We can’t help ourselves. We get nervous/excited on a consult call and blurt out “yes I can do that for you” and then cringe when we realize what we promised as we hang up the phone.

We eagerly commit to projects in person we’d never say yes to when sitting alone at our desk with our wits about us.

We find ourselves roped into projects that will never see the light of day in our portfolio.

We come by it honestly. We want to please our clients.

Without strong onboarding systems to guide us, we get into a mode of taking on what comes our way. The high we get from taking on a less-than-ideal project is short-lived when we realize we’ve just committed ourselves to more of the same.

A few years ago, I found myself looking back over the year and realizing that I had nothing to show for it.

I had not added any new projects to my portfolio. I had not raised my prices. I HAD worked on a large website project that made it to the 2-yard line and never finished – the client paid me and disappeared… another client project ended in a parting of ways after I was ordered about like an underling… another I had to fire. What the heck? Where did the whole year go?

I decided I would not find myself stagnant like that again…

How did I find myself there?

I realized I was saying yes to projects just to get the work, without ever assessing whether or not they would move my business forward.

I was habitually too busy to think strategically.

I was struggling to see the big picture beyond the immediate project in front of me – where the prices are higher and the clients are better – where there is more ease. I was stuck in my busy-ness.

While it seems almost trite to tell you “Saying no to this client means saying yes to something better”, nothing could be more true when it comes to upleveling your design business.

How do you determine if a project is the right one for your business? Here’s a few tactics…

Rely on your red rope to filter out the wrong clients and projects.

If you’ve setup your initial inquiry process correctly, you can rely on it to filter out MOST of your less-than-ideal potential projects. You should be left with the right type of inquiries.

This can be a scary move as your total number of inquiries will drop off (because you’ll lose all the ones you should have said no to anyway). But – you’ll no longer waste time and energy on prospects that go nowhere.

Before saying yes, ask yourself, “Is this project portfolio-worthy?”

This was a big realization for me as I worked on uplevelling my design business. If I can’t share it or showcase it, why am I doing it? Do I have a compelling reason for taking it? If it’s profitable (or even a passion project), that might be a good enough reason.

However, if you want to get beyond your busy-ness, you’ll need to decide how this project will help get you there. Will it attract more “like” clients? Can you charge more for your work when you’re done? Can you turn it into an amazing case study? Slow down and acknowledge your reasons for taking the project so that everything you work on is instrumental in moving your business toward something.

Are you a strategic partner or a worker bee?

In taking on a new client – or continuing to work for an existing client – ask yourself, will I be or am I being treated like a strategic partner or a worker bee?

Has this client been patient during onboarding? Did they make you wait weeks to hear back from them about your proposal? Are they eager to work with you? Are they willing to follow your process and use your tools? Are they asking for tight turnarounds due to their own lack of planning?

If you want to command higher prices and attract better clients – remember that your future brand ambassadors, the ones that eagerly refer others to you – will be the ones that respect you from the start.

In saying no to the wrong projects, here’s what you can strategically say yes to instead:

  • Building relationships with potential colleagues so they can refer their clients to you.
  • Pouring a little extra effort into an existing client who’s the right fit so you can charge more for the next one.
  • Updating your portfolio to showcase the breadth of each project through case studies so your client understands the scope of your services.
  • Upleveling your brand so that you don’t miss opportunities to work with the right clients.
  • Sharing your work thoughtfully on social media so your friends and family understand what you do.
  • Building a simple funnel to get your website in front of more prospects.
Having a busy-ness mindset is one of the biggest contributors to staying stagnant. Will you end the year with nothing to show for it?
The mindset shift you need to make in order to get better design clients and uplevel your freelance design business.
Author: Christine Thatcher

Christine Thatcher is the founder of Christine Marie Studio, a boutique design agency dedicated to helping visionary entrepreneurs infuse their personalities into profitable virtual platforms. She combines 27 years of design experience to guide her clients through the web design process. Also the creator of Designing to Delight, a brand dedicated to teaching designers how to build collaborative client relationships so they can charge more for their work.

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