Marcus Steffan – Clients: can’t live with them, can’t live without them

19th June 2024

The dream project is often given to you by the dream client, but how do we find the right clients for us? Marcus Steffen breaks it down.

Clients are the ones who make our businesses work. It doesn’t matter if you dream of making the most amazing lighting design, if a client is not going to pay you to do it, you cannot realise that dream. But dealing with them can be difficult, and causes huge stress. So how do we find those dream clients?

Not everyone is a client

The first thing to realise, is that not every person is a client. Not every enquiry is the right one for you. As an example, MS Lighting Design specialises in residential and hospitality projects. If I get an enquiry for laying out a 600×600 grid in an office, or producing an external landscape design for a commercial property, I will tell them we are not the right designer for them. These are not right for us, and our service is not tailored to them.

This might sound counterintuitive for a person running a business, but actually it is essential to learn. You need to learn what you do and don’t do for your business, or who you are as a designer. Ask yourself, what do you enjoy doing? What kind of projects are you an expert in, more than anyone else?

It is often much better to be an expert in a small area rather than a jack-of-all-trades. Clients will often want to hire an expert if they value what they are getting. And the clients who do not value lighting design? They are not going to want to pay the fees you are justified earning.

Finding good clients

Finding the right client is not done when an enquiry comes in, but starts in your marketing and online presence. This can act as a filter to push away clients who are not the right fit before they even enquire, and attract ones who are a good fit. While this might reduce the total number of enquiries, it will increase the value and conversion of these clients. To go about this, you can do a number of things:

• Define what it is like working with your company. Show the client how it will be to work with you, the process you go through, and how you are organised. If they like the way you work, then there will be a lot less friction. If you work a four-day week, tell them, and then they cannot justify getting upset if you are not in the office on Fridays.

• Show your style. If you love colour in your projects, and big, flamboyant designs, then show this, so that you only get clients who want this style of design. Attract the designs you want, and say no to the ones that don’t align with what you love.

• Show off your values. What is it that you care about the most? Talk about that on your social and written media. If your company is focused heavily on sustainability and circular design, it is going to be challenging to work with a quick, cheap shop fitting company, which often has a lot of waste. Put these values front and centre and they will filter your enquiries to ones who want that expertise.

Avoiding bad clients

Finding good clients is often a case of being able to say no to the bad ones. The number one reason we say yes to bad clients is money. If you have no way to pay the bills at the end of the month, you will compromise. To really build those amazing partnerships, you have to wait for the right clients to arrive. To wait for them, you need to have money in the bank.

If you can cover expenses for at least three months (sometimes more depending on sector), you can say no to a project and reliably find something in the future. This is essential to both balance out the ebb and flow of work, and not be forced into accepting a poor project.

If you don’t have this buffer, the client can push down your fee, change the terms, etc, and you will still have a hard time saying no. This is also true if you are an employee looking for a job, where you need to be able to look for the right job, not a job right now.

Unfortunately, the other best way of avoiding a bad client is experience. Once you have had a few you start to recognise them. For example, if someone said to me that money is no object, I am going to run a mile. Money is always a consideration, so I am either talking with someone who has no control over the money, or no appreciation for it, and both of those are bad.

Keeping good clients

It costs on average approximately four times as much to acquire a new client as it does to keep an existing client. So, maintaining those relationships with good clients is essential. I have found there are three stages to knowing I am going to be able to work with someone long term:

1. First Impression

The first impression is important, so try to make one. All the cliches apply here (don’t be late, be prepared, etc).

2. First Invoice

When you send the first invoice, this is a key moment. We always take a deposit for starting a project, and how the client treats this is a good indicator of whether you will be working with them in the future. If it is argued over, paid late, etc, it is going to be difficult to work with them. There is no point doing the work if you are not getting paid on time. Conversely, those clients who pay the invoice immediately are often some of the best clients to work with. They appreciate your services, value them and want to make sure you are looked after.

3. First Mistake

This is a big one. There will be mistakes. We all work on hugely complicated projects which can take years to complete. If someone says that they never make a mistake, then they’re lying. Mistakes are a part of the work and working together to fix them is essential. How you approach the first mistake with the client will really define your relationship with them and this can come from both sides. If the first reaction is to blame someone and shift responsibility, then it will turn bad quickly. If the client engages with you and wants to work constructively to find a solution, then they have the potential to be a dream client.