How I get freelance clients

NotepadPhoneLaptopSo far, I’ve focussed on trying to get my readers to see that, in order to build a life which doesn’t require a 9-5 job to fuel it, they need to be willing to put in the effort, and direct that effort towards appropriate actions.

Whilst these things are true, they are quite abstract concepts. Knowing that you need to put in some effort, for instance to sell your services to existing businesses, is not the same as knowing how exactly to go about doing that.

So, to give you some help in that area, my aim for this post is to take you through the exact process I use to find the freelance work I rely on to feed my kids.

Caveat Emptor

This is my process. I hope that taking you through what I do helps you to achieve what you want. However the things that have worked for me might not work for you. Your personality, family responsibilities, existing skills and professional network are likely to be completely different from mine.

It’s probably best to absorb the concepts I’m discussing rather than copying my technique directly.
Possibly quite predictably, I’m also going to assume that anybody taking a similar approach to finding freelance work is operating with a generous war chest. If you want to freelance in the future and don’t have a penny to your name, start saving hard now!

Oh, and of course, if you’d like some one-to-one help with all of this, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Basic concepts

Regardless of your professional field, being a freelancer is basically running the smallest, simplest business you could think of. You sell a single product (the value you can produce with your skills) and have a single employee who may also be responsible for all job roles in the company.

Small as my enterprise may be, its success is still determined by the same concepts that govern much larger businesses:

  1. The business must produce something which solves a problem/produces value for somebody else
  2. The business must be able to deliver this value consistently
  3. The business must be able to find that ‘somebody else’ and have them pay for the value

If you’re a competent professional, your ‘personal corporation’ is likely doing numbers 1 and 2 already. If it wasn’t, you’d probably be unemployed. Of course, it might not be possible to provide the exact same type of value as you currently do if you decide to freelance, but I’m assuming that there’s something reasonably close to your current job that you could offer business-to-business (B2B).

If that’s not the case, stay tuned for future posts about building micro-businesses.

Number 3 is where things can get tricky. Customer acquisition is expensive. Now, I don’t necessarily mean that it just costs a lot of money, but it always costs a lot of something (maybe time, portfolio building or testimonial generation). I would go as far as stating that, assuming you have valuable skills to start with, acquiring customers will be the hardest part of getting your freelance business established.

For you to win, you need to master doing number 3 effectively enough to bring in sufficient income to cover your lifestyle costs, on average.

Ditch the employee mindset

If (as an adult) you’ve always had a job, it’s likely that you’re accustomed to monthly cash flow. Regardless of how much you’ve saved in preparation for going freelance, not having an income on a monthly basis might scare you. It might push you in the direction of becoming a ‘contractor’ who uses agencies to find fixed-length stints of work just to get the income started again ASAP.

I didn’t do this.

Don’t get me wrong, walking out of your job on a Friday and then calling an agency the following Monday is probably the quickest way of getting some income. However, it’s really important to distinguish between earning income now and building relationships which last a long time. 

An often overlooked downside of doing agency contract work is that, in most cases, the agency basically owns a piece of your relationship with the end client. There is likely to be a standard clause in any agency contract you’re asked to sign which states that you are not allowed to do any work for the end client (either directly or through a different agency) within a certain amount of time after your original contract finished (usually a year).

This means that if you are able to establish a rapport and build a trust-based relationship with the end client, you can’t capitalise on that relationship without paying the agency their cut. In my industry, the cut is usually quite healthy (25-30%). A year is about the amount of time it takes for the end client to forget you, so if you tried to wait out the exclusion period, you’d have lost the relationship anyway. Like I said, the agency owns a big chunk of the relationship… forever!

So the trade-offs of choosing to do agency contract work look something like this:

  • Positive: You get income quickly
  • Positive: Somebody else does the yucky sales work
  • Positive: (Possibly) The agency might have some sort of exclusivity arrangement with the client (e.g. if they’re on an ‘approved suppliers list’). I’d suggest that companies which are big enough to have approved suppliers lists are usually big enough to be avoided anyway.
  • Negative: The agency skims 25-30% of the contract value during the original contract term
  • Negative: The agency owns 25-30% of all future work arising from the effort you put in to establishing a valuable relationship with the client

Also, we need to keep one eye on why the decision to freelance was taken in the first place. It probably wasn’t to get yourself plugged in as a well-paid 9-to-5er somewhere else – after all you want to be free. So maybe add this one to our list:

  • Negative: Agencies don’t usually recruit for freelancers on a basis of ‘why don’t you see if you can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement’. Instead it’s usually a case of ‘Full-time software engineer required for 6 months’.

To build the life I wanted, I changed the problem I was trying to solve from

How do I turn my income back on?

to

How can I find enduring arrangements with people/businesses which will add value for them and meet my lifestyle goals.

My black book

Before even thinking about finding new clients, I made sure that I stayed on excellent terms with my former employer because, as far as I knew when I started freelancing, they were the best match for my skills (as evidenced by the fact that they’d already paid me for them for some time). However, I wanted multiple streams of income and to not be reliant on a single big client so I set out to build relationships with several other companies.

About 6 months before I went freelance, I started building what I have come to call my ‘black book’. My black book is actually a spreadsheet which contains a list of companies located within a 2 hour driving range from my house to whom I am likely to be able to provide value. The 2 hour driving range is relevant here because I wanted to target companies where it would be feasible for me to do things like

  • Shake the Engineering Manager’s hand and make my pitch in person
  • Spend occasional time working on-site with the company’s engineering team to build trust

I’m a software and firmware engineer (i.e. I work with computers and electronics systems) so in my case my black book contains the details of electronics design and manufacture companies, software houses and product design consultancies. I also have a section in my black book for ‘fallback’ opportunities, i.e. companies who do things which don’t completely align with my industry experience but that I certainly know enough about for my skills to be valuable. The ‘fallback’ section is intended to be used only in an emergency (i.e. I can’t find any other income and our cash stash is getting depleted).

I built my list by trawling the internet, keeping an eye on industry news for my area and asking appropriate questions of people in my professional network.

Just building the list up to around 100 entries took a long time and was a very dull, boring process. However, my list is now a very small example of a business asset. Having the black book means that I don’t need an agency to find out where the opportunities are – I can just start calling people directly and asking them.

Having a list of companies to target was better than a cold start, but there was still much work to do in order to actually sell to any of them.

The funnel

If you’ve spent any time reading about internet marketing, or just business in general, you might have met the sales funnel. Here’s a picture:

Funnel

[Graphic taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purchase_funnel. Original work by Steve Simple, released under Creative Commons 3.0 licence]

The idea is that getting somebody to buy from you is a process, not a single action. Prospects might enter the top of your funnel and become aware that you exist in several ways. For instance:

  • You send them some advertising materials
  • You cold-call them
  • They land on your website

Of the 100 or so companies in my black book, perhaps 10 are in my funnel. Now, don’t pay much attention to the number 10. Bear in mind that I can only do 1 or 2 projects concurrently and projects tend to last for several months so even if I worked flat out, I wouldn’t usually be involved with more than about 5 companies every year.

Obviously if you intend to set up a freelance accountancy practice which does £2000 worth of work per small business client each year and you need to make £30k, you’ll have to get more prospects into the top of your funnel to start with.

So, how do I get people into the top of the funnel in the first place?

Filter the prospects

On day one, I had a single client who was at the bottom of the funnel (i.e. already a paying customer): my old employer. To improve on this, I ranked the other companies in my black book spreadsheet according to parameters such as

  • Type of technology (I’d rather do work that interests me)
  • Distance from my house (I don’t want to stay away from home very often)
  • Size of company (smaller companies tend to be more flexible about the arrangements they come to with people – I hate hearing ‘you’ll need to speak to Dave in HR’!)
  • Whether I already knew people who worked there that might be able to introduce me to the appropriate decision makers
  • Whether the company appears able to pay my fees (looking at publicly available data from Companies House)

I then took the top 10 and focussed on trying to build relationships with them.

Identify decision makers

In order to sell your services, you eventually need to convince somebody to buy them. Well… duh, that’s obvious! However, you must not make the error of spending time and effort to convince somebody who does not have any power whatsoever to say ‘yes’ (and hence pay you), e.g. the secretary .

So, I went through every company in my top 10 and did some research. To start with, I’d have a good trawl of the company’s website to see what I could find out. If it was obviously a ‘3 men in a shed’ design consultancy, the person I needed to speak to was likely to be both the boss and the head techie. On the other hand, if the company was of a reasonable size I might need to speak to a technical director, engineering manager or similar. Sometimes I got lucky and there was an organisational chart on the website which detailed people’s job roles, email addresses and (if I was really fortunate) direct-line telephone numbers.

If I wasn’t able to find the information I needed from the website, I looked up some information about the company using sites like Company Check and LinkedIn. Usually (but not always) there was a way of putting together enough pieces of information to work out who was likely to be the best person to pitch to.

In the cases where I couldn’t identify a decision maker, if the company was an attractive enough prospect, I knew that I’d have to run the gauntlet and call their main telephone number to ask who I needed to speak to.

Get on the phone

It’s worth internalising this lesson: cold-calling is an effective way of getting prospects to talk to you even though it feels a bit dirty sometimes.

I learnt this years ago from mistakes I made in previous businesses. However, instead of starting to cold call straight away, my first move after identifying the people I wanted to talk to was to put together a spec sales email and sending it to all of them. Suffice it to say that, on its own, this was an ineffective strategy.

Now, this weak initial strategy didn’t (as far as I know) negatively impact my chances of making an eventual sale. However, just imagine how many emails are in the inbox of a typical busy engineering manager. I imagine that the majority of my emails were being ignored. I certainly didn’t get a lot of replies.

My next move was to follow up the emails with the cold calls I should have made in the first place.

I called each company on the list and asked to speak to the decision maker I had identified. If somebody asked me why I was calling, I explained that I was a freelancer and was calling about my earlier email. Sometimes this resulted in my call being transferred to the person, but probably 2 out of every 3 attempts were unsuccessful.

As I’ve grown more confident with these initial phone calls, I’ve learned to make a conscious effort to establish rapport with the ‘gatekeepers’ I speak to. Even if it’s pretty clear that you’re not going to get what you want from this call, it’s better to have the secretary onside for next time.

Who knows, maybe next month, the company will start giving clues that they have an immediate need for your skills by advertising a vacancy for a permanent job. In that case, you wouldn’t be exactly what they were looking for but you may be able to help them out in some other way. Therefore, being able to call back in a month’s time and say something like

Oh, Hi Carol. How was your holiday?

is a useful position to be in.

Tip: don’t get mad at the secretary just because he/she won’t put you through to the decision maker. The secretary is doing their job. The person you want to speak to is likely to have a lot of responsibilities and their time is valuable. One of the key reasons for having a secretary to answer the phone in the first place is to play that gatekeeper role and avoid high-value staff members having their time wasted. Play the long game.

Whenever I did a cold-calling session, I kept detailed notes about

  • when I made each call
  • who I spoke to
  • what happened

I put these notes into my black book spreadsheet as ‘comments’.

Rejection stings, but zoom out

I’m not going to dwell on this point too much as I don’t want to put you off giving cold-calling a try. However, it’s worth mentioning as there’s a key concept you need to familiarise yourself with if you’re ever going to get the results you want.

When you hit a brick wall with a cold call, it’s embarrassing and it really hurts your ego. In this context, a brick wall is somebody just flatly saying that they’re not interested in what you’re selling, never will be and that they’d appreciate it if you’d stop clogging up their phone line and wasting their time.

The worst brick wall I’ve ever hit was with somebody who owns an engineering company directly calling me incompetent and a liar because I didn’t have any a freelance portfolio to show him (my years as a senior design engineer at a reputable IT equipment designer/manufacturer counted for nothing). I came out of that particular call with a mixture of fury, anger, embarrassment and dejection. It really dented my confidence (and I’m a pretty confident person).

If I’d have let that experience put me off (which I nearly did), I would have stopped cold-calling and I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be working at the new job I’d have had to go and get once our cash stash had got low enough that I got scared.

The moral of the story: if you’re going to initiate business relationships by cold-calling prospects, some of them won’t like it. Many of them will (at least initially) be completely disinterested. A minority will be actively unpleasant to you. To find one person who will even have a cup of coffee with you and let you sell yourself in person, you’re likely to have to call 6 or 7 (or more) people. Getting a single sale will cost you a lot of rejection, embarrassment and people reneging on their previously stated intentions.

You need to zoom out. First of all, remember that you’re in the early stages of learning how to roll your boulder. Secondly, get your head around looking at your success in terms of statistics. You won’t sell to everybody. However, if you can improve the number of calls you have to make in order to get a meeting from 20 to 10, that’s real progress.

Every time you do it wrong and miss a chance you think you should have taken, you are getting better at it. Don’t think about the success of particular calls/approaches/attempts, think about your hit rate and focus upon improving it.

Don’t ask for the business yet

Here’s a mistake I made a few times when I was speaking to prospects:

Andy: Hi there. I’m Andy and I have skills X and Y. I was calling to see if you had any need for skills X and Y.

Prospect: We don’t have any requirement for skills X and Y at the moment.

Andy: Ahh… OK. Well, erm… thank you for your time. You have my number if such a requirement crops up.

Prospect: Yes I do. Thanks Andy. Bye.

What’s the problem with this?

Well, there’s no chance that guy will remember me next time he needs a firmware engineer. He’ll have forgotten our conversation in half an hour. He’ll probably not even remember my name if somebody brings it up in conversation next week.

This approach only works if the prospect has an immediate need for the service you’re trying to sell. What are the odds of that being the case?

Repeat after me

You are not trying to sell your services yet. You are trying to get a (preferably) face-to-face meeting with the prospect in order to build rapport and provide evidence of your abilities and character.

Have another look at the funnel above. You want as many of your approaches as possible to result in having and retaining a prospect in the funnel. You want people to be aware of what you can do. Now, I don’t mean aware in the way that the conversation above suggests, i.e.

Hey person I don’t know. I’m here if you need me.

You want people to really know who you are and what you’re about. You want them to start to trust you.

Think about how your prospects relate to you. I do this a lot. I’ve currently got 4 or 5 prospects for whom I’ve never done any work at all, but all of them see me as something more than ‘random guy who phoned me once’. I’m now related to (at least by a few of my prospects) in terms similar to:

Andy, that guy from Yorkshire with the longish hair. He knows his stuff about software and electronics. He took me out for a coffee (and paid). He likes similar music to me and we’ve been out to a couple of industry events together. If anybody in the industry asked me where we would look for a firmware engineer, I’d probably refer them straight to Andy.

For each of these prospects, I persuaded them to let me visit their premises or take them out for a coffee and have a chat about technology. Of course, I investigated in each case if there was anything I could do for them immediately. But I always stated explicitly at the outset that I wasn’t necessarily looking to do any work for them at the moment. I merely wanted to get to know them a bit and find out if there was a possibility that we could start a mutually beneficial relationship.

A key ingredient to doing this successfully is offering some immediate value to your prospects for free. You need an answer to the question Why should I? People act in their own self interest and are unlikely to see you out of the ‘goodness of their heart’.

Paying for coffee is one way of doing that but, if possible, go for some serious value. If you know they have a small niggly problem which could be solved more quickly with your expertise, offer to talk it through with them over coffee. If it’s a small problem and wouldn’t warrant billed time, just do as much as you can to offer guidance and try to remove the pain.

In my initial meetings, I’ve tried to add value by pointing out specific techniques for doing things and making recommendations for tools with which I’m familiar. I also keep an ear to the ground for opportunities which might benefit the prospect. For example, if a consultancy has a speciality and one of my other clients has a need for that skill, I always try to make a referral with no expectation of any remuneration from either party.

Relationships are essential

As I’ve pointed out so far, it’s expensive to get a prospect into your funnel and start to build a relationship with them. But even if you’ve succeeded with that step, notice that they’re still all the way up there at the top and you won’t see a penny from them until they get down to the bottom.

The first obvious thing you need to guarantee is that the prospect doesn’t end up falling out of your funnel altogether and forgetting who you are.

I make a point of dropping an email to each of my ‘warm prospects’ every 3 months or so, regardless of whether I’m looking for work at the time, just to remind them that I’m still here and available. If I see something which might be of use to any of them (e.g. a new technique or an industry show they might benefit from), I will point it out. These little reminders are designed to be unintrusive and to not take too much of my prospect’s time. I don’t get upset if I don’t receive a reply to an email.

I make a point of trying to see my best prospects in person around once every year. This is reserved for the top 4 or so prospects in my funnel as it’s quite a resource-intensive technique.

The main takeaway here is that, you need to make sure you don’t waste the initial effort required to get people to talk to you in the first place. It’s essential that it is followed up with some thoughtful ways of making sure that the right people remember you in the future.

Keep the boulder rolling.

They will come to you

Hopefully you’ve gathered by now that my freelancer-to-client relationships never jump from ‘guy we’ve never heard of’ to working on a project straight away. Although my 3-monthly emails do ask the ‘is there anything I can do for you’ question, the real purpose of them is to maintain the relationships I have initiated.

If you’ve positioned your offering appropriately, there should never be any need for a hard sell. By all means guide the prospect to buy from you with occasional reminders but ultimately concentrate on maintaining the goose rather than worrying too much about the next golden egg.

I know that next time one of my prospects has a need for my particular skills, they will favour me over a random agency contractor who they’ve never met. It’s a strange feeling to maintain business relationships with people I’ve never engaged in a monetary transaction with, but I see that as an investment which will pay off over the next few years.

Remember, the further down your funnel a prospect has got, the more likely they are to get to the bottom. If they’ve already paid you for your services in some way, even better.

Over-deliver but respect your value

Remember that it’s fantastically more expensive (again, not just in monetary terms) to get a new client than it is to maintain an existing profitable one. From this it follows that you really need to look after your existing customers. I make a point of giving all of my freelance work my best effort and trying to inject as much creativity as possible.

I also try to be really easy to deal with (e.g. returning emails quickly, being available on the phone etc) to reduce any relationship friction. Again, I keep my eyes out for commercial opportunities that might benefit my clients.

In short, I try to provide enough value to more than outweigh my fees.

However, I’m always careful to not get caught up with resource-sucking clients from hell! It’s really important to remember why you are able to justify your generous day rate – your time is valuable.

Let’s go back to my original business aim, namely to maintain long-term, mutually beneficial relationships. Clearly that goal cannot be achieved if all of my clients pay late and expect services for free. That leads me neatly to my last point.

Fire bad clients

It is inevitable that in the years it takes to build enough of those mutually beneficial relationships to achieve your long-term goals, you will end up working with people whose purposes don’t align with yours. You may also experience people refusing or being unable to pay, perhaps even going bankrupt whilst owing you money.

The key is to apply the 80:20 rule to your client list. Don’t be afraid to cull the relationships which are not working out in a timely fashion. You will regret trying to maintain bad relationships in the future – trust me!

Better get started!

I hope this description of my technique for finding, building relationships with and selling my freelance services to engineering companies has been of some use to you as you think about starting a similar small business in your industry. As I said at the start, I don’t necessarily recommend copying my technique exactly but hopefully I’ve given you the benefit of enough of my experience that you at least know where to start and what to avoid.

On the other hand, if you’re really struggling to get started, help is at hand. I’d be happy to give you some one-to-one guidance to help you to get the wheels in motion.

It would be great to hear about your particular experience with this process in the comments.


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[Image “Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise” courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

2 thoughts on “How I get freelance clients

  1. Interesting stuff – I’m currently a contractor, and I’m longing to go ‘proper’ freelance.

    I’m fed up getting paid to ‘show up’. My issue at the moment is defining what I want to freelance as, since I’m a bit of a generalist!

    1. Hi Tony.

      The secret is to find out what problems people actually have. If you’re a contractor (I assume you get work through agencies) then, at the moment, somebody comes to you with vaguely defined problems.

      Instead of wanting to ‘put a label on yourself’, perhaps you should use some of the techniques I described as a way of setting up some meetings with people in order to just ask them some questions about what problems they actually have. Then look for an intersection between your skills, their problems and what you want to do. It will take a while to establish a business like this but it will be worth it in the end.

      If you think you’d benefit from some one-to-one help with the transition, just shoot me an email and we can have a (no obligation) chat.

      All the best.

      Andy

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