I don’t know about you but I check out my competition regularly. I also check out the bigger agencies in my space and over the years I have wondered how I could get to their level and present my company like an agency.
Over time I have realised that some simple steps have helped me (and now you!) achieve this goal.
First I think most of us think big is good when in fact it isn’t always. Large agencies like any other business have identical problems to you. They need to make payroll, fill their pipeline with profitable work and make sure that their costs do not exceed their expenses.
Large agencies and any other type of business have identical problems to you.
It took me an several years to bring my company to where it operates like an agency, but without the baggage of an agency. Here is what I did and still do to provide agency level service to my clients. Interestingly little of it is down to creating amazing designs.
I presume you consider yourself to be a professional. When I started out I must confess the quality of materials and consistency of how I dealt with customers was often inconsistent.
Developing a consistent repeatable process for onboarding clients is something that you should ruthlessly work on.
The first of these is how you answer queries and provide quotes and proposals.
If email is how you mostly get inquiries then think seriously about developing an autoresponder to your emails. If you are not a fan of auto responders then consistent cookie cutter reply each time. When you are contacted then make sure this personable, friendly email is received right away.
I can’t keep track of how many customers we get purely they never got any reply. Having an auto responder or immediate style reply makes sure they feel engaged and you have started the process with them.
If you have collected their phone number then call them within 24 hours. I often call within 30 minutes of receipt. Responding quickly does not make you look needy it makes you look professional.
Having had a conversation or even an email trail, it is then incumbent on you to deliver a proposal to them outlining what you are going to deliver.
A lot of us use Word to develop our proposals. I abandoned Word several years ago. Word sucks for creating proposals. I now use two methods for onboarding clients.
First I use Bidsketch a tool for creating proposals. There are several cloud based tools like this for creating proposals really easily and quickly. I am not sure about you but 80% of what I deliver is pretty much the same for the 2-3 different types of offerings I deliver (website design, eCommerce or design).
All of these tools allow you to create proposals using boilerplate text that you can customise to your needs. Bidsketch also has a killer feature that emails you when your client opens the proposal. How cool is that! So when they open it, I get notified and and I send an email soon after asking if they have any questions.
Secondly I have a designed brochure which shows my onboarding process, timeline and some testimonials. I use this as a follow up to reinforce how I work and to showcase the team. Even though a lot of this information may be on your site already it helps to put it in an easiuly readable package and continues the engagement process at the same time
All of the above may seem like a ton of work but once you put it in place you will reduce the amount of time you spend working to get customers by a 30-40% percentage.
You should never ever ever ever start a project without a deposit. I always joke (with a slightly bitter smile) about how I could buy a new car with the amount of projects that I started and never got paid for when I started out as a business.
When people pay a deposit they see that the project has started
I typically look for a 30-50% deposit for projects (depending on the scope of the project). I then stagger these payments over the rest of the project. When people pay a deposit they see that the project has started and there is a payment schedule.
When I look back at why I didn’t get paid in the early days I now realise that providing work without getting a deposit gives the impression that you are just doing the work for free and and that the project isn’t real or live.
Tagging along with getting paid you need to immediately get an invoicing package. If you are using Excel or some spreadsheet package then this is again time consuming and woefully inadequate for sending out professional branded invoices. Again there are tools like Freshbooks that can really help here and reduce the amount of time you need spend messing with the Excel to create invoices.
Sending prompt invoices needs to be a huge part of your weekly process. Don’t be afraid to hit send with an invoice, these packages will make it easy and your clients will realise that you are a real business and not a guy wearing flip flops in Starbucks. If you do work from Starbucks then using these tools will help anyway!
If you want to get agency level work then I am 100% sure that you can’t do it all yourself. You need to spend time chasing prospects, managing customers (see more on this below), marketing and project managing existing clients.
I used to spend a ton of hours struggling with getting even the most basic of designs right before moving to development. It was a lot of fun but when I mapped the hours spent to what I was getting paid I realised that it was often a loss making exercise.
About 4 years ago I reached out to a number of designers to start helping me with design and it transformed the quality of what we were producing. I now have a virtual team of 3 designers I use all the time. I rarely open Photoshop these days as I use these guys all the time now for design. The quality of what we have produced since has soared and I can now charge more for the higher quality of end product.
The quality of what we have produced since has soared
I can now take on more projects and don’t spend hours sweating over stuff that the design guys can do in an hour. You may love what you do; design, web development, or whatever but if you want more customers then you need to allocate time for sales, networking, and meetings. If you are bent over a task all day you will find it practically impossible to grow.
I am not suggesting hiring anyone. Reach out to a counterpart in your niche and suggest partnering for your next project. You do the dev they do the design. Agree a rate and price your proposal accordingly.
I have had guys on the team working practically full time for the past 3 years and the results have been great. I can bill a little more as our quality of design is far higher and I can turn more projects.
The idea that agencies have a hose pipe of new customers pouring in is more of a pipe dream than reality. I had a great conversation with an agency owner recently and when I asked him where most of his work came from he told me that it came from his existing client base.
You should allocate time every week to reach out to two or three of your existing clients
As freelancers we tend to deliver projects and move onto the next prospect. This is a mistake. You should allocate time every week to reach out to two or three of your existing clients. It can be a call (I recommend this) or an email. Meet for a coffee. Don’t use the time to sell, in fact avoid this.
Keeping in your customers minds means that they will either think of you for new projects or refer you to others. A large percentage of our work comes from existing customers from just using this method.
I call this section the magic as I am not sure what you do specifically. But one of the huge misconceptions that I now understand is that the people doing the best work don’t always make the most money. That agency you dream to be may do amazing work but they also do good enough work for tons of clients.
Concentrate on delivering just enough to your clients
If you are to take any piece of advice from this article in growing your customer base it is to concentrate on delivering just enough to your clients. Sure make it’s high quality and portfolio quality but please don’t over deliver, please don’t add in nice to haves, please deliver what you said you would and nothing more.
The biggest misunderstanding and mistake I used to make was that my customers in the initial years wanted a design and development masterpiece. This is far from the case. They usually want form and function that looked well.
You may argue that you should do your utmost to deliver best in class. Well I tend to disagree with this. Yes deliver a great piece of work. But if you want to get more work from this project then your focus should be on great communication with your client, excellent project management and keeping in touch post project.
You will rarely if ever hear your customer say
“Wow what an amazing color choice and look at how amazing the CSS is”
You are more likely to hear from a friend associate of their calling you to say
“John gave me your number and was very happy with the project you did with him”
Your new thought process when you wake up in the morning should be asking yourself the following questions.
Then get doing the pretty stuff.