You see it in the movies all the time – only the cool people get into the fancy club. Imagine for a moment that your clients are the people in that line, and they want to join your design club.

Who do you let behind the “red rope”? More importantly, where in the client onboarding process should your red rope go?

Designing To Delight - Red Rope Policy - Designers and Freelancers - Are you spending too much time and energy on inquiries that aren’t the right fit and proposals that don’t convert? Create an inquiry process that funnels the best clients to your business. Click through for inquiry and onboarding tips just for freelance graphic and web designers.

Maybe it should come right before your client sends you their first payment. The clients who you actually work with. The problem with putting the rope at your proverbial “front door”, is that you invest too much time filtering out the wrong people along with the right ones. You’ll be giving consults and creating proposals for tire-kickers. You’ll be opening the door to literally everyone that waves as they walk by. In trying to stay accessible, you will burn yourself out.

  • Are you getting a lot of inquiries that clearly aren’t the right fit?
  • Are you tired of being available for inquiries at a moment’s notice?
  • Are you sending out a lot of proposals that don’t turn into projects?

Your red rope is in the wrong place. Move that rope from the front door to the sidewalk.

Here’s how I do it…

I readily admit my style, timelines, and pricing are not for everyone. It’s in any prospect’s best interest if they rule themselves in or out before investing time in me. It’s in my best interest to save my efforts for the clients who will appreciate and receive my best work.

Saying no to the wrong people opens you up to the most wonderful relationships with the right people. That might sound cliche, I know. But that doesn’t make it less true.

There are 2 ways I start filtering my prospects at the sidewalk. I begin with how I talk about my process and price points for typical projects on my site. I continue through to the semi-lengthy project inquiry I ask potential clients to fill out before giving away a phone consult. Not everyone interested in your work should inquire, and not every inquiry should turn into a phone consult.

Here’s some “rope at the sidewalk” examples from my site:

  • “I’m selective, choosing to work only with businesses I believe in and can stand behind.” I don’t work with just anyone.
  • “Web design projects typically start around $10,000.” If your budget does not go this high for custom collaborative work, then I’m not the right fit for you.
  • “Get started by answering a few simple questions.” The only way to contact me is through a project inquiry form. I don’t want to be randomly contacted outside of the information I need to provide a productive answer to prospects.

Do not be afraid to rule people out with specific language on your website. Do not be afraid to talk pricing. Do not be afraid to ask for more information before investing your time via consults and proposals.

What goes into a good project inquiry form?

Here’s a few guidelines for creating your inquiry form (here’s mine):

  • Find out what they are interested in. They may not have read through your services.
  • Ask prospects to provide a budget range (and to recognize your minimums by displaying them near the question).
  • Ask prospects to provide a project launch date.
  • Ask prospects questions whose answers show how much thought they’ve put into their goals and vision for their site.

A good project inquiry form should provide the answers you need to determine whether or not a prospect is a good fit before extending the option to take more of your time, aka be invited past the red rope.

Which prospects should be invited past the red rope (aka officially into your client onboarding process)?

Questions to ask yourself to help you filter out potential problem clients:

  • Are they realistic about their project timeframe or are they using language like ASAP and in a hurry? The latter is a red flag. An impatient client tends not to read or pay attention to communication, making the process frustrating for both parties.
  • Have they provided well-thought out goals for their business or did they give one-sentence or brief answers? The latter is a red flag – an abrupt or short answer might indicate a client that you will have to pull information from throughout the process.
  • Are they slow to reply or require frequent pokes to finish the client onboarding process? OR are they using language like I know exactly what I want or I’m very picky? This is a blazing red flag for a “non-collaborative client”. If a client is not eager to work with me, then they are not going to be a good fit for the way I like to work.

Things to KNOW ahead of time as part of your own red rope criteria:

  • What kind of projects do you want to take on? Branding, web maintenance, custom builds, print design? What does portfolio-worthy look like to you? What do you NOT enjoy? What is outside your skillset?
  • What kind of budgets are you willing to work with? What is your minimum budget requirement and what does it include?
  • What kind of businesses do you want to work with? Brand new, uplevelling, small teams, corporate, entrepreneurs? Or are you looking for a personality type or specific set of business goals?

Read more here about how to position your design business for the clients you want to attract.

I personally look for prospects who are excited about their work in the world and are eager to collaborate with me. They are patient about the outcome because they know it will be well worth the wait. These are my people and I LOVE working with them.

By moving my rope from the door to the sidewalk, I’m not opening it for every person that walks by and waves. I’m only letting through those that really have the potential to be great projects. I’m willing to give 30 or even 60 minutes of my time to these prospects because I have a 80-90% chance of converting them into something long-term.

By filtering out the wrong clients with my client onboarding process, I’m engaging with the best potential clients for my business. I’m not wasting time and creative energy opening, reading, replying, talking or creating proposals for anyone who doesn’t pass my own red rope criteria.

I’ll be honest, when I uplevelled everything and started saying no, it was a little scary. Inquiries went down, but the resulting projects were more portfolio-worthy. Budgets were bigger. Clients were more patient. With every completed portfolio-worthy project, I was able to significantly increase my prices. That’s how I 10x my income in about 6 months. Moving the rope to the sidewalk – it works.

Do you know your red rope criteria? How can you improve your client onboarding process? Tag me in the Drama-Free Design Collective on Facebook and talk to me.

How to onboard the right design clients - stop wasting time with freelance design proposals that don't turn into projects.
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.