Gain Design Work by Building Trust and Relationships

Recently in a live interview with Neenah Paper I was asked, “What advice would you give to those trying to promote their business and gain more work?” My response – “Build trust and relationships and the rest will follow.” During and following the interview I received an excessive amount of positive feedback and ‘What do you mean?’ questions regarding this statement, so I thought it would be best to expand on this statement.

Two main reasons individuals choose any business, product, service, etc. to spend their money: We either really like what we are spending our money on or we enjoy where we are spending it because they have trust and faith in what we are purchasing – both of which can be applied in one way, shape or form to a design business, or any business for that matter.

While the first, ‘we like what we are spending our money on’, is obvious – the client has to enjoy the work in our portfolios – but the second, trust, in my opinion is the most important and valuable to a business. Forming relationships is essential to growth. Below are 10 ways to build trust and form relationships, online and off, that will keep design work coming your way.

1. Offer help

Social media is a great opportunity for helping others. With people following hundreds and thousands of people on sites like Twitter and Facebook there are tons of questions to be answered, resources to be shared, etc. Helping out not only showcases your talents and dedication to your field, but it helps build trust and relationships through shared knowledge – you become viewed as a resource and trusted as the ‘go-to’ person.

2. Explain why, not how

Explain to your clients WHY you are making the choices and doing the things you are doing (ie: I choose this font because it is legible and sophisticated, so your Investor readers will not suffer from eye fatigue). Your clients will trust your judgment more because they will have a better understanding of your work and decision making.

Especially in a field that can be viewed as completely subjective to “good” design, offering and explaining reasoning is key.

3. Be accessible

Answer emails promptly, return phone calls quickly, etc. Think about it from their perspective – you just gave someone a thousand dollars and haven’t heard from them in a few weeks. Even I would start to worry!

I try to keep my clients in the loop as much as possible by email / phone and letting them know how things are progressing. I find when I do this clients are much more lenient and trust your professional judgment.

4. Get testimonials

Testimonials are a great addition to a designers website/portfolio. It allows other clients to view how people, like them, view your services. Even some of my clients have allowed me to hand out their phone number or email if I needed future recommendations – now that’s building relationships!

5. Demonstrations

Another great addition to your website, portfolio or blog is a documented creative processes. It showcases how you work and what a potential client is investing their money and time in.

On this site you will find a few of my logo design processes, where I showcase sketches, concepts, briefs and more.

6. Under promise, over deliver

Let’s say you just landed a new website project and estimate that it will  take you 4–6 weeks to complete… Don’t quote your clients four weeks only because it sounds better.

It’s always best to under promise and over deliver – even though it might only take four weeks, instead of the quoted six, you’re client will be much happier because you exceeded their expectations.

7. Put on your best face

In an online world where everything is becoming less personal, putting a face to your site or blog brings back the human personality. Spend extra time perfecting your About Me page and add a photo or two of yourself. Those reading your site will feel more connected to your work and you, thus feeling more connected and trusted.

8. Results

If nothing else, people trust results and love to see actual data. Get in touch with old clients and ask them if their business has increased since the re-brand you developed for them.

Document the results and ask if you can share with others or through a testimonial.

9. Establish your credentials

Like the saying, or Jeff Fisher says, “you have to toot your own horn from time to time because no one else will.” Having a list of your achievements, credentials and accomplishments is a great way to establish yourself as an expert in your industry without sounding self-centered.

10. Be upbeat and personable

Having a great personality online and off is a must have. When speaking with someone or meeting them in person be upbeat and positive and carry this over to your online social media. People enjoy engaging with those who are approachable and will certainly come to you if they need work. Be a pleasure to work with and the rest will follow.

Discussion and Comments

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  1. Excellent post, Brian! Great advice and on the items that I have already implemented I can completely agree and vouch for their contribution to my freelance success. I just started working on putting together a testimonial page for my site also, so that’s a good kick in the pants from you to get it going. Really enjoy your blog – keep up the god work!

  2. “Under promise, over deliver”, I’ve always practiced this. It’s good for two reasons. a) you might run into unexpected problems, and project may take longer than expected… so it’s good to have that little bit of wiggle room — and b) more often, you’ll finish up early, and the client will be happy with you finished early.

    Thanks for sharing, great article.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Excellent, thought-provoking post. I notice a couple of themes here. First, we need to offer the same high level of customer service other industries need to offer. Second, our clients often have very little idea what we’re doing.
    Sometimes, we take this second fact and use ti to exempt ourselves from the first. “We are the mighty gurus who know and the clients should merely trust us, since they are ignorant,” some web firms imply.
    But really, the fact that our clients don’t understand our work means that they’ve already taken quite a leap of faith just in hiring us. They’re bound to be nervous. Explaining what we’re doing and being accessible can really help to reassure clients, and they’ll appreciate it.

  4. leon says:

    Great read! On the whole I agree with your point regarding being accessible, but experience has shown me that clients also get used to you being prompt with responses since you set expectations. And then, when one day you don’t have the time you usually have for that client because you have a lot to do they expect you to be prompt too. If you catch my drift.

  5. Preston Lee says:

    I love point #2 (Explain why, not how) I decided to start doing this recently when one of my clients started telling me why my design was “nothing like what we discussed”. I then went back through the design and added “notes from the designer” which included references to my original notes and things that he had mentioned to me when we first met.

    When he understood why I did what I did, he was much more open to the designs I had given him. He could see that I HAD taken into account his wishes and used them in the problem-solving process that design really is.

    I also loved the thought about showing the creative process. When I visited CREATURE (a creative agency in Seattle, WA) A guy who had received three portfolios that day told me he only liked one- and for that very reason: he showed the process not just the end result. I’ve written up a whole post on this experience too if you would like to check it out (I think your readers would enjoy it, Brian) –>

    Thanks for the GREAT post!

  6. Dwyndal says:

    I love this post – great wealth of information and I agree fully with each of these ten steps. Even managing 2-3 of these is a step in the right direction. My favorite is 2. Explain why, not how, it’s always best to let your clients know you are educating then not demanding an outcome. They appreciate you coming to their level and the feeling you give them to lift them to yours. We all have a drive for knowledge.

    Great post!

  7. chad engle says:

    Good job Brian! I have always tried to be accessible for whatever someone needs. Its proved to be an amazing way for me to connect with people and make some great connections.

  8. Great tips, I always intentionally overestimate how much time it will take me to deliver the project. This way I always come in early (looking like ahero) or if something goes wrong, I almost always have enough time to come in on time :)

  9. Mark says:

    Very great read! Some good tips here to keep work flow coming in.

    Keep up the good work!

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  11. Liz says:

    Good Article Brian! I think all points are spot on. For me, running a one-woman web studio it is all about building that interaction with my client, that’s what they come to me FOR. ….All of us make jokes about stuff from time to time, and may complain about this or that – but I truely LOVE some of my clients, the growth of their business is important to me and I helping them put their best foot forward get my blood PUMPING.

  12. Great suggestions – and thanks for the mention!

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Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello: