How to Design a Client Intake Process that Works for You

How to Design a Client Intake Process that Works for You

In this post, I’m sharing some of my practices, and will offer up some questions to help you figure out what works best for you.

So you’re a designer and you’re open for freelance commissions. Hooray! 

Where bigger agencies have their sales people to take care of vetting all incoming inquiries and establishing relationships, you’re probably going to be on your own and wearing many hats. You have to be the client’s friend, their professional advisor, and also the person who chases them to pay (which in some cases means you have to be bad cop and good cop at the same time). 

Full disclosure, about 80-90 % of my business is currently made up of teaching online and in live workshops, offering products on online market places and my website, and doing projects with and for friends. The remaining 10-20 % are inquiries from strangers on the internet, i.e. people who may have seen something they liked on my Insta feed.

I get an email

The conversation usually begins with an email in my inbox saying something like “hello, we’ve seen your stuff online and we like it, would you be interested in doing some creative work for us?” I don’t use standardized email responses (yet), and my initial reply is usually along the lines of “thank you for reaching out, I’d love to learn more. When would you be available for a chat?” 

Most people are just looking for a number, à la “I need a logo, how much is it?” It would be easiest to shoot back “1 million dollars” and see what happens, but not everyone has that sense of humor. 

Most of the freelance / entrepreneurial advice I’ve been reading is geared towards establishing six-figure coaching businesses, and a lot of marketers recommend monetizing on every client interaction you might have. When I was still coaching, I didn’t offer a free consultation, because I felt that the first conversation where you talk about the issues to be worked out and the goals to be achieved is, in fact, very much part of the process and should be remunerated accordingly. 

However, running a creative business, I’m not so sure how to bake that in, and as a consequence, all email and/or phone conversations prior to signing the agreement are without pay, and serve to understand the project and figure out if we’re a good fit. 

We set up a call

I decided that part of the “brand experience” I want my clients to have when working with me is that they feel heard, supported, encouraged, and empowered. I love the conversations, and I spend a long time to make sure every email comes from a place of empathy and professionalism. I’ve gone to great lengths to explain my process and provide context to each individual, in the hope they understands how seriously I will be taking their project, that it’s in good hands, and worth every penny of the investment. 

Unfortunately, taking 45 minutes to write one paragraph just so really isn’t efficient, especially since my efforts don’t actually translate into paying clients 100 % of the time (more like 50/50 at this point). Going forward, I will obviously have to make adjustments if I want to improve my profitability. 

Questions we cover

In an effort to save time at the front-end, this is the contact form I use on my website. It covers

  • Type of Project
  • Reference material
  • Timeline
  • Budget

(Not everyone fills it out, most just send an email inquiry, and at that point, I don’t send them to the form, but schedule a call.) The items cover all necessary basic information, and I’ll expand with more questions about logistics, details of the style and deliverables etc. during our call and subsequent emails. 

Next Steps

During this intake process, I ask a lot of questions. The responses help me figure out whether I'm the right person for the job, and if I am, how to structure a proposal that clarifies expectations and what the job entails (more on that next week).

If it seems like a good fit, I usually end the call with a "thank you, if you don't have any further questions, I think I got everything I need, and I can send you a proposal later today". I avoid giving a number or even a range over the phone, because I want to make sure I think everything through without pressure. 

Questions for you: 

  • How do potential clients reach you?
  • How do you want your potential clients to feel when they interact with you? 
  • How can you deliver the best possible experience while maintaining efficient boundaries?

Choosing the “right” client

Narrow vs. broad net

Here is another piece of advice by the well-established in their profession:

“You gotta say “no” to the good to be able to say “yes” to the great”.

We’re supposed to niche down, to narrow, to laser-like focus, to become the leader in our field. 

Honestly, I think this is much easier said than done. I’m still in a phase where I want to experience all the different ways where lettering and calligraphy can be applied, to get a feel for what the projects entail and where I might add the most value. I’m not even sure I want to super drill down to only have one thing, although I understand it makes marketing that one thing so much easier.

Some might say lettering and calligraphy already is pretty niche (does that work as an adjective?), but there’s such a variety of applications that there’s still a lot of room for several different marketing avenues. For example, there’s a big difference between offering wedding calligraphy and murals, editorial and branding, book covers and posters, custom stationery and baby announcements. So many different markets, so many different client profiles. 

What’s your ideal project?

To help you choose your ideal client, it helps to know know which kind of projects you want to work on. If for Q2 of 2018 you want to concentrate on logos, like I do, we’re not going to pursue wedding clients. For the next couple of months, I’ll be creating pieces to share on social media all around logos and websites and branding, in the hope that it will attract enquiries from people looking for logos. Now, if I get a super awesome bride or lovely bistro who wants some chalk on their wall… I’m not gonna say no if the price is right - and we’ll get to the pricing topic in a couple of weeks. 

Red Flags

Some things to keep in mind / look out for:

  • If the person you’re speaking with isn’t the decision-maker, all the pre-agreement discussion might be a time wasted. 
  • If the person you’re speaking with doesn’t know their budget, it’ll be hard for you to gauge your level of involvement. 
  • If the person you’re speaking with doesn’t have a clear idea of what they’re looking for and says something like “oh let’s just hop on a call and talk it over”, schedule a consulting session and name your hourly rate. Helping them sort through their ideas is one of many ways a designer can be helpful, but does not fall under the “free client intake session” umbrella.
  • If the person isn’t getting back to your emails in a timely manner, is late on the call, refuses to sign an agreement, doesn’t want to pay 50 % upfront, consider what it will be like depending on them during a project. 

Questions for you:

  • What kinds of projects are you most excited about? 
  • How many categories do they fall into?
  • How can you attract more people looking for what you want to offer? 

Serving all your Clients

Now that you know which projects you want to work on, and how to give your clients a great on-boarding experience, another piece of the puzzle is

Setting realistic timelines

If you’re the sole person in your company, as I am, you won’t be working on creative projects all the time. You’ll also have to factor in time for social media activities, accounting, responding to emails, going to the dentist, getting your hair cut, etc. 

It’s important to know how long each phase of your process takes. I’m still eye-balling a lot of it, but since I’m calculating my fees based on the hourly rate I want to hit, I am definitely keeping an eye on everything. I’ve just downloaded the Timings app, and will let you know how I get on. 

You probably know Murphy’s Law, which states that everything that can go wrong, will. To make sure nobody can blame me on my end, I try to make absolutely clear the expectations and deliverables, which includes timelines. How long I take to deliver the first round of sketches (5 business days), how long until the client should have their feedback back to me (5 business days), how long until I deliver the first round of revisions (3 business days) and so on. 

Know Yourself

I like to have time, I don’t work well when I feel rushed. I’m also not interested in working 12-hour days or on the weekends, because I believe rest is vital to a clear mind and to my creative process. So in case of doubt, I double the time I think it will take. Seriously. If nothing happens, I’ll deliver ahead of schedule (yay), and if it does, I won’t be delivering late (big no-no in my world). 

For every project, I schedule in realistic buffer times. Generous timelines help me literally “sleep on it”, i.e. making something, putting it away, and then looking at it again with fresh eyes the next day. This doesn’t work for everyone, some people thrive on last-minute panic and the rush of the looming deadline. 

Questions for you:

  • How do you like to work (steady vs. in bursts)?
  • Do you know how long it takes you to produce a piece, start to finish? 
  • How many hours a week can you realistically dedicate to pure client work?
  • What time-tracking method do you use?

I hope this helps, let me know your answers to these questions, and share some of your own in the comments! 

The Client Agreement - Basics and Beyond

The Client Agreement - Basics and Beyond

10 Questions with Josh Higgins

10 Questions with Josh Higgins