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Feel like you’re spinning your wheels doing more and more work but staying in the same place? Do you look at your marketing materials and get the nagging feeling that there’s something missing? Or worse have you noticed that your flow of new clients has changed and you don’t know why? This is the frustrating experience of far too many design firms who do quality work but don’t have the volume of new business to ease those midnight worries.

Is doing work keeping you from getting work?

You have always focused on doing quality work and in fact these days you’re probably spending lots of time to make sure that the job gets done right. Which is a good thing because satisfied clients then tell others about your great work right? Well it is true that referrals are one of the best sources of new work, but depending on your niche it might be difficult to generate enough volume from referrals especially in the early days of your firm.

But weren’t you told (like I was) that keeping busy is the key to success? Again, this is difficult to answer in just few words. Obviously we can’t spend all of our time thinking about the business and not working. But when in the back of our minds if we realize that we’ve been avoiding thinking about the business we need to take action (more on that later.)

Are you missing critical signs from your clients?

It goes without saying that you’re very good at your job and care about the results you provide for each client. And you’re comfortable with the process of putting the pieces together to help achieve your client’s goals. But what if I told you that all that time spent won’t get you the clients you want as fast as your business needs them?

What really attracts new clients is a clear understanding that you will solve a problem they have or enable a result they want to achieve. In order to be in high demand you should look at why your best clients hire you now and also think about what your desired clients want from your firm. You can ask your best clients now why they hired you (and be willing to push them a little after their first answer to get to the real reason). It’s a bit uncomfortable but rest assured that just by doing this first step you are doing more than most businesses in your niche.

Back to the start

So you’ve asked your best clients about why they hired you- now what? You can continue to build the foundation by looking at your competitors and asking what is it about your firm that would make a client knock on your door. Just as a building must have a strong foundation to withstand challenging situations, your business needs to have a strong foundation to help sustain it through tough times. And that foundation should be something that resonates with you and supports why you chose to run a design firm in the first place.

However, this new foundation might make you a bit uncomfortable, or sound like a bit of a stretch. If done right it should make your business the only choice for your potential clients. It might push you out of your comfort zone because it might be a bit different from what you are delivering now. But I’ll bet it’s also a different way of talking about what you do that more than likely uses language that your ideal client uses as well.

I know that this can be a painful exercise because we are not used to doing this type of work on a regular basis. It can be downright hard (trust me I know!) to think ‘big picture’ like this versus spending time on that job that’s behind schedule or on that exciting project which is going to be the one that puts your firm on the map! There are a million reasons to put this off, but investing the time and effort now will not only help you attract the kind of clients you enjoy working with but can help bring a steady stream of prospects who identify with the solutions you provide.

A little bit set aside adds up to a whole lot quickly

In order to start down this path you should consider a few tasks:

  • Set aside time each week, whether that’s a few hours a day or a half day a week for a few weeks to make it happen. Spend some time talking to your best clients and try to understand why they hired you (they may look at you a bit funny when you ask). Also think about what matters a lot to your ideal client -not just in an abstract way, but picture talking to just one client. If you envision a single client, it can help you zone in on what real problems you can solve.
  • Once you have an idea of the problems a great way to move ahead quickly is by engaging a coach or consultant to guide you as you build your foundation. I have recently started this process (with Peter Sandeen) but had to talk with a few different potential consultants to make sure there was a fit. And although I knew that this was the right thing to do it was indeed difficult to get down and actually write the cheque! I thought of many reasons not to move forward because I was looking for excuses to avoid having to confront this hard work. But in the end I believe it will be worth it and will help me align all of the different messages about what we deliver and which clients we work best with.

I’ll be honest – branding your firm is a lot of work, some of it uncomfortable. But If you take the time to listen to your clients’ biggest problems and have solutions that help them, you will be well on the way to growing your base. And that in my opinion is not a waste of time.

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Have you had any changes in your level of business that you can’t explain? Please let us know in the comments below!



  1. Without a doubt that establishing your brand identity rigorous procedure but keep in mind that it is vital if you want your design firm to have great results.

    • @Carolyn – do you think that it is different for design firms versus other types of businesses?


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