Finding web design clients who are the right fit

8 min read
Lisa Stambaugh

We all know that customer satisfaction is critical to the success of a freelance web design business. Even more critical is your own satisfaction. Engaging with the right web design clients for you — and only the right clients — is one way to facilitate that.

happy web design clients

Determining if a potential client is a good fit for you starts with three steps:

1. Describe your ideal client.

Take a moment to craft a description of your fantasy clients. Attributes might include geographical, cultural, entity type or size, types of products/services offered, or audience served.

2. Know your evaluation criteria.

Establish criteria to identify those fantasy clients, then evaluate against that list. My criteria include both tangible and intangible factors. Some are non-negotiable deal-breakers, while others are “nice to have” and I may be willing to consider an exception or compromise.

3. Have an evaluation strategy.

My goal is to rule out bad-fit web design clients as soon as possible. My strategy:

  • If it’s not the right fit, find a graceful exit ASAP.
  • Rule out most mismatches with pre-work.
  • Solid reason for rejection? Explain it so the client knows why.
  • Good opportunity to make an exception? Consider it, but don’t feel obligated to do so.
  • Viable alternative? Suggest it. Even if you can’t work with them, the potential client will appreciate your guidance.

Evaluation criteria for web design clients

Here’s my list of evaluation criteria. Your list might differ, but go with what works for you.

Client vocabulary and phrasing

It’s very likely a no-go if the client:

  • Web Design Clients Stop Sign“wants the best” but has a very limited budget.
  • starts the conversation with a barter offer.
  • asks “How much will this set me back?”
  • promises visibility in lieu of payment.
  • says, “This ought to be simple — I’d do it myself if I had the time.”
  • wants me to promise I can deliver first-page Google results.
  • claims, “I don’t know how to describe it but I’ll know what I like when I see it.”
  • makes inappropriate political/social commentary.

Financial expectations

Unrealistic budget expectations are a deal-breaker. Nonprofit or other special case? I might be willing to consider a discount, but if they want it free, we’re done talking. Large bidding competition with multiple contenders? I’m not willing to underbid to get work.

Technical considerations

I specialize in WordPress, so if someone wants a Joomla! site, I’ll refer them to a local peer with that expertise. And call me a snob, but I won’t work with certain hosting companies. If a client refuses to move to one I trust (GoDaddy being first on the list), I might not be willing to put up with the current provider’s poor performance and inept tech support.

Strategic positioning within my portfolio

I want to work with web design clients who offer products and services I believe to be of value and offered ethically.

I won’t take someone who is a direct competitor of existing clients, or with affiliations that might cause others to make assumptions about my own beliefs. In our town I know many who run for office, and won’t manage campaign sites for any in competition with others I know.


Web Design Clients Location

I rarely take clients outside of my major metropolitan area. I want to meet with them in person, refer work in both directions, build a partnership, and have the ability to chase them for payment, if needed. Exceptions are unlikely, but possible if they are located somewhere that I frequently visit. If I can make a solid local referral, I will do so. Otherwise, I’ll provide input about how to find a local designer.


I prefer to work with solopreneurs, or small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. As an example of a rare exception, I agreed to design a site for our local Rotary chapter with 80 members. I’m not a member, but more than a dozen of my web design clients are, they know me, and they trust me.

Length of engagement, and potential for ongoing work

I prefer long-term engagements and rarely take on short-term projects with no opportunity for maintenance or ongoing work. Ideally, clients have additional billable work for me, such as social media, newsletter or print collateral.

Level of trust

It’s torture to work with those who don’t trust my professional expertise or understand my expectations. Are they eager to learn more about me to be sure I’m a good fit for them, or are they just anxious to hire the first web designer they find? Are they looking for a contractor, or a business partner?

Business savvy

Why waste valuable time with a client who doesn’t have a solid business plan, a vision for their business, and a strategy to market their expertise? As a bonus, I’m looking for web design clients with measures and goals for site improvement.

Basic technical understanding

While I don’t expect clients to be proficient in design or programming, I do expect realistic understanding of what is possible. Unreasonable feature requests coupled with severe budget or schedule constraints are a recipe for failure.

Partnership potential

I want the option to play matchmaker, and recommend this client to friends, family, or business associates — and vice versa. I’m most drawn to those who share personal or business connections that could be mutually beneficial, and will improve our reciprocal loyalty. The best connections are often those shared with my Power Partners.

Personality fit

My ideal clients show a willingness to be flexible, are open to suggestions and negotiation, have good communication skills, and don’t annoy me from the start. A good sense of humor is a bonus!

It’s all about job satisfaction

I know that if I take mismatched clients, I’ll wind up unhappy while doing the work, I’ll feel under-compensated for my efforts, and it might even result in work I don’t want to include in my portfolio. By making careful choices to work with the clients who are the best fit, my overall results — and satisfaction — will be better.

What are your key criteria when taking (or rejecting) clients? Let us know in the comments.

Client vocabulary & phrasing
  • Do they ask questions or make statements that indicate a lack of understanding about how this partnership should work, or in some other way indicate that it will not be a good fit?
Financial expectations
  • Did they specify reasonable budget expectations?
  • Is it a non-profit organization that I might be willing to offer a discount?
  • Is it a bidding competition with likely emphasis on lowest price?
Technical considerations
  • Do they want (or currently use) a platform I specialize in?
  • Are they currently at a hosting company I am willing to work with?
Strategic positioning within my portfolio
  • Do they offer products and services I believe to be of value and offered ethically?
  • Are they a direct competitor to any of my existing clients?
  • Do they have affiliations that might reflect negatively upon me?
  • Are they running for office in a campaign where I know other contenders?
  • Are they located in my major metropolitan area?
  • If not, are they located somewhere that I visit frequently?
  • If not, do I have a solid referral to someone local to them?
  • Is it a business with fewer than 10 employees?
  • Am I willing to make an exception based on the organization, the staff, or other factors?
  • If so, what is the likely growth potential?
Length of engagement and potential for ongoing work
  • Is this for a short-term situation, such as an event, fundraising drive, or political campaign?
  • Do they have other billable work for me?
Level of trust
  • Do I feel that they trust my professional expertise?
  • Do they understand my expectations, in terms of our working relationship?
  • Are they looking for a business partnership or a short-term contractor engagement?
Business savvy
  • Do they have a solid business plan?
  • Are they already in a profitable business or are they struggling?
  • Can they clearly articulate an online strategy, and a plan to market the website?
Basic technical understanding
  • Do they have reasonable expectations about which features can be implemented given their budget and/or schedule constraints?
Partnership potential
  • Is this a client who might benefit from a relationship with any of my other clients?
  • Is this a business or organization that I already visit, use, or support?
  • Does this client already work with one of my Power Partners?
Personality fit
  • In conversation, do they seem flexible and open to suggestions?
  • Are they a good listener?
  • Are they able to communicate their needs, objectives, and questions?
  • Do they have a good sense of humor?