Qualifying clients

Not enough freelancers know that projects are a two-way street. Meaning: you’ve got just as much say in what you do or don’t get hired to do as the people and businesses that offer you projects.

It sounds picky or self-centred or elitist (i.e. only for those who’ve “made it” as freelancers), but it’s not. Getting a little choosey means that you are aware of the fact that your portfolio isn’t just a record of past work, it’s a crystal ball showing the exact type of work you’ll do more of in the future.

Yes, you need to be in a place where you can turn down work. Rent needs paying, food needs eating and families need taking care of. But the pickier you are, the better you’ll be able to do all those things.

The art of picking clients is also difficult because it’s assumed if you’re in business and if a potential client is offering you money, then you’re going to say yes. But, if you’ve got integrity and the ability to make a choice, you’re going to leave money on the table sometimes. Sooner or later a client will come along that represents the opposite of everything you stand for or hold dear.


(Ok, perhaps a tad dramatic.)

In order for your freelance business to succeed, you’ve got to be able to figure out who the wrong clients are before there’s money involved.

You’ve got to develop your own client-picker.

This is a combination of science and guts (which, by the way, are proven by science to be truthful). The better your picker is, the better the projects will go and the better the outcomes will be.

Even if there’s a bit of woo-woo (also known as “feelings”) involved, there’s still a way to quantify how good a fit a client is with data. Because if you don’t quantify the strength of the fit, you’re more likely to make the wrong decision (and end up working with a bad client).

Like most parts of figuring out working for yourself, you’ve got to do a bit of introspection. In order to know if it’s a good or bad client for you, you’ve got to have some shit figured out about yourself:

Now that you’ve got a bit better understanding of the how’s and why’s of your work, you can start to quantify the makings of a good client.

It’s hard to pick the “right” clients without knowing what “right” means to each of us.

By coming up with a set of internal questions to keep score of when you’re considering taking on a new client or project, you can use data to help make your decision. You don’t share this scorecard with clients, but keep track of it privately (during calls, emails, reviewing project planners, etc), and if you’re on the fence about working with someone, let the numbers do the talking.

Here’s an example of an internal Client Evaluation scorecard

  1. [   ] Are they interested in collaborating with me?

  2. [   ] Do they trust me/my skills?

  3. [   ] Do they understand the work I do enough to value it?

  4. [   ] Will this help me grow my skills and experience?

  5. [   ] Will this help me with future sales?

  6. [   ] Do I think this business will succeed?

  7. [   ] Are they part of an audience I wish to serve?

  8. [   ] Do I have enough time to do my best work under their deadline?

  9. [   ] Are they willing and eager to pay what I charge?

  10. [   ] Are they making assumptions about how easy/quick it is to do the work?
  11. [   ] Do I understand the goals of the project?
  12. [   ] Do they understand the goals of the project?
  13. [   ] Do they understand how much work on their end is involved?
  14. [   ] Does my gut say this project is a good idea?
  15. [   ] How organized are they (written and verbal)?

15 questions total (as an example). The InDesign + PDF of this scorecard is in the Project Prescription too.

Let’s say you score each answer between 1 and 10, meaning the potential client can receive a maximum score of 150. I consider 75 and below to be a fail (and probably a bad idea to work with that person), between 76 and 113 to be a decent fit (meaning it’s likely that they’ll be a good client and the project will go well) and 114+ to be a smashing success.

Remember, these are just sample questions. Yours will be different since you have different values, personality traits and markers of good and shitty projects.

But at least now you have a relatively easy way to gauge the fit of any client that may want to work with you.

Choosing the wrong clients can mean the difference between a profitable future and wasting your time for months (or years) on work that won’t go anywhere or help you in the long run. But being choosey is a long term strategy that’s focused on having a long-lasting freelance career that’s filled with projects you enjoyed and are proud of.

Choose wisely.

PS: If you’re a designer, don’t forget to check out the Project Prescription—the cure for difficult clients.