Bad First Impressions That Can Drive Potential Clients Away

bad-first-impressionsYou never get a second chance to make a first impression. Those initial defining moments can be the determining factor for whether or not a client hires you, so it is critical to make them count.

When a potential client makes first contact–by email, phone, IM, social media or in person–everything you do and say will have a lasting impact on their perception of who you are, how you operate, and more. It is important to ensure that this impact is positive, and not the opposite. This post will point out some of the worst first impression mistakes a freelancer can make and give some direction for ways to avoid them.


Too Busy to Talk

If you are a freelancer who is lucky and talented enough to be extremely busy, it can sometimes become a burden to take time from your work day to have anything more than a succinct and focused business conversation. This can inspire an approach to communication that, in its attempts to be streamlined, could make a potential client decide to look elsewhere. While every client knows they are probably not your only client, every single one wants to feel like they are your biggest, best and most important. If your first contact leaves them feeling like you were in a rush to get off the phone or you just typed out a quick, one-sentence email lacking any and all personality, they will definitely be concerned with how you treat them once you’re hired.

Some clients will keep it strictly professional, but many want to know that you value their business and who they are. Take time in the beginning and throughout your working relationship to show some interest beyond the project and you could find yourself with a client–and possibly even a friend–for life. Take the blinders off and see the person and the organization, not just the business. This first impression could set you apart from others they are considering simply because they can sense that you care.


Slow Response Time

What you think is an acceptable amount of time to respond to communications may not be the same as what your potential client is expecting. One of the quickest ways to knock yourself out of the running for a project is to have slow response times. The capabilities of modern technology have raised expectations for response to a sometimes unreasonable level, but delaying your response to a client’s first contact with you will likely make it their last.

Reply to emails and return phone calls within 24 hours or less to make a solid first impression. The quicker you can respond to a client the more valuable they will feel, and the more likely they will perceive you as a professional. A good way to stay on top of this is to have scheduled times for returning communications each day, keeping them current and avoiding the message pileup.


Spelling & Grammar Errors

When you do take the time to communicate with clients, it is important to make sure you are using correct spelling and grammar. Some clients could care less, but most professionals will stop considering you for a project because of the perception that is given when you fail to use spellcheck. Honestly, there really is no excuse anymore. Every word processing software and email client has the technology built right in and with the simple click of a button or two you can identify and repair all errors before sending your document to the client. Failing to take this step can communicate that you are lazy, uneducated, unintelligent or just plain unprofessional. Who wants to hire someone to write copy or load content into a website if they don’t even spell correctly or take the time to utilize the readily-available tools?

Double-check the spelling and grammar on every document you send to a client to ensure a first and lasting impression of professional and quality standards.


Still in Your Pajamas at the Meeting

Okay, so no one (I hope) would go to a first (or any) client meeting dressed in their pajamas!

Still, many of us have worked at home long enough to have forgotten how to dress in a professional atmosphere, or our wardrobe has fallen by the wayside for lack of necessity, or we have adopted an attitude that says, “I can wear what I want since I’m my own boss.”

Whatever the reason, your potential client could probably care less. It is more likely that they see this freelancer walking up in jeans and a t-shirt as someone who is unprofessional, brazen and cocky, or just plain sloppy. None of these perceptions will boost confidence or motivate them to hire you. Although most freelancers can enjoy the benefit of no dress code, working with other professionals requires meeting their higher expectations–even in the wardrobe department.

Freelancers should have at least one professional outfit for client meetings. It may even be advisable to have a few, so you don’t show up wearing the same thing every time you meet a client in person. You don’t have to sacrifice your personal style, but remain mindful of professional standards and do your best to work within them.


No Policies and Procedures

Entering a conversation with a potential client unarmed with answers to commonly asked questions will always leave a discouraging first impression. Clients want to feel confident that you know what you are doing, that you have sufficient experience and that you already have an idea of how you will accomplish the task they are proposing to you. When discussing your process it is unimpressive and amateurish to stumble along, making it up as you go.

Prepare an outline of your process beforehand that is specific to the proposed project and familiarize yourself with it. Keep a list of your personal policies and procedures so you’re not caught off guard, and add to it when new questions are brought up. Know your business better than anyone else, and clients will walk away confident that you know what you’re talking about.


Not Sure What to Charge

This is always a sticky point. Wavering on your rates, charging too little or too much, or being unclear about them will not only leave a miserable first impression, but it could cost you dearly down the road if the client still hires you. Some clients will try to haggle with you, while others may perceive your lack of certainty as flexibility, but everyone wants to get the most for their money. Leaving the door open for clients to talk you down in price can communicate weakness, inexperience and even a lack of value. Attempting to charge them more than the current standard will drive them away faster than almost anything else you can do. Presenting a solid grasp of what you charge for which services will always instill confidence, even if it is beyond the potential client’s budget.

Create a price list of your services, whether for public consumption or your own reference, and memorize it. Work in as many variables as you can imagine that may raise or lower the price and keep the list constantly updated as new situations arise. Armed with a solidified menu of services, you should always get what you’re worth when hired and the client will be impressed with your preparation and self-value.


First Impression Mistakes You’ve Made?

This list is obviously not exhaustive, but these are some common mistakes that I have made myself or seen others make that have driven potential clients in the opposite direction. Hopefully, we can all learn from them and avoid making them in the future.

Do you have a first impression nightmare experience you can share and we can learn from? Have you made any of these mistakes in the past? Be sure to contribute your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. says

    Completely agree that good first impressions are everything! I think it’s important to always “dress for success” (sounds cheesy but it instill confidence), make yourself accessible and be responsive, and speak with confidence when it comes to your rates. As you mentioned, you should memorize your rates even if you don’t display them publicly (I don’t). I don’t disclose my rates via my site but I know what they are for my speaking and coaching services and I communicate them confidently when speaking with new prospective clients.

  2. says

    I agree with Ricardo above, I never show my rates either. After someone inquires about them, I send them a nicely designed PDF with my rates and information and what I need from the client depending on what kind of project it is. If it’s web based I ask them for pictures, page content, ect. I try to make this second impression a good one, and to show that I am well organized and put together and know what I want, and also showing that I have their best interest in mind.

  3. says

    I try to be responsive, ussually between 2-4 hours, I answer the incoming emails and sometimes I get quite a few a day. 24 hours for some jobs, might ne to late.
    Before I give any price estimate, I make sure the client fills out my questionnaire form.
    or if is a smaller job, I try to get as many details as possible.

  4. says

    That was a great read about what not to do when first contact has been initiated. I always try to be on the up and up, by keeping a very positive and can do attitude.

  5. says

    Great points….like they say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The goal I think is to always be as professional as possible. Many people have an image of designers being flaky and non-conformist and when you conform to the preconceived notion you have already lost your credibility but when you break that mold it already puts you ahead in the clients book.

  6. says

    All of these points are true… but even if you stick to them, you will still sometimes lose a client. In the client’s eyes, no price is ever too low… and sometimes you will lose them before you have the opportunity to justify your (very reasonable) quote.

    I feel that, of these rules, the lack of attention to grammar, spelling and organization of written communications is the least likely to be forgiven. We all have bad days where we look sloppy or we simply have run out of time, but written errors last forever.

  7. says

    Leisha, obviously you will not sign every potential client that crosses your path, and there can be a multitude of reasons why. But first impressions are one of the ways you can put forth your best effort or else immediately eliminate yourself from the running.

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion, everyone!

  8. says

    Some clients will stomp over you, trying to be your “boss” the first time you meet. Don’t let them give you orders or commands, or let them talk in that way. Soon they’ll start discouraging your work, maybe try to lower you rate and so on.

    They’re the ones who require your services after all. If they wan’t to “play” the boss they can do that on their employees, but not you. Remember that you’re a help or a partner from outside their Bossy realm !

    By not letting them and showing them that kind of confidence on the first meeting will most probably earn you only more respect.

  9. says

    Great article! Several good points in there. I like to dress professionally anytime I have a phone interview as well. Research has shown that dressing professionally during a phone interview creates a more professional attitude and can help you win contracts! I personally have to outsource some graphic design work every now and then, and when I meet with potential designers, I HATE when they come wearing jeans and a ratty old t-shirt. It makes me wonder, “is this what your designs look like?” Again, good article!

  10. says

    Great post, Brian. Luckily I have never had any “first impression experience” but they’re certainly points to keep in mind.

  11. says

    This article is extremely accurate. Customer service is a big deal. You always want to respond to customer e-mails promptly. No matter how busy your schedule is. And always get a CLEAR understanding of a project before you give the client a quote.

  12. says

    I’m definitely guilty of the communications error from time to time. I often get so busy it’s next to impossible for me to answer the 100+ emails I get every day as detailed as I’d like to…same thing with picking up the phone…if I did that immediately, I’d never get any work done…it’s tough to find a balance :)

  13. says


    Interesting idea, dressing professionally for phone calls! I never thought about that – and I enjoy NOT having to dress up while working from home. But I can see how it could affect your attitude for those business calls. Thanks for the insight!


    I would suggest (if you’re not already doing it) having set times throughout the day that you respond to emails and phone calls. I know this works well for some freelancers. I’m more of an “on-the-fly” kind of worker, so I tend to answer emails and phone calls as they come, depending on their urgency and what I’m in the middle of. But each person should find what works best for their personality and situation.

  14. says

    Good article. Id say the policies and procedures along with dressing well are top ones to strive for. Although dressing as a creative can also be hard considering you don’t want to look like you are headed to work in a cubical but at the same time you don’t want to be too casual either.

  15. Adi says

    Those are all excellent points, and most should be common sense. I can attest that clients always seem to be impressed and re-assured when you can easily give them concrete details about procedures, rates, etc. If you’re unsure about anything, then they are unsure.

  16. says

    Great tips! A good first impression is key to landing clients.

    I’m often guilty of spelling and grammar mistakes. Sometimes I don’t see that I made the mistake, even if I look over it, and then I realize I have a spelling error after I sent it. I know that affects how I am judged by a potential client.

  17. says

    Overall good article. As you know: as a freelance designer you wear many hats, and one of those should be customer service, which will play a key in your first impression.

    I do have one area of concern with your article though: In the “Not Sure What to Charge” section: It almost sounds like you are lending yourself to the belief that design is a commodity. It is not. Design is a process that is different with every clients expectations, size of business, positioning, etc…not to mention their ego, attitude, and willingness to learn. After all, what is the client-designer relationship if not one of education (possibly on both ends). If you are referring to a designer that awkwardly presents pricing, or is wishy-washy with the client, then sure that could be a bad impression, but a good designer knows their worth and is resolute about it. If the designer is honest with both the client and him/herself then there’s nothing to worry about. If the client goes elsewhere: it’s an instance of a disaster diverted and the designer should breath a sigh of relief…not second guess his approach or worry about his impression on the lost client. If more of us did this then clients might start respecting us a little more instead of expecting us to work for free. The reality is: many clients may turn away, we’ve made it possible for them to think there’s someone out there willing to do it cheaper, but YOU and YOUR PROCESS is what you are selling. Remember that. And trust me the clients that see that, will stick around for a long time.

    Personally I’ve implemented tiered pricing lists at several points in my freelance career and it only ended up screwing one person: me! Offer specials, offer limited time discounts, offer averages, but never offer set prices without first knowing what you’re getting in to. The only thing that a freelancer should have a set price list for is if they have a resale certificate and offer printing (and that’s to save time instead of wasting days chasing, marking up and delivering estimates).

    Thank you for the article.

  18. says

    I totally agree that your first impression is a lasting one. If you do all you can to think about a clients needs and treat them as a first class client then they will naturally respond to that and you’re a lot more likely to win business from them.

  19. says


    I am guessing you misunderstood what I wrote or else I didn’t explain it clearly enough, because what you describe and what I was attempting to say are, in my mind, very similar. To clarify, this is not an article targeted at freelance designers, but for freelancers in general, so the discussion about design as a commodity is beyond the intent of this post. However, for the record, I don’t have any disagreement with anything you’ve said. My suggestion was to be prepared with a clear and solidified understanding of your own rates before speaking with a potential client. Not knowing what you’re going to charge will surely end badly. Everyone will have their own personal approach and methodology for how to do this, and I merely offer a suggestion of keeping your own written and/or mental price “menu” as one option. Hopefully some will find that helpful. I believe they will also find your input helpful as well, and I am grateful to you for adding to this conversation. Thanks for taking the time to share your own experience and ideas!

  20. says

    Like everyone else, I think these are excellent points. I am still learning as I am fairly new and not the greatest people person and feel that I am making a couple of these mistakes unconciously. Great post.

  21. says

    Good article. I myself have made many of these mistakes. The best thing to do is learn from them. And, almost as important, learn to salvage your nerves and sanity when potential clients fail at all of these themselves (and still walk away like you’re the problematic one). Yikes!

  22. says

    Nothing like a bad coffee breath that could cut through bank vaults for driving clients away.

    It’s not just about your personal dress style, it’s also about your personal hygiene.

  23. says

    Some great points to make into a check-list for future reference.

    As a freelance user, I have seen some weird and wonderful things. Get dressed like you mean business!!

    Nothing instils as little confidence as someone who is late to the initial meeting.



  24. says

    One of my first wins resulted in the Director of Marketing calling me one hour after our initial consultation had concluded to inform me that he, the COO and President had decided to engage my services before I reached the elevator.

    I showed up 15 minutes early, dressed in a suit, brochure and business cards in-hand and having done my due-diligence on the company. Additionally, I had the client complete a project questionnaire before hand in an effort to help facilitate the discussion. I was confident and opinionated, but respectful and attentive to their input.

    Also, the Marketing Director shared with me that they were impressed with my phone etiquette and responsiveness to their inquiry. I retained their business for 3-years, but a change in management ended the relationship.

    Excellent article Brian and obviously I think first impressions are paramount.


  25. says


    Sorry, I read so many graphic design blogs that I got confused and didn’t notice yours wasn’t intended to be design specific and instead was aimed at the freelancer in general…I can therefore see where my comment may have come from “out of the blue”. For the designers that read this blog I think it is very valid point, but for the freelancer in general I think you make some wonderful points and suggestions. I will continue to follow your posts with interest. Thank you.

  26. says

    My first interview with an Ad Agency right after I graduated art school was awkward at best. A pipe had burst in my studio the night before and my portfolio was soaking wet halfway up. I dressed in a suit with matching gloves. Gloves!! (This was a long time ago).
    Mortified, I showed them my portfolio and tried to sound as unflustered as possible, but I knew the whole scene was bad.
    They hired me anyway, soggy portfolio and all but after 25 years they have never let me live down the gloves.
    On line portfolios are much better, they don’t smell like mildew.

  27. says

    As for price I never actually lower it.
    What I do is itemize the quote so it’s easy to take things off, effectively lowering the price, but also the scope of the project.
    This way you’re not backing down on your price, and more often than not, if you’ve done a good job on the first phase, they’ll come back to buy whatever they left out the first time around.

  28. Anonymous reader says

    I agree, like everyone here, that all of these are some points to deeply take into consideration when facing a first contact with a client.

    Even though, I’ve got kind of an issue with the whole “dressing code” subject, which I find one of the most subjective matters in this world.

    In one hand, some will say you can always stick to the classical suit and tie. This is right indeed unless you’re a woman. Of course, women have almost a hundred choices to pick up from when we’re talking about giving the professional look, but in my opinion, about a 99% of them will be wrong depending on the situation. Too short, too long, too much flesh or maybe not enough (we all know how things are sometimes, no matter how hard we try to hide it) and things alike.
    And it doesn’t end up here, as no one would deny hairdressing and make-up has also it’s influence.

    I wouldn’t like to sound feministic (or any of the -istics either), but I’d say men have it easier in this subject. I don’t mean it’s easy (or anything near) for them, I just think it’s easier.

    In the other hand, sometimes having a “particular” look might catch a client’s eye. It’s been more than discussed whether piercings and tattoos (just an example) are good or bad to catch a client’s eye.
    I do have good and bad experiences on this subject, but I’d say it’s been a good thing for me to stick out of the crowd. Of course, I might have scared clients who were too formal or too narrow-minded to go beyond the looks and actually valuing what I would be giving them, that’s the juice from my brains and not my looks.
    And sometimes, extreme (and not-so-extreme) looks gather you people who might just simply like it or find it curious . Of course, this is another kind of prejudice.

    I wouldn’t say changing the way one looks (as a rule) is a good choice, even if it might please a certain kind of client. In the end, it’s you who choose to dress a certain way. Your choices show the way you are, no matter how small they are.
    It’s also a part of you that shouldn’t be hidden.

    I mean, if you’re this or that way, why should you pretend?
    You won’t be working dressed that way, hence that “costume” (because that’s what it becomes) is not part of your success.
    And what’s even more important, if you’re a good professional, and you’re giving the client what he or she wants, who should care if your hair’s blue or if you’re wearing jeans and a worn up tee?

    Oh well.
    Of course, sometimes one has to play dressing up.

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