Help me help you help others—and help your own brand or business as a result.
As a small business owner, sticking an ad on my personal vehicle has never seemed like a good idea.
If your van or truck is your office and you have your logo on the side, awesome. If you’re in the business of auto care or custom parts, more power to you. However, car ads for random businesses (i.e. graphic design) only seem to stick with me if they somehow piss me off.
If I find myself driving alongside an ad for “Kyle’s Leather Goods,” I’ll usually get a glimpse at most. Kyle and his goods will be gone from my mind by the time I get where I’m going.
But if “Kyle’s Leather Goods” cuts me off in rush hour traffic, you better believe I’ll remember his name. It’s hard to forget anything that you’ve shouted to the heavens.
(Disclaimer: As far as I know, “Kyle’s Leather Goods” is a fictional business. Kyle, if you’re out there somewhere, I’m sure you’re great.)
“The one thing everyone can do to make themselves more appealing: simply be good to people.”
My point is, you want your business’s name to inspire positive emotions. Your product or service won’t appeal to everyone, and your style won’t be the best fit for every project, but the one thing EVERYONE can do to make themselves (and the brands they represent) more universally appealing is to simply be good to people.
It sounds obvious but it’s not always easy, so it’s important to operate in your day-to-day with this in mind.
Be good to your clients, and they will become your advocates. Be good to your advocates, and they will continue to bring you clients.
And, car ad or not, don’t cut people off in traffic.
Be good to your clients
Yes, all of them, all the time. It may sound like lots of work, but one great thing about this advice is that it doesn’t (in most cases) require you to change your routine much at all. Being good to people isn’t another thing that you can do, but a better way of doing the tasks you already have on your plate.
Communicate with care
As a graphic designer, my work usually requires a lot of back-and-forth between myself and the client. I’ve learned that a client’s experience throughout this process, like most service encounters, is just as important to them as the quality of the finished product.
Related: The right way to end an email to a client
So, put a little extra care into your communications and the work you send. Center that mockup on the artboard, and double-check your emails for tone and spelling errors. Keep your client updated on your process, and be transparent each step of the way. You want to be sure that you’re presenting yourself as a respectful, accessible, and friendly professional. When you do, you’ll get better communication back from your clients as well, and that makes everyone’s life easier.
Again, this shouldn’t be something that takes you hours more than the alternative to accomplish. “Care” is more about focus and process than slower speeds, and in our go-go-go world, a little extra care stands out.
Writing kind, clear emails is easy to do with your favorite clients, but it can be more challenging when dealing with people who frustrate you. Still, it is do-able, and it’s worth doing.
When a client is testing your patience, consider this: If everyone knew everything you know, what good would you be to anyone? People wouldn’t need your help or input, and you’d be reduced to nothing more than an extra set of hands.
“If everyone knew everything you know, what good would you be to anyone?”
So, when people ask you “dumb questions,” or even repeat questions, remember that they don’t do what you do every day. What seems obvious to you might be something they’ve never learned or considered before. (Sneaky pro-tip: If you can be patient and humble in scenarios like this, these clients are often the easiest to impress!)
So answer their questions with a helpful attitude, and if they ask again, explain again in a new way. Your client will be educated and appreciative, and you’ll have shown yourself to be a subject matter expert.
Boost your reputation
Reputation is vital in businesses, and moments like the scenario above are how you establish yours. Not by telling people “I’m great to work with” or by including “design expert” on your website, but by showing people those things, especially when they’re tough to do.
The more people you connect with and impress, the better off you are. You can’t climb to the top alone; you’ll need people who believe in you to help lift you up to bigger and better things.
What about the truly awful clients?
Unfortunately, they’re out there. The patient and helpful method works for clients who may not understand the value or process of your work, but are open to hearing it and learning it.
Related: Dear client—We need to talk
Other clients simply don’t care. They’re downright mean, they don’t listen or communicate well, or they turn a week of work into months and think the price should stay the same. They come in many different forms, and each situation is uniquely difficult.
All I can offer here are a few general tips/thoughts:
Start with a contract. Especially for larger jobs, get the agreement in writing, and ask for a percentage of the money up front. In most cases it’s a simple formality, but if the situation does turn sour a contract empowers you to hold clients accountable to their side of the bargain, increase your price as the project scope increases, or walk away.
Stand your ground. Learn how to describe the value of your work and why it costs what it does. Advocate for yourself—and mean it.
See the big picture. If one client is making your days miserable and draining your energy, it may be best to walk away, even if you have to leave some money on the table. You’ve got other clients to serve, new opportunities to seize down the road, and a personal life that shouldn’t fall victim to such people. This can be scary for plenty of reasons, but once you make the call and follow through with it, the feeling is strangely liberating.
Do what you can, don’t try to do more. If a project comes along that you can do but aren’t thrilled about, increase your rate. If they agree, wonderful! This job just got better. If they don’t, you’re off the hook before you begin. If a job comes along that simply won’t fit into your schedule, or gives you bad initial vibes, even if it feels like a big one, it may be best for your business and your mental health to turn it down.
Stay respectful. If you do fire a client, don’t flip the table and storm out. Explain yourself in clear, decisive language, and stick to it.
Like I said earlier, your product or service won’t appeal to everyone, and your style won’t be the best fit for every project. That is okay. Find the clients you do jell with and dazzle them.
Referrals can be rocket fuel
In our digital age of constant targeted advertising, word-of-mouth marketing and online reviews are still the most widely trusted sources of information out there.
That probably doesn’t blow your mind. You’ve chosen service providers based on recommendations from your friends. You know the local spot that everyone loves, even though they never advertise. You’ve heard of thousands falling for a brand because of viral social media interactions.
Your brand could be next for any of those.
Make it your lofty, idealistic goal to turn every client or customer into an advocate for your business, and see what happens.
That sounds self-serving, but you don’t earn advocates through paid ads or trickery—you do so by consistently delivering top-notch service to your clients, and by being an advocate for your clients’ businesses, as well. You do so by getting involved in your local community of entrepreneurs and creatives, and by doing work for friends and family when opportunities arise.
These things will all help you build an ever-growing network of people who feel affiliated with your business, believe in what you’re doing, and are happy to spread your name.
Be good to your advocates
As you carry on winning the hearts of all your clients, it’s important to also show some love to the people who help you keep busy.
Genuine advocates pass your name along simply because they want to. It is frustrating to some, and humbling to all, to acknowledge that this is almost entirely out of your control. All you can do is give people the best experience possible with your brand, and hope they decide to share.
That being said, your advocates typically aren’t expecting anything in return when they recommend you to others. They’re acting on their own free will, with no predetermined arrangement or promised reward. In this situation, a personal “thank you” from the business they’re promoting is a delightful surprise. That “thank you” could be an email, a phone call, or a card—whatever makes the most sense coming from your brand.
“Show some love to the people who help you keep busy.”
Small gifts are even better, and they can work for you, too. Don’t think of these as charity, think of them as marketing. You have a person out in the world who is actively enthusiastic about your brand, so give them a meaningful way to show it. You can offer deals or discounts, (without getting too pyramid-scheme-y), or give them some free products/merch. Simple gestures like these are great “win-win” ways to reinforce your advocates.
One example that you’re welcome to make your own: It is official Pen & Mug policy* that I buy coffee or lunch for any of my friends who connect me with a new client. It’s no grand gesture, but people really appreciate the sentiment. And it’s fun and rewarding for me, too.
A true champion of this message is Stickermule, a print vendor that makes “custom stickers that kick ass,” (pun very much intended). Not only do their products live up to the claim, but they regularly offer giveaways and host sticker-design contests among communities of creative professionals, (such as Dribbble and CreativeMornings), that make designers around the world aware of, and excited about, their business.
However you do it, make sure you say “thank you” in a way that fits with your brand.
*This isn’t written in any bylaws anywhere, but you tell one friend something like this and word spreads quick! Although, I suppose that is the point. 🙂
Wrap it up, dude. As a small business owner or freelancer, taking an extra bit of care with your communications doesn’t take much energy to do. Neither does thanking your advocates. Still, many people won’t slow down enough to do either, so these are excellent ways to help your brand win fans and stand out in the clutter.
Be good to everyone and turn your clients into brand advocates who then help you locate more clients, who will also become your advocates.
It starts out slow, but once you get this cycle going, the sky’s the limit.
Austin Schulenburg is a people-focused, high-energy graphic and web designer born in Illinois, raised in Southern California, (free-range, organic), and currently living and working in Nashville, TN. The moniker “Pen & Mug” is a nod to the first two things he grabs whenever he begins a new project.