A Guide On How Freelancers Can Compete Against Large Design Studios

A Guide On How Freelancers Can Compete Against Large Design Studios

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Big VS Small

In this guest article, Jeffrey Way* talks us through the problems associated with being a lone freelancer when competing against the big brick and mortar design companies. He then shows us that we can actually compete against these large design studios by providing the best customer experience possible.

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Let’s face it, being a freelancer is just plain tough. In what other arena is one person responsible for answering the phones, balancing the books, paying the bills, designing the website, creating the graphics, and working with the customers throughout the entire process? Yet, despite our amazing ability to juggle all of these duties, we still face one large barrier. We don’t have that glowing brick building that somehow screams, “We are a successful company!” As a result, it can be difficult to “capture” large clients.

We Have To Beat the Big Guys

Beat The Big GUys

Today, freelancers are becoming more and more prevalent. Why not? It is a fantastic job. We set our own hours, we take on only the jobs that we desire, we have artistic freedom, etc. But, the biggest gripe I hear repeated time and time again is the fact that the main client pool consists of people with tiny budgets. You also may want some tips on how to get your first job.

We’ve all done the local work for far less than we would normally charge. We’ve all received the email from the guy that needs an E-Commerce website for $200.” We’ve all had the regrettable experience of taking a job against our better judgment. When our stomachs are screaming, “Don’t accept this job!”, we ignore it and must ultimately deal with the repercussions: the man with the $150 budget for business cards that expects you to work around the clock; the person who promised he would pay you only to suddenly change his mind a week later. Do you know how much the average graphic designer earns?

Quite simply, the small jobs don’t pay the bills. In order to succeed, we have to beat the big guys. Who are the big guys, you ask? I’m talking about the established design firms in those “brick buildings” that do exquisite work. But, how do you stand out when you’re the shortest guy in the room?

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What can we offer that they can not?

To truly be content and financially secure as a freelancer, we must be able to grab the large clients. But bottom line, why would a financially stable company go with a freelancer when they can easily choose a more reputable firm? To answer these questions we must look at our strengths.

What can we offer that they can’t? There are a few constants. First, we most likely won’t be able to out-perform a team of designers as far as “chops” are concerned. I believe we can equal that level of quality, but won’t be able to stand out in this respect. Second, we can out-price them, but cost typically isn’t as big an issue with large corporations. So, how do we beat the design firms?

Customer Service

Coffee Break

Think to yourself: What is my main gripe, as a consumer, with large companies? My first thought goes to my bank. I called them recently to remove an erroneous error only to be put on hold for thirty minutes. When I finally did speak with a human being, he most likely lived in another country and had little, if any, interest in my situation. They, like many large companies, have terrible customer service! We can use this to our advantage.

Nine times out of ten, a prospective client doesn’t know exactly what he wants. He doesn’t know the jargon or even how to communicate a semblance of what his company desires. This is where we can rise above the larger design firms.

Act As a Guide

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Act As A Guide

It may require a bit more work, but it ultimately gets us the contract. New clients are weary about the entire process. It is foreign to them. If we act as a guide, we can take their hand from beginning to end and provide them with the comfort of knowing that someone is looking out for them every step of the way.

If they have a question, they can directly call us – no receptionists, no programmer that doesn’t know the full details, just one person. In my experience, this has been vital to my success.

I’m a firm believer that customer service is what has gotten me every single big client that I have. There will always be an individual or company that can do the job better. As much as this agitates me, I accept it. To stand out, we must focus on our unique “freelancer” strengths.

Use Deadlines to Your Advantage

What you’ll find, if you haven’t already, is that deadlines are a very real issue with corporate clients. They must have a job completed by a certain date, no questions asked. The only problem is that they very rarely have all their ducks in a row.

They have sudden changes that come from corporate which require immediate revisions. Who is going to make these changes in the middle of the night in time for that presentation Monday morning? They know that the successful Firm X designers won’t be at work until Monday morning. But, Freelancer Y is a single ring away and will be happy to fix it at midnight. Yes, I’m talking about you, fellow freelancers!

How do I personally get big clients?


How do I personally “reel” in a big fish? First, I will work on weekends when the bigger firms are closed. Second, I will give a client my personal number and tell them to call me immediately if they think that they might have a question. Third, I’ll pick up the phone on the first ring – whether that is at two in the afternoon or four in the morning. When a client knows that he can rely on you no matter what, you begin to stand out in a big way! Editors note: First ring is pretty freaky!

I will close with a portion of an email that, just a few weeks ago, secured a very large client’s business.

“I truly hope you’ll consider me. If you have not already heard from other divisions in your organization, I will be personally available to you 24/7. If you need a quick change to the site at 10:00 at night, it’ll be taken care of. If you need me to communicate with your print designer in the very early morning, it will be taken care of. Relieving you of as much stress as possible is my goal – and I always achieve it.” Please don’t hesitate to call me personally if you have any questions. I’ll hope to work with you soon.

The client called me later (without ever being put on hold, I might add) that day and said, “Let’s do it!” Was it my “web chops” that got me the job? Nah, any developer can code a site. My “customer service chops” got me the job.

*Jeffrey Way runs DetachedDesigns, and has had clients ranging from Nashville Music Publishers to Harvard University.

34 thoughts on “A Guide On How Freelancers Can Compete Against Large Design Studios”

  1. Hey everyone, I’m the author of this article. I wanted to say a couple things before the discussions start.

    First, I apologize that this article was also posted on FreelanceSwitch. I had no idea that they were going to use the article when I sent it to Jason.

    Now, about the article. This concept of anytime service is just that…a concept. Please don’t take it literally. Although I would be glad to help a client who pays be $100 an hour at 4 in the morning if it was an emergency – such things would never happen!

    The main idea that I’m trying to get cross is that customer service is a way that you can earn the business of huge clients.

  2. While a lot of this post is true, if you are to have any kind of social life away from the computer, which is very important otherwise you’ll burn yourself out, it is unrealistic to be expected to be sat at a computer 24/7.

    I had this ethos at the beginning which came to an end when a client demanded, while I was on holiday in a remote part of Spain, that I found the nearest internet cafe to make a 20 minute amendment to his site, the international phone calls, the cost of the internet cafe and texts back and forth did not cover the cost of the actual update and becomes unreasonable.

    Clients need to be set boundaries, let them know that you will go above and beyond normal customer service but there must be limits that come with it, otherwise, it’s just not healthy.

  3. Sarah – Refer to my first comment. I would never provide this service to anyone but corporate clients. From my experiences, I’ve never had to work 24/7 for any of them….they want time off too!

    The way I look at it – If you want me to be available to you at any time, then no problem; but you better expect to pay for it! 🙂

  4. I think the best we can offer to our clients is the personal attention. “You’ll never be ‘attended’ by a machine”.

  5. Some great ideas. In my “day job” I am the person on the vendor side deciding which firms to hire for certain design jobs, and I will tell you that we almost always end up going with a small freelance firm for design work; in fact, I have overheard our CEO specifically asking that we look for small, independent freelancers, citing many of the reasons that Jeffrey listed.

  6. I enjoyed this article. Lots of little nuggets for many freelancers to use.

    In the last year I’ve begun to encourage designers not to refer to themselves as “freelancers” because of the “free” portion of that title. I’ve become an advocate of referring to oneself as “self-employed” or “independent.”

  7. @Mirko – I somewhat agree with you. Dealing with “corporate procedure” is unbelievably painful. On the other hand, I make much more money through them than I ever would working with a local independent client.

  8. Good points Jeffrey – I’ve used them all!

    I can understand Mirko’s attitude to big companies, but getting those big names in your portfolio shows others that you can handle the larger jobs and beat the big studios. In the long run you will get more enquiries, many from smaller companies. So the odd big job can improve the flow of smaller ones meaning you get to do the work you prefer most of the time.
    Also, if you are looking for a permanent position after some time self-employed, those larger projects will help immensely.

  9. Very interesting article. It’s true if you want to catch a large account you must offer something no one else can (or would want to in some cases).

    The best result of all this is that you not only have a chance to gain that first job from the client but you have a greater chance of scoring their 40th job.

    Thanks for this!

  10. Warning, some kind of advertising!

    I agree with you and Jacob’s previous thoughts about Spec Jobs, or “200-dollars-work” as you called them. If you start doing that, it will be hard to get big and well paid jobs.

    Consequently your article was extremely good and right on target. Good work!

    I want to promote my own site – close to this topic – Mypitch.com.

    Yes, it is a advertising contest site like many others, but instead of 200 dollars,good ideas will get between 3,000 and 5,000 euros. A lot more money.

    We love talent people and belief not everyone work on the big agencies. And maybe it’s hard to find clients out there.

    Why not take a look at Mypitch.com? We want you, our well-known clients want you and maybe you need us…

    Send me an email, rikard.w[email protected], if you have any questions.


    bye. Rikard

  11. Unless you don’t have much of a social or family life and your 100% commited to your work, I think it’s unrealistic to promise 24/7 support.

    On the other hand, if you can provide that, I can understand why your service would seem so attractive to potential clients of any size.

    Just wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when a client from another timezone rings you at 4 in the morning wanting you to resize some text or adjust the layout.

    barrys last blog post..berlin

  12. Brilliant article, thanks for posting.

    I think that the customer service part is very true, big agencies sell themselves on the fact that they are so huge and there is more than one person working on your project, but you have one account contact, and in my experience when that one contact goes on holiday no-one else there seems to know what is going on – leaving your project on hold until the contact returns.

    If you want to attract bigger clients then customer service is a huge selling point. But as Mirko mentions do you want bigger clients? That could be a blog post all on it’s own…..

  13. Great article.
    This 24/7 style customer support is crucial when the client is a loosely grouped entourage as is often the case with community websites. I eventually got myself an email capable smart-phone and it’s been incredibly useful.

  14. These are some very inspirational points and ideas, I can’t believe I missed this post! I completely agree with the fact that working with a freelancer is more personal, and the client will get to know the designer a lot more as a freelancer. Agency designers are more distant and only available within restricted hours.

    You spend a lot more time communicating as a freelancer I think, as usually you are solely responsible for most aspects of the project.

    liams last blog post..Free Icons: Function Icon Set, 128 Completely Free Icons

  15. The real reason you can score is time and money. Freelancers usually have less on their plates and can charge a lower rate. Also people might be looking for a certain style that you are known for.

    I think freelance work comes out better because it all on you its your art not that of an agency.

    modemloopers last blog post..Basic Design Tips

  16. Wow, ok this is impressive. I completely agree with Mr Way that it is the customer service aspect that will help freelancers get big firms. But there is service and then there is service and allowing clients to call you at 2am with changes is NOT cool (as Way has stated in the first post).

    I agree that clients need to be set boundaries and that if they want to wake me up at an ungodly hour or do 500 revisions to what should have been a simple project then they must know that they must PAY…

    Because big clients have big budgets and who says that freelancers can’t get a piece of that pie? I know for a fact that if I got even a tiny sliver of the budget big corporates give large agencies for work then I would be pretty damn wealthy…

  17. I agree with barry about the 24/7 phone service. That would never work with me because I am married and will not answer my phone if I am talking with my wife about something or out on a date. I would rather say that I offer quick response to email changes and guarantee speedy response times. I don’t even want to get tangled up with numbers about how long, I know my last 2 clients were very happy with my response times and my wife was happy as well 🙂 Except with one client who wanted changes every day.

  18. I understand your point saying you stand out because your availability is better than that of a large firm, and that you don’t mean that literally ie 4 in the morning.

    But i think one of the reasons you want to become a freelancer is so that you have a degree of freedom and that its a lifestyle choice, and being available to and answering every call when ever its made does not fit into why i would want to be a freelancers, your still just a slave, I prefer the philosophy of the 4 hours work week, 🙂 choose your clients don’t let them choose you.

  19. Nice article. I’ve been freelancing for about 4 years now and I’d never go back to a “real” job. my only other suggestions would be to develop your personal network. while i can design but i’m primarily a developer. in the past year or so i’ve been working almost exclusively with marketing agencies and design firms who outsource their web dev work. in fact, i’ve lost out on jobs in the past only to be hired by the winning agency to handle it. the other thing i would suggest it to develop your own products/sites. one of my personal projects – a merchandising company aimed at musicians – http://BandsOnABudget.com – has developed into a pretty sizable operation unto itself. not only are personal projects like this good for bringing in extra income, you’re also much more passionate about things that you “own”, thus making your job a lot more enjoyable… just my 2 cents…

  20. I agree customer service is important, but I also agree with the second commenter who said you need a life away from the computer to not get burnt out on work– even if it is my favorite thing. I work weekends, nights, mornings, days… sometimes even holidays, but if something comes up with family -thats important too. A thing to note would be just tell the client you received their message, and when you will get to it (asap). That way they know you care, but have other clients and a life. (In a nice way) Great post. Loved it.

  21. Great article. It’s tough going up against large companies but many clients want personal service and many times I can do a lot of the work for a lot less while delivering a higher product and still making a lot of money.

  22. An interesting thought I wanted to add for discussion is that the big players we are up against are really a closed network cut off from the talent that is available to us. Sure they offer a full range of services in-house, but this means 90% of the time IT HAS to come from within their glowing brick building as Jeffrey put it. Due to this the agencies start to develop tendencies to play in the same space and eventually become known in the market as experts in a small niche. Keep in mind, agencies are nothing more than a team of researchers, designers, writers, web developers working over and over together servicing clients with very similar challenges and formulating solutions that eventually become very repetitive. If I was on the other side of the fence I would be looking for a designer who when need be had the ability to partner with the right people and bring me fresh creative with all the other advantages Jeffrey mentioned.

  23. Great Article… The way I look at it, large design firms with a design team have put out some awful work, bad SEO during the design, misspellings, etc. They charge more to cover their large overhead, and like you pointed out above, they won’t answer the phone on a weekend.

    My clients all have my direct cell, and if they need help, that’s what get!

    I have clients who might be at a trade show over the weekend, and need a quick change to a web form, or a phone number change for a sales person at the show. These things make the little firm valuable to clients both large and small.

  24. After reading this post I realize that I have not being using my advantage; instead I have written working hours on my email signature “8am to 5pm Mon to Fri” which I learned now that customer service and availability are my biggest advantages compared to big design studios.

    I recon the below points make a difference:
    – Being polite but straight to point
    – Taking time to explain to client the project process
    – Giving client the option to pay in terms if the rate I charged is alot
    – Using social media often gets me clients, like Facebook; it allows people to inbox me or use Viber / Whatsapp instant messengers (which big companies do not use), so it makes the link between me and client stronger. So client becomes my business friend who gives me random / frequent projects
    – Going extra mile by giving a free design in a while (if client pays more than ussual)

    I am glad I read this post, it open my eyes; going to edit my signature now!!!!

    Awesome post! I recon you should have an Android and iPhone app Jason!

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