Where Do Clients Come From?

After 15 years of freelancing on the side while holding down in-house design jobs, I’ve been running Blankenship Office fulltime for a little over a year. We design identities and environments for brands big and small, but a large portion of my work day is spent on designing the business itself: operations, sales, normalizing cash flow, trying to grow intentionally in the right direction(s), and — especially lately — new business relationships.

I’m fascinated by where work comes from. How do prospective clients find us, or how do we find them? What are the leading indicators it will be a good partnership? What types of communications make the “right” impression(s) to set expectations? How do we leverage various social platforms to connect with the right brands at the right time? What mix of new business is referral versus outside sales? It’s fun stuff, these origin stories.

If the Goal is Clients, the Conversation is About Them

I believe service industries talk about ourselves too much. The initial pitches are all about us — what we do, how long we’ve done it, our trophy case, our pedigree, our process — instead of making it about the client, their brand, their needs, and how we can partner with them to help. Service industries don’t exist without clients, and the way we talk and walk should reflect that. But still, most creative companies persist, marketing ourselves into the void.

Anthony Iannarino (who I’m learning a lot from) says, “Sales effectiveness is inversely proportional to the intensity of your focus on your own results.” Relationships over transactions, service over being served, what the client needs over what we need.

If You Build It, They’re Too Busy to Care

Industry longevity, blogging near-daily for the better part of decade, and having a weird last name have given me some measure of notoriety in design circles. But I’ve never gotten a single client from speaking at a design conference (that’s not why I speak there) or posting work to places like Dribbble (that’s not why I post there). 

Speaking at a design conference can raise my industry profile and grow my network, but it rarely directly translates into actual client work. The things I do, in the design-centric spaces I frequent, are unlikely to turn heads in the places I want to do business. 

My prospective clients aren’t at design conferences, or browsing design websites — they’re running their own businesses. This is part of what makes them attractive clients. They’re busy building a brand worth believing in. Taking time off from their core work to find design partners is not at the top of their priority list on any given day.

Change is hard enough without dragging busy people off-mission to come over and check out what we’re doing. We need to do a better job of meeting prospective clients where they are, being valuble once we’re in the same space, and helping them build a preference for working with us over anyone else. That takes time, research, empathy, and consistently delivering value before we ask for commitments. You know, just like any other quality relationship.

So, where to now?

Blankenship Office is trying some specific things in this season:

Trying multiple things at once isn’t the best way to know exactly what’s working or not working, but the tools to measure effectiveness are so much better than they were when I started creating things online. I’m looking forward to meeting prospective clients where they are, and starting conversations that could turn into valuable relationships. Call it a tiny experiment in finding out where work comes from.