What designers with endless clients and referrals do but you don’t (yet)

Here at Millo we talk a lot about how to convince your design clients to hire you again (and again and again and again). We’ve talked about upselling your next design project and when the right time is to ask for referrals.

But what if you didn’t have to do any convincing? What if your clients called you “their favorite call of the week?”

You might say you’ve died and gone to freelancer heaven. All right here on Earth.

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And guess what? This tip has very little to do with your design skills. Yep, you don’t have to be an expert illustrator, web designer, or logo designer.

Learn how to be invaluable to your clients.

You’re probably thinking right now, “Duh. That’s pretty common-sense knowledge.” But you’d be SO surprised how many freelancers lose clients not because of their design skills, but rather because of their client relationship.

Think about it. How many of your clients have complained about a poor experience with their last designer?

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“I could never get ahold of them.”

“They always missed deadlines.”

“They were rude to me when I asked them for changes.”

“They hold my information hostage – I don’t have any of the passwords to my website.”

Unless you are so absolutely amazing at your design work that your projects save or earn your clients buckets of money, you’ll find that many clients actually value some aspect of your relationship more than your design skills. (Think about how many below-average designers retain clients.)

Understanding your clients

The hard part is learning what strengthens each client relationship; what makes you invaluable to each client (and it’s probably different for each one).

Pay attention when you communicate with your client. What makes them sigh in relief? When do you get those “thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!” emails?

If you’re struggling to make a strong connection with a client, ask them how you can make their lives easier. Would helping them pitch your work to their boss(es) make it an easier sell? Maybe setting a weekly phone call time would make it easier for you two to connect on a regular basis. Make them feel like you’re a team working toward the same goal.

Next, try finding common ground outside of work. Maybe you both play the same instrument, like the same sci-fi novels, or enjoy hiking. Ask them how their holidays went, how they enjoyed their weekend, or send them well wishes when they’re ill.

If you can determine what makes you invaluable to your clients and provide that service, they’ll be clients forever AND refer you to their friends, without you having to ask. (Although it’s always good to remind them from time to time.)

How to be invaluable

Making yourself invaluable might seem like an insurmountable task, but it’s easier than you think.

Let me share an example:

I fix and update proprietary project management software for one of my clients. While I’m a pretty solid web programmer, I know I’m not the fastest. I’m probably not the least buggy. And I’m not the cheapest, either.

So what makes my client so fiercely loyal? My responsiveness.

We’ve had more than one session where they’ve broken something on their website and we’ve sat on the phone together racing against the end of the workday so they can get people on their job sites the following morning.

And that, to them, is an invaluable service.

Here are some more examples:

  • Having a top-notch skill
  • Being available for quick turnaround projects
  • Providing step-by-step assistance
  • Suggesting the latest technology/social media/money-saving ideas that will improve their business
  • Developing a relationship with your client (showing you care about more than their business)
  • Being inexpensive
  • Having extreme patience
  • Expressing your honest opinion (even if your client will disagree)
  • Maintaining their website

The caveat

Sometimes, you find that what your clients crave is something you can’t or don’t want to provide. (Like that client who wants to treat you like their punching bag.)

I probably don’t have to tell you that these types of clients aren’t keepers, even if what they consider most invaluable isn’t abusive or absurd. You might just not be a good fit for one another. So finish your project, pass them on to a better fit and find yourself a client with whom you can be invaluable and enjoy it.

How have you created a forever client?

Share your story about how you’ve created a forever client – or one who has referred you other business. How are you invaluable to your client? How did you find out what was most important to them? Leave us a comment!

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  1. Hi April

    A very useful post indeed.

    Lately I have realized (or maybe its self doubt ) that I have not been getting repeat jobs from the clients. Mainly also my target is small business owners who actually don’t need my service that often. But this year I am definitely going to push to put more “love” in my designs. Working full time and taking care of my design business doesn’t do justice to my work (sometimes).

    But your posts reminds me that I have to work in this direction more or else I will be working with one off clients all the time!

    1. Pyramid Pixels,

      Finding repeat clients is huge – sometimes, clients just need a one-off project, and that’s ok. But sometimes you can turn those one-offs into repeat clients. Here’s how:

      – See something you can improve upon? Mention it when you’re wrapping up the current project.

      – Keep in touch. Email them a few months after your project finishes. Ask if it’s working out well and remind them that you’re happy to work with them in the future if the need arises.

      Good luck!


  2. Hi April, thanks for this helpful post.
    I’m a graphic designer (above average), my biggest client is an NGO that works at improving the lives of children and youths through education and income generating activities.I think what makes them happy is my patience and how knowledgable I’ve become about the organisation that I am able to offer advice when I think there’s a problem with the brief. The other thing I do is use my printing contacts to help them meet flight deadlines by printing poster presentations overnight if necessary. They are nice to me!

    1. Christian,

      Wow – sounds like you’ve got a feel-good client – good for you!

      One of the most valuable assets you can offer once you’ve been with a client for some time is your knowledge of their organization. Once you understand their needs and goals, you can offer advice to clarify and tighten up their information to improve its impact.

      Thanks for sharing!


  3. This is a really underrated topic. Something I think every freelancer should read once a quarter just to be reminded how important ‘the small stuff’ is.

    I believe patience is the most important thing in client relationships. Learning how to listen first and build-on/improve client-ideas makes them feel appreciated.

    Just as designers have processes that work for them so do clients. With patience you can more easily adapt to each clients unique style of doing things.

    1. Ryan,

      I couldn’t agree with you more – “the small stuff” is what makes a long, mostly happy relationship.

      Thanks for sharing your insight!


  4. Being honest, responsive and etc definitely helps with gaining clients trust. I always make sure to include the client in as much of the process as I can. Sending emails and responding right away helps establish a great deal of trust throughout the process.

  5. Great post! Thanks for sharing this insight. It’s definitely a valuable area to look into and will help build a good loyal client base. Now to find out how I can implement it.

  6. Hello April, this is probably something everybody knows deep down, but never really thinks about out loud.
    I really don’t know what I could add to this.
    The only thing that comes to mind is that my clients deeply appreciate my honesty even when I tell them that the idea they had in mind is TERRIBLE.
    Given that I’m a book cover designer it often happens that the client already “knows everything” about how the cover should look.
    The most important thing is to be patient, willing to help (because your client needs your help) and to do the best you can.
    If your client isn’t satisfied with that, then such a client isn’t a keeper.

    Thanks, Alexander

    1. Well said, Alexander. Patience and steering your client away from what they like vs what will resonate with their audience.

      The good clients realize you’re the expert and will listen.

      Thanks for sharing!

  7. Hi April, great article, thanks!

    Would you follow the same principles when freelancing for an agency? And how do you prevent agencies from taking advantage of you? (i.e. not getting clear briefs from their clients, and then expecting you to do numerous revisions/brief changes for free?)



    1. Nadia,

      Putting together a contract is vital to taking care of yourself and your design business. Just because agencies know what it’s like to be taken advantage of doesn’t mean that they themselves won’t angle for every penny.

      In your contract, you should specify how many revisions they/their clients get before it goes to an hourly rate. If they consistently run into the hourly rate, perhaps they aren’t passing along the right information or have poor communication with the client.

      Also, when working with a middleman, I make sure to note in my email that I will not start working on a project until I receive X, Y, and Z. (Or, if in the middle, all work is halted until I receive what I need.) Then they know they’re on the clock to get you the materials you need to work…and any delays are their fault. Save your emails for proof!

      Does that help?


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