Creating client lock-in

If you’re an established freelance designer, promoting yourself to new clients may not be your highest-priority marketing activity. Rather, your time may be best spent keeping your service relevant to your existing clients, especially if your current clients offer lucrative on-going projects.

This is the last in a series of articles adapted from the chapter introductions of The Freelance Designer’s Self-Marketing Handbook. Here we’ll look at reasons why marketing-savvy freelancers constantly adapt their business offer to stay valuable to the people that matter most.

The term ‘marketing’ is often mistakenly used to mean only ‘promotion’. In actual fact, promotion is just one type of marketing activity.

Marketing is an entire business ethic. It’s the strategy of researching what customers want, and then developing products or layers of service that respond to customer needs.

But customer needs don’t stay the same. New competitors are constantly fighting for market-share, people decide to try something new, and trends and fashions change over time. These are all factors that can influence an established customer-base to defect to another product or service.

OK, so how does this relate to freelance self-marketing? Well, quite a lot. Your business faces the same challenges. Even if you continue to demonstrate your worth with every assignment, your clients aren’t guaranteed to stay loyal to you.

Many freelancers rely on only three or four clients for the bread-and-butter of their business. So losing consistent business from just one big client can significantly affect your turnover.

There are several reasons why the phone can suddenly stop ringing.

Client wants a new approach.
Output from just one designer can feel staid after months of regular work. That’s why many clients, especially those working on marketing collateral, often decide to change their designer for a fresh injection of inspiration. They will almost certainly come back to you, but you may notice a lull in work. Avoid this by developing a list of creative contacts who can help you provide new ideas for tackling familiar briefs.

Another designer has moved into town.
Other freelancers who offer a fresh perspective can arrive on your patch at any time. Your regular clients may decide to try them out instead of hiring you. It’s tempting to think you have no control over this, but actually you do. Keep an eye on what your competitors are offering to new clients, and hone your business offer accordingly.

Clients’ design needs change.
Businesses are constantly evolving as they respond to changing international demographics. This could mean your clients move into new markets and communicate with different people with different aesthetic tastes. For example, over the last year my company has produced 75% more publicity aimed at Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese customers. That means I have to find new designers who specialize in East Asian design. Through market research, you need to keep track of your clients’ needs well in advance of sudden shifts in demand—so you have time to learn new skills or find appropriate partners.

Clients’ outsourcing needs change.
Just as your clients’ customers change over time, your clients’ organizational set-up may change. As the economy takes a turn, department personnel may change. So when the market picks up, your clients may build in-house teams and outsource less; when the market slows, in-house studios may be cut, and more aspects of a project may be outsourced to freelancers (such as copywriting, project-managing, and printing). You need to be ready to hone your skills so that your service continues to add value to your clients’ business, in good times and in bad times.
Just like other businesses, the key to success is to allocate sufficient time and effort honing your service so it remains an enticing prospect for your existing clients.

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The above article is adapted from Shaun Crowley’s new book The Freelance Designer’s Self-Marketing Handbook, available for download at

The Freelance Designer’s Self-Marketing Handbook shows you how to:

  • Develop a persuasive business offer.
  • See your best ever results from prospecting.
  • Write a hard-working website.
  • Get your business into the newspapers.
  • Build a reputation as ‘designer of choice.