Do You Map Your Client Universe? How ‘Customer Relationship Management’ Can Fix a Lost Creative Career

For an independent creative, bringing in regular work is important. Obviously.

Not only do consistent projects equal consistent income, but life is a lot calmer and more rewarding when your time is filled with projects and not panic.

Business literature will advise any freelancer, regardless of industry, that time should be set-aside each week for ‘business development’: aka the hunt for new projects.

The truth is, most of us take projects when we can and look for new projects when time allows. With this sporadic approach to seeking work, it’s even more important that there is method to managing your relationship with clients, prospects, and contacts.

The Importance of CRM

While writing up notes, updating contact details, recording dates for and outcomes of meetings might seem to be a waste of that precious unpaid time, the importance of effective Customer Relationship Management (CRM) shouldn’t be underestimated.

The most successful creatives harness the power of CRM (knowingly or not) to ensure that their time is spent on projects, rather than thumb twiddling boredom or nail-chewing apprehension.

What is it? You may be wrong about CRM

A common misconception is that CRM is a product. It isn’t. While the online services of Salesforce, Insightly, and their ilk are powerful organisational tools, which have their place, CRM by definition is inherent in every business that has customers.

From multinationals to independent creatives, all companies manage relationships with clients, albeit with different levels of competence and understanding.

At it’s most basic, CRM is a record of contact with clients and prospective clients: when you spoke to them, where, and about what.

When a creative only has a couple of clients, these records will often be stored mentally.

But what about those contacts who aren’t clients?

There is a wealth of invaluable information to be gathered from conversations with prospects at networking events, introductory meetings, chance phone calls, emails, or Twitter exchanges.

Disregarding this information can result in missed opportunities or difficulties and confusion in future conversations. Furthermore, mental storage isn’t foolproof.

Above: An example of a basic CRM system, emphasising the importance of using relationship-building to move cold connections into warm ones.

Mapping your Client Universe

By tackling the basics of CRM and recording all information relevant to your contacts, you begin to map your universe – creating a picture of those who provide you with projects and those who could.

This map enables you to identify any holes in your knowledge and, along with recording when information was last updated, plan where your efforts should be focused to increase understanding of your universe and ensure that data is up-to-date.

A dedicated CRM tool can make this process easier to manage and many feature clever reporting tools for visualising data and viewing your universe. However, the ideal CRM system should be simple to use, quick to update, and of appropriate cost.

For large organisations, this will often take the form of a dedicated CRM service; for an independent creative, a spreadsheet will work – providing that all relevant information can be captured and displayed.

Planning ahead will help you win big

The real power and value of CRM comes from using data, not just recording information.

Many successful creatives use data to look forward to the rest of the year, timetabling dates for catch-ups with contacts and deciding on subjects for discussion. When to send meeting requests, which networking events you are both likely to attend, and when to drop ‘hello’ notes relating to key projects and events are just some of the touch-points that should be planned.

Many people also use information on a contact’s interests to determine icebreaker topics with which to start conversations. Engaging a contact’s interests early-on is crucial when speaking to someone who is time poor or who has not spoken to you for a while.

Using social media to get ahead of your prospects

Following relevant social media channels will help you track the activity of contacts without any communication.

LinkedIn can prove invaluable at informing you when a contact has been promoted or moved to a different company – a chance for an impromptu outreach with a tailor-made icebreaker – while Google Alerts can track announcements from clients that may suggests a project opportunity.

Of course, this should be integrated within your CRM and used to inform outreach, never as a substitute for communication.

What’s the magic formula?

Unfortunately, when it comes to timetabling outreach, there isn’t a simple formula to use.

The number or size of projects a contact can provide doesn’t correlate to the frequency of outreach required. Sometimes, the largest client will require the least amount of contact, while the smallest will require the most.

Ultimately, you are the best judge of this frequency; however, as always, it’s important to capture this data and measure actual outreach against planned. A targeted two catch-ups per quarter with a specific contact, for instance, can easily be forgotten or missed.

Taking control and organising your CRM serves the primary goal of keeping you in the eye-line of your most important contacts.

Effective CRM provides a systematic method for organising your outreach. Knowing precisely when to contact someone, how, why, and what to discuss makes effective use of your ‘free’ time and will lead to more success in gaining new projects.

Without effective CRM you are left spinning or chewing your digits and wondering where your next project might come from.

“Without effective CRM you are left spinning or chewing your digits.”

What’s the next step?

Committing to a single CRM system can be off-putting if a contract or payment is required.

Using a spreadsheet, saved to the cloud, is a good way to create a basic CRM system free-of-charge, but as the number of contacts, meetings, tasks and other information grows, it can become unwieldy.

Two of the most popular services – Salesforce and Insightly – offer good deals for independent creatives: £3 per month for the former and free for the latter.

Both of these services integrate with Outlook and Gmail, provide calendar alerts for tasks and meetings, as well as dedicated mobile and tablet apps.

There are a host of other providers offering similar products, and as with many online tools the best practice is to sign-up for a couple and play around with the features, deciding which is best adapted to you and your working practice.

Remember, making your clients and prospects visible is one of the most important things you can do.

This is CRM. Having a good system is crucial. Get started!



  1. A cracking article. Concise and very clearly explained. That CRM diagram is pimping too. Thanks Nik. Looking forward to more from you on RLC.

  2. Thanks for the detailed explanation of a CRM even a creative freelancer can love! : ) And it comes at a perfect time, as it’s the first of the year when many of us are ready to overhaul our current systems (if any – ha!), and get more organized. : )

  3. Great article that shows superb understanding of the real purpose and use of CRM. Especially for this audience, this is the trick: “However, the ideal CRM system should be simple to use, quick to update, and of appropriate cost.”

    CRM providers can be the worst offenders in misunderstanding the concept of CRM, but the line above is what you need to worry about in order to protect yourself and find the right CRM for success. Simple, effective, and inexpensive.

    Brad Hodson

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