The 15th of every month is always anxiety-inducing for me. And no, not because it reminds me of the infamous annual tax deadline. Rather, it’s halfway through my workload of one month and it’s a reminder to start hustling for the next.
Though as a freelance journalist and the owner of a content consultancy company, I’m able to lead a flexible lifestyle, no one warned me about the angst that comes with entrepreneurism. Unlike when you’re gainfully employed with a W-2 and dependable twice-a-month paychecks, so much of being your own boss means looking one step ahead. Even if you have a stellar March, you never know if April will shower or sprinkle.
That’s why I always remember the wise words of a former editor who recommended I always pay attention to my pipeline of potential clients. This means constant (but not annoying) check-ins, cold pitching at least a few times a month and maintaining healthy lines of communication. In theory, I’m consistently planting seeds and ensuring I’m top of mind for assignments and opportunities as they arise. If you’re considering diving into the deep end of freelancing full-time, this skill is an important one to learn.
Luckily, career experts provide their best tips and strategies for keeping that income steady and solid:
Why your client pipeline matters.
Though you probably don’t consider yourself a salesperson per se — in essence, every wordsmith is tasked with this responsibility. After all, how will anyone ever know what you’re capable of, why you’re talented and why they should hire you if you don’t, well, tell them?
However, aimlessly pitching here and forgetting to follow up there won’t do much for your overall take-home pay. Instead, founder and CEO of The Lonely Entrepreneur, Michael Dermer stresses the importance of developing relationships with clients you can work with for the long haul. This not only gives you time to show your expertise, but it builds trust. Even if you only have a three-month contract to begin, if you develop their content, improve their traffic or advance their SEO in that period, chances are high they’ll work with you again.
When pitching publications, the same logic applies. Instead of merely sending your story along with an invoice, always provide pitches for the following month or season. This shows you intend to stay in their email — and will be in touch to follow-up on your ideas — creating a dialogue you might not have shared before. In both cases, you’re being intentional about client relationships.
Developing trust is crucial, according to executive coach and author Nancy Capistran, since people like to do business with people they know, like and value. “Establishing and maintaining trust even after the engagement has ended creates positive relationships. Past clients are often a great referral source especially because they have first-hand experience with the quality of your services,” she continues.
“A steady flow of communications does takes planning and consistent effort, but it is well worth the returns. The added value that comes from open lines of communication with past and current clients are many. Some of them include but are not limited to: higher productivity, repeat business, better quality results, and more successful outcomes. Fostering solid communications enhances relationships, which is vital to the success of your business.”
So how do you do build client relationships to grow your freelance business? Here, the best approaches:
1. Decide if they are worth it first.
Repeat after Capistran: Not all clients are good clients.
And as she puts it — our time is finite, so as captains of our own ship, we have to make it count. That’s what makes the difference between top-performing freelancers and those who scrape by.
Those who lead the pack approach their business with a bit of a more critical eye, and they’re willing to weed out those clients that don’t serve them. “Successful freelancers pay attention to the needs of their clients. They intentionally look to replace low-margin or high-maintenance clients with clients that are a better strategic fit,” she continues. “Savvy freelancers consistently look for opportunities to ‘push the envelope’ to maximize value, growth, and profit.”
This doesn’t happen overnight, as Capistran notes some new business make take six months or more before we can “harvest the crop.” However, if you think the client will be worth your investment — and not suck your energy or efforts for little pay — stay the course. “Focusing on building and maintaining trust while also constructing a sense of connection, respect and engagement is a proven business accelerator,” she adds.
2. Don’t be a solution to a one-off need.
Sure, a $500 assignment is a nice addition to your workflow but if it requires two phone calls, a revision and a follow-up email — did it really return your time? Probably not. That’s why Dermer recommends freelancers explain why their services aren’t just required right now — but in many future cases, too.
“Clients have to view you not as a solution to their immediate need, but as a solution that can help them with their business challenges,” Dermer shares. When you turnaround a ghostwriting project, pitch a few more ideas to the client. Or when a company wants four SEO posts — make a case for why they actually need six a month for the quarter. With time and a killer performance, you’ll become their go-to writer for anything and everything.
“Once a freelancer makes the leap from being viewed as a functional solution to the ‘problem of the day,’ to a trusted advisor who is truly supporting their client’s business, the ability to create long-term, mutually-beneficial relationships grows exponentially,” Dermer shares.
3. Consistently create memorable client experiences.
In romantic relationships, part of what keeps you attached to your partner is how they anticipate what you want when you want it. Whether it’s a cup of coffee, a foot massage or simply refilling the fridge with your favorite seltzer, these thoughtful acts of love go a long way in cementing a bond. The same goes for a professional dynamic too, since Capistran says being proactive in your client’s objectives and day-to-day routine will keep them connected to you.
“Look for opportunities to ask powerful questions so that you can regularly gain clarity about your client’s goals and objectives. It shows that you care about their success… Business relationships are built on collaboration,” she continues. “When we create and maintain meaningful relationships, it influences the way customers perceive us. They know us. They like us. And they trust that we are looking out for their best interest.”
4. Be the expert.
Most of the time when a company is hiring a writer — whether for copywriting, content strategy, SEO execution or blog development — it’s because they don’t have the resources internally. Or, rather, the talent. That’s why Dermer says freelancers must make themselves the expert to their clients and demonstrate the confidence required to ensure trust.
How do you do this? Dermer shares a few ideas: telling them about their competitors, sending them links to articles within their industry and most importantly, talking to them about their business. “Don’t talk to them about your services. Talk to them about their business. When you do, try to be insightful. Give them unsolicited ideas about how they can beat the competition. Tell them they should think about a different approach to how they market,” he explains.
Another key way to remain their guru is to communicate frequently — but in the right way. “Don’t just say, ‘just checking in to see how you are doing and if there is anything I can help you with,’” he says. “Say, ‘hope you are doing well. Thought you might be interested in this article about your industry.’”
5. Provide the ‘wow’ factor.
When you deliver work to your client — no matter if it is the first time or the 10th — you want them to be in awe of your quality and talent. Capistran shares there are plenty of ways to ensure their satisfaction that frankly don’t cost a dime.
One of the most obviously is always keeping your commitments, adding extra value with suggestions and comments and ensuring your writing is error-free. It can also be stepping in when you can tell a client is unsure about the right choice to make or path to take.
“Sometimes the client doesn’t 100 percent know what their true needs are, and as professional freelancers we may see something that they don’t realize would be hugely helpful. So step up to help your clients whenever the opportunity presents itself,” she explains. “Think about a situation where they have always done a particular thing the same way for years but you know of a more advanced approach that would cut down time or reduce costs for them. Tell them. When we go above and beyond our clients expectations especially if it’s helping them out of a tight spot — it is memorable!”