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In 20 Years, I’ve Realized Building A Successful Design Business Is Not All About Design. And You Need These 3 Habits To Keep Clients Happy

Michael Clarke

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Long before starting my own design studio, I had a realization.

I had been working at one of the most admired brand identity firms in the world. And after having the chance to work with some extremely talented designers (and there are some amazing ones out there!), I realized that “great design” was only half of the job.

Great design, while crucial, has to happen alongside three of the most important things that go into running a healthy business. Especially in the creative field of design, “success” is much much more about business and professionalism, customer service, and relationships—far more than anyone ever lets on.

I know that doesn’t sound glamorous. But the truth is, creativity requires support in order to be successful. The three semi-secrets I’m about to share with you have helped me achieve the difficult goal of doing what I love every day. And by paying attention to them, I’ve grown my love for design into Clarke, where we use good design to clarify the world’s most complex topics and visualize impactful brand missions.

Whether you’re striking out solo for the first time or building your own studio, here are the habits I recommend you always hone in your work:

1. Don’t just “be professional.” Be an asset, a layer of quality control, and a friend.

Great design means nothing if the client doesn’t trust you.

Near the beginning of my career and working at several agencies, I saw the same situations repeat themselves constantly: incredibly talented designers would show up late to meetings, couldn’t communicate their ideas effectively, or were sloppy when it came to tiny details like catching typos in emails. And while these might seem like small errors (especially typos in emails), none of these things made a client any more trusting of the process.

So when I eventually struck out on my own as a freelance designer, I made it a point to put these things first.

For example, I made sure to respond promptly to client questions or concerns. Whenever I would show up to a client’s office, I’d be organized and provide an agenda. Work was always presented as an agency with a proper presentation. I worked to keep my promises and overdeliver.

And these were the little things that started bringing in referral business and nurturing relationships that would go on to last years.

Especially if you’re looking to build a company of your own, this habit of professionalism is one you have to start practicing even as a freelancer. You have to carry yourself like the value-added partner you want to be seen as and conduct yourself accordingly.

2. Prioritize customer service above everything else.

Too often, people forget design is still a service business.

We are creating a product as a service to a client. And without happy clients, we won’t continue to get much work. Which is why it’s so important to remember to treat clients like customers—and that means catering to their needs and ensuring they have a good experience. If you’ve never worked in customer service before (or maybe you just weren’t very good at it), great customer service means:

  • Listening: Be sure your client feels heard when communicating their needs. You don’t need to do every last thing they request, but you should absolutely acknowledge those requests and then provide a rationale for why (or why not) you’ll be moving forward the way you are.
  • Being Accessible: Respond to client emails or messages within 24 hours. By no means do you need to take calls at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, but be sure your client can get a hold of you regularly and that you respond quickly when they have questions or concerns.
  • Communicating With Clarity: If you can’t explain your ideas and processes with clarity, the client will question whether or not they can trust you. They’ll think you don’t know what you’re doing. The relationship with the client should always be a dialogue, so in all the ways they communicate clear needs and expectations to you, you should also be communicating back your own action items, goals, and end results.

3. Don’t treat clients as transactional relationships. Treat them as long-term partners.

Establishing a new business relationship is step one.

Step two requires time, energy, attentiveness, care, and a dozen other soft skills in order to make the other party feel valued. This means remembering personal details—kids graduating college or vacations they’ve taken recently—and following up to hear how those events have progressed at your next meeting. Make time to get together when you’re in the same city, or reaching out every few months to check in with a phone conversation.

And above all else, you should always aim to exceed client expectations.

Now, this doesn’t mean you set the bar low so you can leap over it every time. But you should absolutely go the extra mile every chance you get. You’ll make the client feel special and cared for so, which means they’ll be more likely to return with their next project—and recommend others to work with you as well.

All these efforts are what signal how much you value the relationship, and are the things clients take into consideration when they assess whether they enjoy working with you or not.

I’ve learned a few things over the years. I hope to continue learning more.

I have a proven history of multi-disciplinary design success across many business categories. My background gives me a unique perspective and understanding of how design and brands need to communicate in a rapidly changing culture.

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