Swimming with big fish (finding the perfect client): Part 2

Gold fish in a bowl

This is the second in a two part article. In the first part I looked at the perceived value of design and creative services by small businesses and tried to paint a picture of why it might make sense for a small business to consider using a cheap, untrained, non-professional designer.

In this second part I look more closely at bigger business and why getting in to bed with one of the big boys could not only be financially rewarding, but also help you avoid the feast or famine scenario many freelancers experience.

The Pareto principle and your clients

The 80:20 rule (Pareto principle) is often talked about in business and is applied to many scenarios. Often freelancers will find that 80 per cent of their workload is generated by 20 per cent of their clients. And this is where the big businesses come in.

Most big organisations have whole departments dedicated to procuring services and ensuring everything is audited and above board. When a new contractor is brought in for a project, it usually involves a competitive tender exercise that in turn involves the freelancer answering a set of formal questions on which you will be ‘scored’, explaining the business benefit that you will bring to the organisation and providing examples of previous work.

Freelancers hate tender exercises because they are a complete pain to do, the whole process can take months and there’s no guarantee of any work at the end of it. However, I can promise you that the individuals in big organisations hate going through tender exercises more than you. It is a highly resource intensive process that nobody at the coal face enjoys doing.

This means that big businesses will put off doing tender exercises as much as they can. Or to put in another way, if they are happy with their existing freelancers, they’ll stick with them. There are freelancers that make their entire livings (and good ones at that) from working with one single big client. That’s Pareto’s little-known 100:1 rule.

Targeting the right prospect

Now that we’ve established that big business is where the money is, we can all go home right?… Well, clearly it’s not that simple and I’m the first to confess that I’m a long way off from being able to sit back, relax and wait for one of my big multi-national clients to ring me up with some work.

However, I am fortunate enough to have one big client on my books who I used to be a permanent employee of. That link has allowed me to have an obvious way in, and it is that ‘way in’ that is crucial. There is already plenty of advice published for finding your next client, but I will add my take on two often mentioned methods.

Cold calling

Cold calling is most people’s worst nightmare but the key here is to go in at the right level. It’s easy to buy a data-set of marketing managers and communications managers but when you start calling you’ll find yourself stumbling at the first hurdle trying to navigate your way through the gatekeeper. My advice is to aim a little lower down the hierarchy.

Younger junior managers with a less hectic meeting schedule and who don’t have any phone call-fielding gatekeepers are often quite a lot more receptive to a cold call. What’s more is it is actually these guys who are doing all the work on the projects and are probably managing their own budgets.

It takes a bit of research to discover who the right person to call can be. Luckily PR and marketing people by their very nature love a bit of self publicity and often you can find their contact details on company websites if you dig around in the press sections. Think carefully about who you are going to try and strike a relationship with and go in at the right level.

Chamber of commerce

If you get involved in your local chamber of commerce you will find that there is probably an incredibly active business networking scene in your area. At one end of the scale it can very much be the butcher, baker and candle stick maker - very local, small businesses. This is a great place to start and develop your schmoozing skills and who knows, you may pick up the odd client or two.

However, at the other end of the scale you get the more regional-level networking events with staff and managers from some of the larger companies in your area. Ideally this is the level you want to be spending time and effort networking if it’s big business you want to rub shoulders with.

Do you do business with the big boys

I may well do a third instalment of this article concluding my thoughts in a more succinct fashion and bringing together some of your comments. For now though I’d like to ask you if big business plays a part in your freelance activities and if so how did you reach out to big business and get them on board?

PS - for the purpose of clarity when I talk ‘big business’ I don’t necessarily mean multinationals with budgets of several billion, I just rather broadly mean bigger than your average client.

2 responses

Tracey Grady responded on with…

Hi Aaron, I’ve enjoyed reading this series and look forward to a third installment if you decide to write one. Networking at any level is clearly valuable because it enables a freelancer to discover the needs of their target market … allowing you to tailor your services and develop a specialisation (if that’s the most effective way to go, which for many people it is) for which, ideally, you can become known for and called upon for.

I know someone who in recent years was working solo and began pursuing bigger jobs with bigger clients … but this person’s experience was that they were expected more and more to submit ideas/work on spec, in competition with other design firms, before the job was “awarded” to them or a rival. This became (understandably) very stressful and a huge sap on their time and resources. It’s a shame that this designer felt compelled to go down the spec path in order to expand their business (they have since closed the business and work for an employer now). I don’t know if this has been anyone else’s experience - is it the case that the bigger the client, the more “power” they expect to wield over a competitive market for design contractors/freelancers? I hope that generally freelancers are getting treated better than this. I will always say no to spec work; i would prefer to spend the time on more productive marketing efforts to drum up clients who agree from the start to pay for my work.

Aaron responded on with…

Hi Tracey - I used to sit on the other side of the fence - ie I was the client in the marketing office of a reasonably large organisation. As a team I think everyone had a reasonable understanding of the design industry and we never asked for spec work. Also we worked with some respected design agencies who wouldn’t have touched us with a bargepole if we’d have demanded spec work, and we were aware of that.

Whether that is reflective of the scene in large organisations generally or whether that was atypical I’m not sure. I think tender exercises can very easily cross that line into the realm of spec work and often in larger organisations it is procurement departments that oversee these processes rather than the industry-savvy marketing departments. Therefore there’s a degree of ignorance and I suspect the situation you describe above is not unusual.

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