What clients really want when they ask for your portfolio

You are working on landing a new project and your soon-to-be client has asked you for your portfolio. But you are a developer and most of your work is code.

What do you send them?

A lot of freelancers have portfolios that are basically screenshots of the sites they have worked on. Others recommend using github to showcase your skills. Can you get away with just referencing your own site?

Well.. no.

To understand why these aren't great ideas, you first need to understand why your client is asking for them.

Clients don't ask you for examples of your work so they can scrutinize your skills and assess your fit for their project. It's not even possible. If they could evaluate your skills at your craft, they sure as hell wouldn't ask for a portfolio.

They ask for examples because it is all they know how to do. They want to make sure you can do what you say you can do. They need a way to determine if you are too risky. They want something tangible to evaluate and put their mind at ease. It doesn't matter that seeing a screenshot will tell them absolutely nothing of your abilities.

What they need is a way to understand what you do in language they can understand.

They need to see case studies.

A case study is a document that walks through your project in a way clients can understand what happened.

The problem with screenshots is that they are only a representation of how the final product looks. It lacks context. It doesn't tell the story of how you solved your clients problems or what considerations and tradeoffs you made. It also hides the majority of your work and the client might not know what important questions to ask.

Sending your github profile is even worse. Here, you are showing them something they can't even begin to evaluate. At best all they can tell is that you did something. Even if you have a successful project on github, you shouldn't send your github account as a work reference. You're better off making it into a case study, too.

Finally, you don't want to just point them to your own site for the same reasons above. If it is an example of what the client wants done, then it is better off in a case study.

Why is a Case Study a better approach?

With a case study you are able to control the message. You give a guided tour of the project to explain the value you brought to the table. You can explain your decisions within the context of the constraints of the project. Your new client should be able to put themselves in the shoes of your past client and understand what you did.

This will give them a much better feeling of whether you are able to help them or not.

A good case study should do four things to be effective:

  • Discuss the problem the client faced and goals they wanted to accomplish.

    Every good story starts with a conflict and so should your case study. You want the case study to be interesting so it will be read.

    Functionally, this gives the new client a way to identify with the project at hand. That is why you need for this to be written with your clients as the audience. You need to speak in their terms, using their motivations and concerns.

  • Discuss your process for delivering the solution.

    This is where you will sell the client. Discuss what you considered when you addressed the problem. Which obvious solutions were discarded? Why? What special considerations did you take?

    You need to prove that you know what you are doing and that you can solve problems. Again, keep this targeted to your clients and not your peers. They don't need to know how to do this, just what you did.

  • Clearly explain the benefits your client received.

    This is the icing on the cake. You evaluated the problem, solved it and delivered the solution. How did it help the client? Was the result what they expected? Were they happy?

    Use evidence and exact numbers on the client's terms. Go into details. You didn't just streamline a process, you eliminated 30 hours of work per week saving the company $1200 per employee per week. You gave them more opportunities to increase revenue. You get the idea.

  • It should be skimmable.

    You should assume your client is busy and won't want to read everything. You should use images, headlines, lists, and bolding to give them a TLDR; version. They can dip into any section to get the juicy details, but they can still understand what is going on without it.

Here are two examples of solid case studies:

  1. Patrick McKenzie - Doubling SaaS Revenue

    In this case study, Patrick McKenzie describes working with Server Density to increase their revenue by adjusting their pricing.

    He explains:

    • Problem: Server Density was using a linear pricing model, even though larger customers got outstanding value.
    • Process for delivering the solution: Patrick explains the problems with this pricing model and gives a new pricing model that captures more of the customer value, increasing profits.
    • Result: Results From Testing: 100% Increase In Revenue.

    Also note this is easily skimmable so you can get the highlights without reading every word.

  2. Neil Patel - http://neilpatel.com/case-study-gawker-media/

    In this case study, Neil Patel describes working with Noah Robischon of Gawker Media to drive 5 million visitors to their properties with SEO.

    Neil clearly labels each section: The Problem, The Results, and Our Strategy.

    He also uses great design to make this case study really stand out. Since Gawker Media is a large and widely recognized brand, he highlights that fact through a testimonial with resonates with his target audience as well as positions his offering.

Your Turn

Look through your past projects and pick your best one to highlight your work in a case study. Use these tips to provide an answer to any future client that asks for work samples.

Just make sure to clear your case study with your past client before using it!