10 Secrets to Attract Clients and Increase Your Income

Build a Better Business

Ten secrets to attract clients and increase your income

When it comes to small businesses and freelancing, there’s no shortage of business books on the market. They cover all the traditional, important stuff about business plans and tried-and-true marketing campaigns. That’s not what this article is about. Instead, this is a collection of key ideas about street-smart marketing and good ways to make money. And even though these ideas were intended for designers and photographers, they should work for all kinds of small businesses.

As the Executive Director of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP), I talk to lots of freelance photographers and designers who are just getting started or who are having tough times. Many of them ask for advice. This article is based on some of the things I share with these folks, and I know these things work because I’ve been there and I’ve tried them.

On the surface, you may have heard of some, if not all, of the following ideas, but make sure you read beyond the titles because there are secrets hidden in each of the ten that people often miss.

1. Decide where you want to be in the marketplace: And then design your materials, packages, and your attitude to fit that image. Also consider basing your image on the kind of clients you’d like to have.

The obvious, easiest place to position yourself in the marketplace is to compete on price, but this introduces a couple of major problems. The first and biggest problem is that you have to do a lot more work to match the income of someone working at higher prices. And when you’re not working on a paid project, you’re usually scrambling to find more work. You simply won’t have the luxury of time to ever give your clients an extra photo treatment they didn’t ask for, or one or two additional logo options. Those extras make clients happy and loyal.

The other big problem is that it’s hard to ever raise your prices. If your clients view you as the low-price provider (because that’s how you’ve marketed yourself) then anyone with a lower price is going to take your business. There’s very little loyalty when a client makes decisions based primarily on price. And there’s no shortage of people willing to do what you do for less money.

2. Offer something truly unique: Special services, unique products, and cutting-edge design will help you stand out from the crowd. The added bonus is that if you’re doing something no one else is doing, you set the price for it. Maybe your special something is a type of graphic border you do on your work. Maybe it’s one of your output offerings (like photo books, wall clings, canvas wraps, printing on crystal, etc.). The point here isn’t what you should be offering, but that you should make yourself fully aware of all the latest looks and trends, and stay ahead of the pack. And you’ll need to constantly research your industry to stay in the lead, because your competition is sure to start copying what you do as soon as they learn how.

For example, if you’re a photographer, there are some popular “looks” that can put you out in front of your competition. One of those looks (though it’s coming to the end of its cutting-edge status these days) is high dynamic range (HDR) photography or even simulated HDR. Most people buying photography think HDR looks amazing. They’re even willing to pay a premium for it. If you’re a photographer or designer who uses photography, and you don’t offer HDR or simulated HDR, do it today while there’s still time!

3. Be seen as an expert and get out there: Make presentations at the chamber of commerce, Kiwanis and Rotary lunches, business clubs, the local library, or wherever you can find an audience.

This should not be a sales pitch. In fact, many clubs even prohibit or strongly discourage sales pitches at their meetings, so don’t talk price or packages. Your presentation should be an informative overview that tells people what you do and gives them some insight into your craft. Try to make it interesting. Funny and self-deprecating is good too. Your primary goal is to be seen as an expert so that anybody who might be looking for your services will think of you. And if you’re shy about public speaking, start by joining a local Toastmasters to get used to being in front of people, and then do some presentations at middle schools until you’re comfortable talking to a crowd.
Next, make sure you’ve got a compelling topic and title. Something like, “The Secrets of Good Design” is kind of lame and folks will fall asleep just reading the title. But if your program is “The Top Five Things Designers Never Tell their Clients,” you’ll hook them. The added bonus of having a list of five or ten things is it’s unlikely that the host will cut you off because the meeting is running over a couple of minutes.
And if you want to add that extra punch to your presentation, hand out a nice, professionally designed card that has the main points of your presentation, along with blank lines for them to take notes during your talk. People who follow along and write things down on the card are much more likely to take that card when they leave than if you just passed out business cards. And, of course, you have all your contact information strategically on your lecture card.

4. Do some charitable work, both strategically and altruistically: Most people understand right away why they should do strategic charitable work. Everybody wants to be seen giving to charity and lots of corporate folks who make purchase decisions also participate in charitable work as volunteers. If your charitable gift is a designed poster or a large, meaningful framed photograph you shot, you have strategically given in a way that your gift is potentially both a tax write-off and an advertisement.

But you should give altruistically as well. Pick a charity you believe in and give monetarily, volunteer time, or donate your professional work—or all of these. In my decades in business I’ve discovered that almost everyone prefers to do business with people they like. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. Truly giving, when you expect nothing in return, can quite possibly open some doors you never expected to walk through. And the worst that could happen is that you’ll actually help someone in need.

5. Work really hard, work really smart, get really busy, then dump some clients: Okay, you don’t really dump them but hand them off to someone else.
If you pick up almost any book on business, you’ll find a reference to the “80/20 Rule.” Essentially, it says that 80% of your income will come from 20% of your clients. This means that you should work extra hard to keep those special clients happy and well served. One of the best ways to do this is to pass some of your least income-producing, most time-intensive clients off to others in your industry. If you do the handoff right, both your former clients and your competitors (who now have new clients, thanks to you) now like you, and you have more free time to chase and serve better income-producing clients.
And it usually turns out that most of the clients who pay a little more for professional work tend to treat you more like a professional. In my experience, 80% of my headaches and complaints came from the bottom 20% of my clients, and all too often, those were the clients I got as a result of being a low-price bidder. It’s good to put those clients behind you whenever you can.

6. Have a great website (but remember, not everyone sees your site the way you do): These days, if you’re a freelance designer or photographer and you don’t have a great Web-based portfolio, you’re immediately cutting your potential market in half, or worse. No excuses, you’ve got to have a great portfolio online. All your competition does.

The problem with an online presence is that everybody has one (so you’re not unique) and an even bigger issue is that the computer your prospective client is using to view your website, often stinks. Most cool portfolios are Flash-based and I have yet to see a Flash-based portfolio that runs as fast as a busy ad agency exec would like to flip through the images.

Remember that thing earlier about offering something extra or unique? It applies here too. Imagine that the typical ad agency exec in charge of hiring photographers has just a few minutes to look at your work. Sure, they’re used to looking at websites, and if that’s what they prefer, you should have something for them to view. But if you also had a coffee-table-style hardback book of your images to give to your possible client, now you stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd. Not just a portfolio with prints shoved in sheet protectors; I’m talking about a thoughtfully designed book with subtle marketing messages and all your contact information on the cover. The book will sit on their desk after you leave, even when they’re reviewing other portfolios online. It might even go home with them one evening.
These books can be created affordably at Mpix, Apple, Blurb, or any of a dozen places online, and they add a dimension and presence to your work that a website alone can’t touch. This might just be the extra advantage you need.

7. Enter contests so you can be an award-winning designer or photographer: Don’t enter for the prizes, because the goal is to win awards; the prizes are just a little bonus.

People want to hire proven experts. Ironically, it doesn’t matter if your awards are local or from some industry-related magazine or website. The point is that you’ve won awards for your work. This puts clients at ease because they know your work has been recognized by industry experts. Do you think clients would rather hire Angela Harrison, Designer, or Award-Winning Designer, Angela Harrison?

And if you want to take this a step further, join a national association, take a couple of classes and some tests, and then add some abbreviated credentials to your business card and marketing materials.

8. Hang out with professionals (in other industries): Sure, if you’re a designer, you might join the local advertising or PR club. If you’re a photographer you’ll probably find yourself attending some rubber-chicken dinners at the local photography club. That’s almost a given. But there’s an equally large benefit to joining a group or two of local professionals outside your industry. They might become prospects, or they might not. But if you have a couple of business-smart friends, you can ask them for their views on things happening outside of your industry—a lot of times you can use this information to get ahead of people that have become “stuck” in your industry. There’s definitely value to these professional meetings, as they keep your finger on the pulse of more than just your industry.

9. Use templates, actions, and any other tools you can get your hands on to streamline your workflow: The key is getting the maximum possible work done in the least amount of time.

I often talk to people who want to learn how to do various effects directly in Photoshop without using any plug-in software. That’s fine if your goal is the knowledge itself. But if the goal is to save money so you don’t have to buy the plug-ins in the first place, let’s consider the time saving of the plug-in vs. the investment cost.

For instance, there’s a great plug-in on the market for softening and smoothing skin called Portraiture from Imagenomic ( I found a setting that does exactly what I want and it does it consistently in just 10 to 20 seconds. I know how to do this in Photoshop but it takes me about 10–15 minutes, depending on the image. Even if you’re really fast at something like this in Photoshop and this plug-in only saves you around four or five minutes per image, it can still pay for itself in no time at all.

And it’s not just plug-ins. There are full-blown design templates, special effects, and collections of actions that can all speed up your workflow. Consider what you spend most of your time doing repetitively, and then see if there’s a template or an action that can do it for you.

10. When it comes to business advice, take what you want and leave the rest: This is one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given. If some of the advice you just read doesn’t make sense to you, ignore it. Do what works for you.
The important thing to remember is that very few people actually have an entrepreneurial mind. I can’t tell you how many times I shared business ideas with friends and family and they responded with all the reasons it wouldn’t work, only to discover later that I was right and my ideas actually did work.

Don’t get me wrong, your friends and family are the people who really want you to succeed. They have your best interests at heart and they don’t want to see you get hurt or be disappointed. They’re just telling you that they wouldn’t do what you have in mind because they don’t understand it. Don’t be discouraged and don’t get angry. In fact, it’s not always a good idea to try to explain things fully and try to convince them. Sometimes you just have to go ahead and show them that you can do it.