How to Build a Steady Stream of Clients
The most successful freelancers have clients and opportunities referred to them. Word of mouth and reputation are so important in this business, it can make or break a freelancer.
I've been freelancing for four years and 100% of my clients have referred my work out to other parts of their business. I have also hired many freelancers over the last 15 years, so I also see things from the client perspective.
Today I work with a few select clients, but the work continues to flow. Like any entrepreneur, I do have to hustle from time to time, but I don’t have the typical feast or famine problems that most freelancers face. My clients keep coming back for more work, or refer me to other parts of their business or friends. Referrals are the lifeblood of a successful freelancer, so I want to take the time to explain how to be the kind of freelancer that clients love and recommend.
Treat others as you want to be treated.
Put yourself in the shoes of the person who has hired you.
When I hire freelancers, here what I want: I expect them to be prompt, responsive, get work done at agreed upon deadlines (or have a good explanation for why that cannot happen), have a good attitude and be enthusiastic as well as be proactive in uncovering issues and challenges. In short, I would expect my freelancer to act like a professional. If you cannot fulfill these terms as a freelancer, it is unlikely you will get referred or re-hired.
Your reputation is what will get you jobs. And that goes for how clients see you and how you work with other freelancers.
One of the ways I am referred work is through my freelance network. Fellow freelancers will give my name out when they hear of a role I’d be perfect for. Referring other freelancers to jobs you’re not suited for is a great way to build goodwill with your clients, help out your friends and be seen as a trusted source. But here’s the thing, you can’t refer out people that suck or don’t work with integrity. Why? Because your name is also on the line. If I refer a freelancer who turns out to have a lousy attitude, work slowly or be unresponsive, I lose credibility with the client.
I’ve worked with a lot of freelance graphic designers. One in particular was incredibly talented and had a very strong creative side that the client loved. There was only one problem — he couldn’t work on a deadline. I’ll never forget: we had a client creative meeting one evening where I was going to present the concepts we’d been working on. There was just one problem — I had no creative to show the client. The freelance designer had gone MIA — stopped responding to texts, emails, calls and five minutes before the meeting I was yelling into his voicemail that if I didn’t hear from him I was going to come over to his house and knock some sense into him.
This was bad. It reflected poorly on me and I vowed never to work with this guy again. I loved his work, but I couldn't trust him and would never refer him or work with them again.
I will take an above average designer who is responsive, timely and does good work, to a design rockstar who is a nightmare to work with. Any day of the week.
So learn to be a professional. If you like what you're doing and care about your clients, this should be a no brainer. If you hate what you're doing, this will be incredibly difficult (and perhaps it's time for a career change!),
Learn how to take feedback.
Like many people I know, when I worked in the corporate world, I used to be terrified of feedback. I was afraid I’d be ripped to shreds, made worthless and feel horrible about myself. I was afraid that negative feedback would mean I’d lose my job, not get a raise or jeopardize the relationship with my boss.
Since then, I’ve learned to embrace feedback by changing my mindset. As a freelancer, feedback is my life blood. As I tell every client I work with, I am here to give them something they love. And if they don’t love it, I want to know so we can make it right. With the writing and creative content I work on, I go through multiple rounds of client feedback. Why? Because we want it to be great. We want the content to shine. I no longer take feedback on my work personally. It’s just about getting to the finish line with something that everyone is proud of. If you can learn to separate your self worth from the feedback, you’ll completely transform the way you work with clients.
You may be wondering how I can afford to do two to three rounds of revisions with clients. It’s simple — it’s all built into the pricing. How do you avoid nightmare clients who want 50 rounds of revisions? Choose your clients wisely! This kind of behavior can often be rooted out by observing a person’s behavior and listening carefully to how they describe their work experience.
Do not burn bridges. Ever.
You know about Murphy’s Law, right? "When something can go wrong, it will go wrong."
This is how I treat bridge burning. If you start throwing proverbial Molotov cocktails at people you don’t like, it can bite you in the ass. And you never know when. You must learn to take the high road. You don’t have to roll over, but do not start insult people or talk about people behind their back. Maintain your personal integrity while respecting others.
In my last full time role I was laid off by a member of senior management; we’ll call him John. A month prior we had a new VP of Marketing come in and decide to clean house. Since I was the only other member of the marketing team, my head was on the chopping block. So John and the new VP walked me into the conference room one Friday morning and gave me my marching papers. I was angry. Very angry. I’d felt as though I worked very hard for this company and been put through the ringer over the last several months. I couldn’t believe this was how I was being “thanked”. I wanted to rail into John for this treatment (when he was only the messenger) and give him a piece of my mind.
But I didn’t. I held my tongue, kept my head high and walked out of the conference room. I talked to my family about how upset I was, but I knew the advice to move on was right. And so I did. It was from that point on that I launched my freelancing career and have never looked back.
Fast forward about two years later...
And I am working with a new client on what could turn out to be a major contract. They’re a prestigious, internationally known brand, and I am about to land a big deal. I have a meeting with them, where I’m to meet the larger team and sync on the project. I’m excited and nervous and want to really show them I can do this.
And as the meeting is about to get started, who walks in? John.
I could feel my body tense up. I hadn’t talked to him in years — since that day he let me go. I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond, but when he saw me he had a big smile on his face and said, “Laura it’s so great to see you again! Guys, Laura is awesome."
And that’s why I never burn bridges.
It’s a small world, and unless you’re going to burn everyone and then move to a deserted island, I recommend bite your tongue and realize you're better than that.
Ask for recommendations or referrals.
We can hope and pray for referrals and recommendations, but have you considered asking for them? That’s honestly what separates most freelancers from the rest.
As you’re getting feedback from the client, and wrapping up one part of the project, ask for a recommendation! If you've been doing your work with integrity, focused on delivering great results, the client should have no issue with this. Plaster it on your website, put it on your LinkedIn page and let the world know how awesome you are.
Wrapping it all up.
At the end of the day, these principles boil down into having integrity for yourself, the work you do and for the client experience. This kind of attitude towards freelancing is best suited towards people who see freelancing as a career and not something to do in between getting your next full time job. See your client as someone you want to build a relationship with. If you can’t stand them, don’t work with them. It’s really that simple.