Finding and nurturing clients for your freelance business

There’s no one way to find clients, and no one way to manage them.

So you’re all set up and you’ve set your rate. Now comes the most important thing – the clients.

There’s no one way to find them, and no one way to manage them.

Finding clients

My business is built on referrals. I’ve either worked with my clients before or been recommended to them. I occasionally get a cold request via LinkedIn or my website, but it’s rare. (I’m still regularly approached about in-house jobs via LinkedIn, but that’s different.)

But referrals aren’t the only way to find clients. You can:

  • SEO the crap out of your website and wait
  • Sign up for online marketplaces and job boards
  • Apply for tenders
  • Advertise
  • Cold-pitch
  • Network (online or in-person)
  • Promote your services on social media

And I’m sure there are a dozen other ways I haven’t thought of that could be added to that list.

A quick aside about networking

Say “networking” and many people curl up in fear or shudder in revulsion. But networking isn’t a four-letter word. (It’s 10, see? I can count.) Nor is it showing up to an event, handing out business cards and selling yourself to as many people as possible while they sell themselves right back to you. That’s called wasting time and money. Who uses or keeps business cards these days? And does anyone ever get work out of these cold, ugly interactions?

I consider networking as getting to know people or catching up with friends. At an event, it’s chatting around the lunch buffet or talking with the person next to you. Successful networking is getting an email address and setting up a time to catch up for coffee.

Networking isn’t immediate sales. It’s not really “sales” at all. It’s slow as you get to know someone, learn what they do, and connect with them. It’s seeking business friendships that eventually (hopefully) deliver benefits to all.

And, most importantly, networking is with people you want to spend time with. If you’re not enjoying yourself, do you really want to work with that person on a long-term project?

Nurturing clients

In most cases, a potential client doesn’t need you the moment they meet you. If you meet them at an event or they stumble across you online, they may be interested to learn more but not ready to sign on and get started. That’s why patience and lead nurturing is essential.

Honestly, I don’t do this as much or as well as I should. Pre-COVID-19 I scheduled a day once a fortnight for coffees and lunches. But these weren’t sales meetings. They were lead-nurturing networking sessions.

Since lockdown, I’ve turned my attention to social media and online networking. Is it as effective? No, not even close. But social media has its place. It’s pretty much expected these days, and acts as a useful touchpoint in the client (or customer) journey while strengthening your brand.

You can also nurture clients through automated emails. If you do, make sure you carefully consider why, what and when you’re emailing your prospects. The hands-off nature of email sequences limits the feeling of authenticity and connection. Too many emails, or content that doesn’t suit your audience, can feel like a sale and kill the relationship.

Having the conversation

You wouldn’t hire a builder before meeting with them (for free) and seeing what they can do. So why should it be different hiring a freelance copywriter, designer, developer, strategist or whatever?

When you have a client reach out to ask for help, you need to know you’re a match. While you can’t give away a lot of time and insights for free, it’s worth having an initial conversation to get on the same page before you send across a proposal.

Before you have that conversation, set the ground rules with yourself. Be clear on the duration, and have strategies for sticking to it. Know what you need to say and ask. Be prepared to talk about you and your experience, and prep for difficult conversations around price in case it comes up.

Following up on leads

Leads are like pizza. They’re great when they’re hot, okay when they’re cold, and soggy when reheated in the microwave. You want to keep your warm leads warm, so follow up if they’re not getting back to you straight away.

There’s no concrete rule when it comes to how soon you should follow up a potential client, but here’s how I work it out:

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Where “Impact” is the expected results the client will see and “Project cost” is your quoted amount.

I don’t recommend leaving prospective clients on their own for more than two weeks unless they’re on holiday. After two weeks they’ve probably forgotten your name and maybe even the project.

And keep the conversation going

Once you’ve signed a new client, you want to keep them engaged. It’s easy to get lost in new projects and forget about the inactive clients as you plough endlessly through your to-do lists. But keeping in touch means it’s more likely they’ll reach out when their next project comes along. As they say, it’s far easier to sell to an existing customer than a new one. And by keeping them engaged and happy, chances are they’ll recommend you to friends or colleagues who also need a hand.

If your client list is massive then yes, monthly Mailchimp emails are the way to go. But for those high-value clients, and those you just really loved working with, go for the personal touch.

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