Whether by prospecting on your own or by a blind referral, when you’ve landed your first client, you’ll need to sign them to your list. What this means is that you will maintain their services for them either as a one off gig or as a requests come in over some time period. Obviously the clients we’re all hoping to sign have either ongoing needs or regular requests they’ll reach out to us for. Regardless of the structure you choose, you’ll need to sign them on in the same way.
Step 1: Get a database
You’ll need a database for your clients. Relying on the contacts application in your phone simply isn’t enough. When you create profiles each entity or person, there is a lot of data to keep track of. You’ll need something more robust than just a notation on a contact. I’ve used Airtable for a decade now and I love it. More and more with every new update, I realize just how much I couldn’t live without it.
While some folks prefer services like Honeybook or Quickbooks, I find that the templates provided just don’t allow for enough customization to make me happy. I also love Airtable’s mobile app, it was a lifesaver when I first started out. No matter the service you use, you’ll need to focus on interacting with the profiles. If you find yourself struggling to navigate client information in your list or cannot pull it up quickly, get a better system.
When I was a few years into my practice, maintaining two clients regularly and working on signing a third. One day while teaming in a college classroom, I got an email for some work with them. In order to confirm, I needed to be able to build a response based on the rates we had discussed for a specific tier of work they wanted. I had to be able to pull up the information, do a few quick calculations and review the tiers we’d established previously before I switched with my team in less than 5 minutes. Having a database that was quick and easy to navigate allowed me to do that with a couple minutes to spare.
(I’m sure some people out their would criticize my being on a phone while teaming. Considering the agency reliance we experience as a field and the lack of competitive rates, it’s incredibly hard to build a client list without making a few concessions.)
For on going requests, keep in mind that your contract should be reviewed annually for potential rate changes and additional terms etc…
Step 2. Build a client profile
Mine typically include any information I can get from the initial conversations plus anything I think might be beneficial in the future.
I keep all the basic contact information linked along with project notes. In this example, Harlow is the contact. I have a full profile for him similar to an iPhone contact with any personalized details I might need to remember. I usually make notes of their communication habits, like delayed emails or urgent texts.
I make notes of the base rate I use with them for quicker invoicing, their payment structures, notes and link any invoices to their profile to be able to refer back to later. Those numbers will all auto calculate to create an annual valuation and year to date tally for me to better visualize their needs as a client.
I also link any payments they’ve sent. Each one will include when it was received so I can track trends in payment processing. It will also link back to the invoice I created for the gigs, automatically marking it as paid. This makes a full circle so all I have to do is check in, rather than actually manage a spreadsheet.
All of this data will connect with the gig amounts, giving me an year to date tally so that I can adjust their annual valuation. The AV is the amount I expect to earn from that specific client. I also put in any deal notes which helps me for future negotiations and rate changes. I also compile these annually to get a feel for trends in negotiating so that I don’t miss out on a client.
Lastly, I add a copy of the contract, usually in PDF but I can also snap a picture on my phone and upload it this way.
Everything in my Airtable is something I designed and curated. My system doesn’t work for everyone, which is why I think it’s really important to see a variety of formats and systems before deciding on your own.
Once you have created a database to track, you can create the new clients profile.
Step 3: Settle final negotiations and send over the contract.
This should happen once your deal is set. Some people prefer to negotiate with contract redlining.
I personally do all of the negotiations prior to sending a contract, it just saves a ton of time. In many instances however, clients will want a quote and copy of the contract to work through provisions quicker.
You’ll send over an unsigned copy of the contract in .pdf format. Do not under any circumstance send a signed copy to someone first and never in anything other than .pdf.
Sending a contract with your signature gives unscrupulous clients the ability to edit, sign and send back a document you didn’t agree on. Most colleagues would probably argue they wouldn’t work with clients who might do that. In my practice, I focus on the interpreting and I’m not here to judge anyone. Shady clients are still clients as long as the check clears.
Step 4: Return a dual signed copy
Once you’ve received a signed contract from the client, you’ll sign your lines and send them a copy. Save the e-mail, save the contract (somewhere with a backup) and add it to your database for reference later. At this point, you should find out the contact of the person responsible for paying your invoices.
Step 5: Submit your vendor profile
With many larger corporations you’ll be asked to create one via a portal which is equivalent. When you have the opportunity to dialogue with someone responsible for their accounts payable, remain focused on reducing their workload. An annoyed AP representative can legally hold up your payments for a while.
I personally like to add a note at the end of emails to the effect of “let me know what else I can answer or provide”. This keeps every e-mail with them open and ensures they won’t hesitate informing me if things will be delayed.
Step 6: Write up your first invoice
This of course might change as the needs do but I like to have the first invoice ready to fire off when the gig is done (if appropriate). I do this because clients love a seamless process that is efficient. If you can be in and out without adding any additional work to their day, you’re golden. Sending your invoice right away also will speed up payment.
Not sure where to start with invoicing? We’ve got a guide for that.
Step 7: Organize your e-mail
Get your folders and alerts set so that you won’t miss a beat and can easily refer back to prior communication.
Of course how you treat your clients is entirely up to you. I personally like to check in when I haven’t heard from them in 3-6 months to just remind them I’m available and would love to provide services again. I’ve got a whole slew of emails I send to warm up a relationship going cold but that’s another post entirely.
Most importantly, when you’re ready to sign your first client you should be intentional with every step of the process. The success of you career depends entirely on how you treat them and with what level of responsibility you approach the relationship. Your first client should be the beginning of an independent practice that will provide you more autonomy and stability than relying on agency referred work alone.