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How to get more graphic design work? Retain and upsell your existing clients

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Updated on:
December 12, 2022
December 12, 2022
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Maintaining a steady stream of work is a top priority for freelance graphic designers. To win that work, many feverishly pitch new clients, often spending more than seven hours a week sending out LOIs, brainstorming and presenting ideas, and putting together proposals and quotes.

That hustling doesn’t always translate to more clients, however. In fact, more often than not, new clients don’t sign on. According to Marketing Metrics, as few as 13% of prospects end up becoming customers, which means freelancer graphic designers are committing almost a full business day to work with zero ROI.

You could argue this is just the reality of running a business. But we think there’s a better way to use your time and energy to get more graphic design work. Rather than burning yourself out on finding new clients, devote more time to retaining and upselling the clients you already have.

Your current clients are more valuable than new clients

Research has shown that it’s up to 25% less costly to retain an existing client than to sign a new one, and that returning clients tend to spend more.

Finding new clients is hard — 65% of freelancers say it’s one of the biggest challenges they face. Graphic designers face a lot of competition for customers: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 60,000 self-employed graphic designers in the U.S. alone, and on Upwork, a sample search for “graphic design” yields 5,000+ profiles.

At some point, you probably had to jump through these hoops to find work. Now that you have an established customer base, however, you’ll find that going back to your existing clients to get more work is a more profitable use of your time.

How to retain clients

If you want to successfully retain clients and increase your earnings, there are a few things you can do to position yourself for success.

Deliver the goods, professionally

This should come as no surprise. The more a client has loved working with you in the past, the more likely they’ll be to give you more projects later.

The finished product you deliver is part of this, but there’s more to impressing clients than that. Clients also value things like reliability (do you do what you say you’re going to do?); professionalism; and consistent, clear, timely communication (are you easy to reach? do you respond promptly?).

Individual clients may also have different values, and it’s important to identify what these are and make sure you’re meeting or exceeding the client’s expectations. Which brings us to...

Get to know your clients and their businesses

If you want to earn repeat business from your clients, you have to get to know them and their businesses. Specifically, you want to develop a thorough understanding of:

  1. What matters to the client — what goal(s) are they trying to achieve?
  2. How graphic design helps the client reach their goal(s)

When you understand these things, your relationship with your client begins to evolve. When you discuss projects, you’ll start to ask better questions that will help you create finished products that more clearly align with the client’s goals. You’ll start to notice opportunities for graphic design to add value to the business — even before the client sees them. You’ll see yourself as less of an order-taker and more of a strategic partner in your client’s success, and so will the client.

3 steps to winning more graphic design work from existing clients

Retaining clients ensures you keep the income you already have. If you want to increase that income, you need to be proactive. Take the following steps to win more (paid) work:

1. Prevent scope creep with a strong contract

Freelance projects are prone to scope creep, where clients ask you to do work that falls outside of the terms you agreed to. It can be a major drain on your time and energy to push back. The good news is that you can address scope creep and create extra (paying) work for yourself at the same time.

To do so, tightly define the scope of the project at the time of your proposal — and be ready to say no to doing work outside that scope. At the same time, build a maintenance clause into your contract that defines how you’ll be paid for out-of-scope work. Don’t have a contract yet? Here’s a contract template you can use to get started.

Contracts sets client expectations from the get-go and creates a mutually agreed-upon framework for handling any changes to the scope of the project. You’ll often find that clients are happy to pay for additional work as long as they understand why that work doesn’t fall into the original scope.

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2. Add retainers to your projects

A retainer agreement is another way to increase revenue by serving existing clients. With a retainer, a client pays you a fixed amount of money each week (or month) to reserve a specific number of your hours, whether or not the client has any work for you to do. For example, a retainer client might pay you $200 per week in exchange for up to five hours of your time each week. (Retainer hours should not roll over from one time period to the next — they’re “use it or lose it.”)

The goal here isn’t to get money for nothing: a client who consistently pays you and gets nothing back won’t be a client for long. That said, it’s important to check in with your clients and let them know how many hours they have remaining each month so that they can take full advantage of the time they paid for.

When done right, a retainer relationship creates value for both you and the client: you get guaranteed, predictable revenue, and the client gets your guaranteed, predictable availability — they don’t have to worry that your other work will push their project to your backlog.

Here’s a retainer template to get you started. We recommend starting small. Establish a minimum number of deliverables or working hours (say, a couple of hours per week) and gradually increase as the client’s needs do. If the client uses up all of their retainer hours, they can pay you a (higher) hourly rate for more work — but if they’re consistently running out of retainer hours, it’s time to approach them about adding more hours to their retainer agreement.

3. Pitch new projects to clients

A client may not have come to you with a project, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more projects that you can do for them. The more you understand a client and their business, the more you’ll see opportunities to help the client succeed — even if the client hasn’t identified those opportunities yet.

For example, let’s suppose you have a client who asks you to design a “Buy Now” button for their website. On the surface, this is a simple task — create the button according to the client’s specifications and deliver it. However, the better you know your client, the more likely you are to understand how else you might help the client meet their goal (presumably to sell more of a product). You might propose that the client pay you to redesign the product page so it does a better job of selling the product to visitors. Or maybe you suggest a new project where you create an insert that ships with the product and helps reduce returns or angry customer calls about the product.

If you do this right, the client will be grateful because you’ve saved them time and energy by identifying the opportunity for them, and you’ve already got a solution ready for them to sign off on.

A good time to pitch new projects to clients is right after successfully completing another project, especially if your proposed project complements the completed one. You can also incorporate regular project pitches into your ongoing client communications — for example, a monthly meeting or email where you deliver three to four proposals for the client to review and choose from.

Grow sustainably by retaining your existing clients

Save yourself time and energy by prioritizing client retention and upsells over cold-pitching. Do this, and your clients just may refer you to new business — so that you never have to dive back into the LOI ether at all.

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