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The big secret to getting along with your design clients

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s an older book, but one that I’ve wanted/needed to read for a while now and, after reading about 3/4 of it I must say, every entrepreneur, freelancer, or business person in the world should read and live by this book!

Seriously, you’ve got to read it.

It’s packed with lots of amazing and great information that will open your eyes to how people communicate, how they want to be treated, and what makes them tick.

You'll also enjoy this episode of our new podcast...

And found therein is a big secret.

One that has to do with some of the most common problems freelancers and designers face.

Found in How to Win Friends and Influence People is the big secret to getting along with your clients.

That’s huge!

What a big deal, right?

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Thousands and thousands of bloggers and authors (including myself) have tried to solve the problem of getting along with clients.

There’s just always been what seems like a great divide between what clients want and what creatives “know” is best.

So what’s the secret?

So what advice does Dale Carnegie offer that will help us get along with clients and get projects done more happily?

Here it is:

“Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.”

It’s that simple.

When you meet with your client, well, shutup.

Let them talk.

The common blunder

If you’re like me, you’ve probably done something like this before:

You walk into a client meeting toward the beginning of your business relationship together and bring with you slides or a report of some kind. Found in the report are all the things you’re going to do for your client: redesign their logo, update their style guide, build a branding package from scratch, incorporate it into their web site.

After giving what you deem to be a wonderful presentation, your client brushes you off and begins disagreeing with many of your (obviously great) ideas.

So what happened?

Why didn’t you win them over to your strategy?

Because you did all the talking.

What’s your role?

Who knows your client’s business best?

You or them?

Who has stronger emotions, opinions and connections to the current branding strategy, marketing, design, and strong points of the company? Who knows the history of the business and the path taken to arrive at current branding decisions?

Who is more emotionally attached to the company’s brand than the company itself?

No one.

Not even you.

I don’t care if you spend hours and hours researching.

I don’t care if you talked to everyone at the company.

You’re still the new guy in town.

So stop wasting time

So stop wasting time pretending like you know all the ins and outs of the company, what it will take for the company to be successful, what the target audience reacts well to, etc.


Seriously, stop and listen.

And when you think they’re done talking; when you think they’re done telling you about their company and what they need from you as a designer, listen more.

Ask questions and then listen.

Listen actively.

And then listen some more.

Because nothing will enhance your relationship with your client more than listening to their needs and their wants and needs.

Next time

So next time you’re tempted to talk for most of your meetings with your client, don’t.

Resist the urge.

Listen and you’ll go far.

Winning them over to your ideas…

I know many of you are asking something like this: “If I only listen to what they want, how can I convince them that certain design decisions are a bad idea?

Stay tuned, because I’m reading a chapter in How to Win Friends and Influence People right now that I want to share with you in a few days!

Be the first to hear about it by subscribing to my email newsletter. Plus you get a free ebook when you sign up!

Did I get it right?

Is this the easiest way to get along with design clients? Was I right? Leave a comment on this post and let’s discuss!

(PS: the links to How to Win Friends and Influence People in this post are amazon affiliate links. I make a few cents every time someone clicks through and buys a copy so if you do, please leave a comment and let me know so I can thank you. Plus, I’d love to talk about the book with you more! -Preston)

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

Leave a Comment



  1. I think you’re right. My little brother read that as a child and has become a phenomenal success entrepreneurially. As for me, I never read it and have made lots of countless mistakes. But am wise in other ways and becoming more wise in these ways from learning the hard way. Will pick up a copy. Thanks. 🙂

  2. Another really great article! In my experience, it would take far too long for us designers to really understand a business or organization without the ongoing help of our clients. Even then, unless we are a seriously gifted researcher and genius, we don’t really have a clue.

    What does worry me is when a client thinks they can do the marketing strategy for a company – as that requires another talented person in strategy who knows the business really well. Ideally, they should be hiring a marketing strategy person “and” a designer.

  3. Dear Preston,

    Again I feel your talking truth,
    that is so right, listen & listen.

    That’s even a strategy when
    You meet girls.

    To bad for me that I stopped
    freelancing, but I will continue
    reading you, and the book.


  4. This is helpful!
    I never had a ‘real’ talk with one of my clients. I always had to show stuff!
    Its time to shut up and listen!

  5. I just ordered the book from amazon, through your link. Should be in this week, I am pretty excited. Will post my thoughts as I read through it.

  6. I’m with you! Ask questions, take notes, and make them feel like you care about the success of their business (because you do).

    Great post!

  7. That is an excellent book that everyone can benefit from! I had forgotten about it, but I have it in MP3 format and will now be listening to it while I work today. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. I think this strategy is great once you have landed the client. However, maybe it might not work as well when you are pitching to an assertive or aggressive type which describes many business owners. When I was less experienced in the business, I let some of these prospects control the conversation too much and as a result, the very limited time they had with me was wasted and they didn’t knew less about me than the other guys I was bidding against. I am no expert in sales, but I have had some sales training. While you are right that we all could do more listening, I think there really is a balance here when you are pitching work. People don’t want their time wasted so they can be very annoyed when they have little to show for your meeting time.

  9. Just the other day my Dad told me to read a chapter in a book he was reading for work. It’s the same book you are talking about. Chapter 3 is the one that talks about listening. As I read through the chapter I noticed that I have applied this practice many times with clients who for some reason or another have had a bad day and feel they should take it out on me. I’ve simply let them talk themselves out. I can’t wait to read the whole book!

  10. Less talking, more listening!—–The best life and business advice for everyone. Great article! I look forward to the upcoming one.

  11. “hearing is one of our five senses, but listening is an art”

    Seems like a relevant quote to this post – a good little read btw.

  12. After reading this, I realize the book needs to get to my front door asap. As a designer I have made this mistake many times, and even though I have been able to satisfy the client. It’s a longer process, rather than to just listen and key in on their needs. Lately I have left behind some of the portfolio pages, depending on the field, I try to showcase work related to or that matches their criteria closest. Ah, I can’t wait to read it now.. good post.


  13. I agree with this fact too. I have had this feeling for some time now that people likes to feel the idea comes from them, so if you do all the talking it is just your idea and you are not giving them space to feel it themselves. When I find myself at a point where the client doesn’t feel confident about something, I have learnt to say anything and they are going to be the ones looking for the positive side, searching for the clue over why did I do this this or that way.

    Your articles are always so inspiring and reflective!

  14. Great post. I agree wholeheartedly with this approach. I usually always let the client do a lot of the talking, I like to hear them explain their company, their market, their marketing/design goals, and what they (think) they need in their own words. Then, I relay what they’ve said and help them devise a plan of action for their design and marketing needs. Sometimes when they say things in their own words (as opposed to writing or emailing a brief) we find that what they think they need isn’t actually what they’re saying they need. So far, most clients, or potential clients, I’ve worked with have been very appreciative and responsive to this approach. It’s all about listening first, and then planning, and then implementing. Thanks for your post!

  15. Ha!! I do this and I never knew about the book. Now I need to get it a read to hone the skill. I try to walk in as open as possible. I usually bring nothing but a notebook (iPad) and some cards. Not even a portfolio. If they have there to talk to them they have seen my work and they are interested. Takes the pressure off to showboat. Great post!

  16. Spot on! It’s also interesting how power flows between people. When someone is hiring you, I find they generally want a clear-cut definition of who is in power/control, even if they seem to have no clue as to what they want and you see it clearly. Your ability to listen is a deference to that need for control on their part which results in a feeling of harmony and makes you more attractive.

  17. Nice post and I agree with Mandi and Kim… You do have to have a balance between the two in order to maintain a successful relationship. The best way you can do that is by developing a solid level of trust. For me, that process begins when the client feels that you are listening to them and more importantly, that you care to “understand” their needs. I ask lots and lots of questions, then pull back to listen. It’s also about how you present. I think it’s helpful to start a presentation by first going over the creative brief you both signed off on. Then highlight all the key points as you present while the objectives are fresh on everyone’s mind.

  18. It’s good to talk, I agree – but it’s better to listen. People tell you things, and if they think you’re interested in them, they’ll like you and be favourable to you – seriously! They’ll tell you what they want, and then you can give it to them – clients love that sort of thing and will come back for more!
    We’ve got one mouth, but two ears… I think there’s a clue there.

  19. A lot of clients come to me and return because I give them what they want, answer the phone when they call, and get it done on time. If I come up with designs and they make dozens of changes, including ones to which I remark, “If that’s what you really want, I’ll do it,” they ultimately are the ones living with it and writing the check. If I have another idea, I may pound that out on my own time and present it along with theirs, so they can see the comparison. Often that wins them to my point of view.

    If I have clients who have remarkably different aesthetics and I constantly feel I am failing at pleasing them, we may not be a great fit and I’ll let them know.

  20. In any business that is paid to produce, it bodes well to remember this:

    “It’s NOT about you.”

    If you do not wish to follow this simple rule, become an artist. Then you can, do what you want, when you want, how you want … and struggle to make a living. But you WILL have the freedom to believe ‘It’s all about you.’.

    Always interesting to observe the younger generation ‘discover’.

    Over the years I’ve read, discussed, taught, promoted and studied the writings of Mr. Carnegie and many others of his era. However, once you begin that study, you find out rather quickly: What they are presenting is NOT new – it was only ‘new to them’.

    They no more listened to their elders than I or you did; how much quicker could we all have benefited from that bit of wisdom.

    The reality of this cycle is simple: If you don’t make a fatal error and get wiped from the play board too early, you will have the opportunity to join the cycle and and enjoy success.

    Serendipity is NOT mere luck, it’s the result of being prepared to see and advantage opportunity as it passes.

    Thus, keeping in mind, “It’s not about you.”, will allow your eyes and ears to be twice as alert as they would be IF you were too busy telling everyone else you didn’t yet understand this principle.

    Live humbly and prosper.

  21. This article is spot on. One thing I would add is to make every effort to involve the person, or highest level person (who makes the final approval on the project) into the concept stages as soon as possible. If your contact is not the final decision maker and will present the work to somebody else or another group you cannot benefit from the value of this article. The natural tendency of those “outsider” people is to make a bunch of changes that weaken the concept but allow them to say it was “their” idea. Get input from the decision maker in the first place and work something they suggest (anything) into your concept. Then remind them of their excellent contribution just before you make the presentation. Now it is “their” idea and you are far more likely to get approval straight away.

  22. That’s a great and simple tip and I’ll look forward to reading the full book myself. Don’t forget it’s crucial to digest and interpret what your client has told you correctly to deliver what it is they NEED as much as WANT.

  23. I’ll agree that listening to one’s client (or any person you’re interacting with) is sound advice, but it really does come down to balance: listen to what their needs are and what they’d like to see, and then express your vision and abilities so that you can work together to create something spectacular.
    While this one section in “How to Win Friends…” has some decent recommendations, the rest of the book is utter dross—a guide to manipulation and sociopathic behaviour that’s the business world’s answer to Neil Strauss’s “The Game”.

    Yes, listening to your client is important, but far too often they’ll have thoroughly wretched ideas that they’d like implemented and end up micro-managing and putting in their $0.02 worth until the end result is a travesty that you wouldn’t want your name associated with. I’d rather walk away from a power-hungry megalomaniac of a client than nod, smile, and create something I’m not proud of.

    If you do decide to read that book, do so with a critical eye, and use your own intuition and best judgement regarding the advice therein.

  24. Wonderful insight, thanks for such a valuable report, I fully agree with the listening part. Most of the time we believe doing a presentation at a client (especially the first time) is for us to preach and preach how good we are and our offering, and at that time we totally forget to listen to what the client is looking for. And while at that, i do agree with Winter about doing stuff that you are not proud of.

  25. When I entered my first managerial position a few years out of college, my uncle lent this book to me, expressing his belief in its contents. I read it and have employed many of the tactics since then. But I think a re-read could be in order for a re-fresher course!

  26. Gary Nusinow says:

    I think the key take away here is in your reference to active listening. In my experience, clients want to have the time to explain their business, their marketing strategy, and their creative ideas. Burt they also want to engage in a conversation, a dialogue with creatives they are considering working with. So, it’s not as simple as just listening, and then listening more. There’s a balance one needs to strike in order to provide the client ample time to express themselves, while convincing them that your input and ideas are equally worthy of discussion and consideration. I should note that we all come across clients who by nature see designers as low-value service providers and prefer to dictate the creative services they are paying for. If one wants to maintain a high level of work, these business relationships are best left behind when financial circumstances allow. The best clients are collaborators, not dictators.

  27. Your spot on! The greatest teacher about a business is the owner.

  28. Really good article and some important, valid points. ‘The common blunder and winning them over’ are steps that are vital for any company to win over their design clients.

  29. Some great points and ideas in this article. A very interesting read, thanks for sharing.

  30. ‘The Common Blunder’ in my opinion is the key secret of why people lose design clients! You have to give them space and let him share their own views and opinions every so often. Thanks for sharing

  31. I saw an excellent presentation years ago about cognitive overload. The speaker started the session by rushing into the audience and demanded that an arbitrary audience member tell him a joke. He ended up saying, “You can’t do it, can you?” But then he followed quickly with, “But you could if I told a joke first, couldn’t you?” And he pointed out that if everyone started telling jokes that soon people would start saying, “Oh, that reminds me of the one where such and so happened.” And he pointed out that this was the mistake IBM would make in the early days — freezing the client up by raining them with technical detail rather than listening. It’s like we’re geared to perform, so we go out there in show-dog fashion and deliver a spectacle where none is needed. Winning friends and influencing people is about being a warm, vibrant personality, not an animatronics display.


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