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November 07 2013


How to Evaluate Prospective Clients and Choose the Best Ones


You want good clients and not bad clients, but how can you tell the difference?

If you’ve been a freelance web designer for a while (and especially if you have a strong online presence), this has probably happened to you. Out of the blue, you get an email asking about your web design services from someone you have never heard of working for a company you have never heard of.

Yay! You might think it’s time for a celebration. But as an experienced freelancer, you know to be careful. You know that it’s important to evaluate prospective clients. You shouldn’t agree to work for every single prospect who contacts you.

First of all, you want to make sure that their inquiry is legitimate. And you should also consider whether they are the right client for you.

In this post, I’ll list five steps to help you evaluate a prospective client. At the end of the post, share your tips about how you evaluate clients.

Step 1: Know Your Ideal Client

It may surprise you to learn that the first step to evaluating a client is to know your own business goals better.

If you haven’t already done so, you should build a profile of the type of clients you prefer to work with. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do I prefer a laid-back client, or a more formal relationship?
  2. Are my clients my collaborators, or do I prefer clients with a more hands-off approach?
  3. Is my ideal client technologically savvy or do they need some help with technology?
  4. Is there an industry that I usually work in?
  5. What type of web design do I typically do (and what type do I prefer to do)?

Once you understand what type of client you prefer to work with, you can take steps to target that type of client in your marketing. Most importantly, you can use your ideal client profile to evaluate potential clients.

Step 2: Check the Social Profile

One of the first steps I always take when someone contacts my about my freelancing services is to look at their social media profiles. While it’s true that once in a while you’ll encounter someone who has no social media presence at all, most people do have some sort of profile on one or more of the social media platforms.

Here are the social sites I look at and what I look for:

  • LinkedIn. You can learn a lot about a prospect by looking at their LinkedIn profile. You can tell what their area of expertise is, what their past employment has been, and even what their skills are. I recommend also looking for recommendations.
  • Twitter. If the person has a Twitter profile, I look to see whether the profile is filled out. Do they have an image with their profile? Does their profile link back to their website? Finally, I look at what sort of tweets they are sharing. Are the tweets professional?
  • Google+. Google+ is known for a more technical audience, so a presence here could indicate a more Internet-savvy prospect. Again, I look to see if the profile is filled out and whether it links back to a website. It’s also important to look at what the prospect is sharing.

If the person’s social media profiles or shares are unprofessional, that can be a red flag about doing business with them.

Step 3: Check the Existing Website


If the prospect passes the social media hurdle, it’s time for me to look at their website. Since you’re a web designer and presumably the client is interested in hiring you to change their web design, you don’t necessarily want to be too critical of their current design. In fact, they may not have a website yet.

If the client has a website, here’s what I look for:

  1. Domain. Does the client host the website on their own domain? It’s a huge red flag if the client website is hosted on someone else’s domain like WordPress or Tumblr.
  2. About page. I always read the About page of a prospective client’s website to learn what the client thinks is important about their business.
  3. Blog. If they have a blog attached to their website, I read a few of their most recent posts.
  4. The rest. You may also want to read about the company’s product or service, any executive bios they have posted, and anything else on their site that catches your attention.

As you can see, a client’s website can tell you a lot.

Step 4: Check the Online Reputation

Another step you can take to check out a prospective client is to find out what others are saying about their company. Your first line of defense is the search engine. I typically type in a phrase like:

“Complaints about [company name]“

“Review of [product name]“

Even though the results will indicate what clients think of your prospect’s company, they may indirectly indicate how the company will treat a freelancer. After all, if they don’t treat their own clients well, how likely is it that they will treat a freelancer well?

Here are some other places to check:

  • Better Business Bureau. In the United States and Canada, the Better Business Bureau maintains a directory of accredited businesses and charities. They also keep a listing of complaints against businesses. While not every business is listed here, many are.
  • Google Apps MarketPlace. If the company creates software applications, you may able to find customer reviews on the Google Apps MarketPlace.
  • GlassDoor. Officially, this site is for potential employees of a company. However, if they treat their employees badly, how might they treat a freelancer?

Step 5: Ask Questions


The final step in evaluating a potential client is to ask questions about the project. You may even wish to schedule a phone call or (if you live nearby) a face-to-face meeting. An advantage to doing all the homework in Steps 1 to 4 is that by now you already know a great deal about the prospective client.

If you still have questions about the client, it’s important to ask them before you start to work with them. Naturally, you want to get all of the specifics about the project you will be working on.

To get an idea of how the client works, you can also ask the following questions:

  • Do they prefer frequent progress updates, or will you work mostly independently?
  • Will they be available to answer questions?
  • What is their preferred method of communication (IM, phone, or email)?

A final filter to help you determine whether a client is a good fit is prepayment. I always recommend that freelancers require a new client to pay some or all of the project fee upfront. Most good clients will have no problem doing so.

Your Turn

How do you evaluate prospective clients?

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