as importantly I also knew what I wasn’t good at.
Same goes for agencies. Agencies don’t just have the tagline, “we’re a web agency”. That’s too generic and doesn’t help prospective clients understand differentiate agencies when looking for particular types of contractors. In Boston alone I can name a whole bunch of specialized agencies:
- Rails: Thoughtbot
- Ember.js: Dockyard
- Interactive design: Fresh Tilled Soil
- Mobile apps: Raizlabs
- Publications design: Upstatement
- Advertising, Branding, Digital, Public Relations: Leap
It’s not that these agencies don’t have overlap, because I’m sure several of them compete consistently for large projects. However, with their core competencies highlighted so clearly via their reputations and community presences, if you’re looking to redesign a digital publications site, for example, you already know who your front-runner should be: Upstatement.
“Brand is the sum total of how someone perceives a particular organization. Branding is about shaping that perception.” – Ashley Friedlein, CEO of EConsultancy
Ashley Friedlein’s point is excellent – branding is about shaping the perception of people looking at your organization; so if you’re going shape that perception, know what you want to shape it into.
- Decide how you want your clients to perceive you. What feeling should they get when they think of you?
- Simplify your answer. Do you want them to trust your expertise? Do you want them to think of you as the ultimate digital creative agency? Do you want them to believe you’ll increase their ROI by X?
Once you know what you want to shape perception into, use messaging and style to achieve that goal.
What’s your agency’s or personal tagline? Do you know it by heart? Is the sentiment it instills carried throughout your website and blog posts and tweets? Does all your work back it up?
Messaging is not easy, I don’t claim to be a messaging expert. What I do know is that the most efficient way to communicate your message is to always say what you mean. “We want to make our clients successful” is a bland statement. It’s not untrue, but it’s not what you really mean. But if you’re focused on maximizing ROI for a client what you really mean is, “We want to make every investment in our projects a 10x ROI for our clients”. Imagine the difference in a prospective client’s reaction to hearing those two messages.
Like messaging, style is a whole other rabbit hole we could be going down for ages. I’ll keep it light for this post, but know that style isn’t just your logo and website design and the choice of color you make. Your style should be expressed through messaging, client work, work environment and testimonials as well. Analogously, personal style isn’t just the clothing one wears, but also the way they walk, talk, express ideas, think about the world. So like messaging, decide how you’d define your style and then remember that everything you do and say to either reinforce or refute that style.
Often, people will only remember you for one thing. Branding gives you the ability to influence what that one thing may be. So are you doing everything you can to influence their memory of you?
Notice how I barely mentioned clients in this post? It was intentional, because the truth is most agencies and freelancers don’t know who their next prospective clients will be. Prospective clients reveal projects in need of services when they come up and the best way for service providers to be competitive in the hunt for these new projects is to lay the groundwork ahead of time. If the groundwork is laid then they’re more likely to be forefront of the prospective client’s mind when the time comes.
Agencies and freelancers can do this by first creating a presence and a reputation in the community (both virtual and physical). Second, they need to be very clear with themselves and others about what their core expertise are (and aren’t!). And finally, agencies and freelancers need to use branding to express, reinforce, and shape the perception of these prospective clients proactively.
It’s never too early to start laying the groundwork for future clients. Building a presence, reputation, expertise, and brand takes time and if you’re trying to build any of these for a current project, you’re already too late.
However, if you haven’t been doing these things, these ideas should be your priority jumping off point for future projects. Best of luck as you begin to establish your foundational building blocks of a proactive, prospective client experience. This approach is the key to landing more clients and setting up your projects for a more seamless transition from “prospective” to “current” client.