To make freelancing worthwhile, you need to build long-term client relationships.
Because finding new freelance clients can be time-consuming work.
Every new client represents the sum of hours of effort to seek out prospective clients, communicate with them, create proposals, and hopefully get the go-ahead to work together.
It isn’t profitable or sustainable.
I discovered this personally and painfully with my web development business. I would build a website for a client, possibly sell a few upgrades and support, and that’s as far as that relationship went. When I needed more money, I would need to find another client, and another, and so on.
In any given week, half of my time might go into finding clients instead of doing actual work!
But as time went on I started noticing that a few of my client relationships were different. Rather than disappearing after the project finished, these clients came back for more and more work. Some grew their work with me by ten-fold or more over the years.
I caught on and realized that building long-term client relationships, which means continuing to work with existing clients, was far easier and more profitable than constantly seeking new clients. They already trusted me, wanted to work with me, and I just needed to figure out how to create more of these relationships.
Over time I figured out exactly how to build these relationships.
With that realization my business grew, my work hours dropped, I stopped stressing over writing proposals every week. I even started teaching other freelancers how to find clients.
Here’s the 5-step process that transformed how long I work with clients and consequently allowed me to focus on doing great client work instead of constantly searching for freelance clients:
#1. Seek out Clients that are Going to be a Great Fit
A long-term relationship with a client is only going to be possible if two conditions are met:
- The client is likely to continue to need your skills in the future.
- The client and you enjoy working with each other.
Rather than grabbing the first project that comes your way, look for prospective clients that are likely to meet this criteria.
For example, a fast-growing startup who appears to do a lot of online marketing might have a constant need for a web developer to maintain and improve their website for years to come. Meanwhile a small cafe that only wants to post some basic information and hours of operation is less likely to need much web development work once that goal is accomplished.
Predicting how likely you are to enjoy working with someone is harder, but there are still clues that you can look for, and questions you can ask:
- Do the expected turnaround times match with how you work?
- Do you like the idea of working for this type of business?
- When communicating with the prospective client, do you feel like you get along?
There’s nothing wrong with turning down a project that you might not be the best fit for. It’s not a judgement on the client or their needs, it just isn’t the right fit for you.
#2 – Communicate Like a Rockstar
Doing great work for your clients is important, but it’s only half the reason that a client will grow to enjoy (or not enjoy) working with you.
Imagine how difficult it is to work with someone who takes days to respond to emails, doesn’t articulate their thoughts clearly, or just plain doesn’t make you feel like your project is important.
In contrast, consider how joyful it is to work with someone that responds quickly, takes the time to answer questions in depth, and makes you feel that your project is a high priority.
It’s surprisingly easy to be a communication rockstar:
- Take the time to answer questions and explain your thoughts clearly, particularly when the client might not be as technical as you are.
- Be proactive with your communication – send status updates, check-in with the client periodically, even if they aren’t as proactive in their own communication.
- And of course, respond to clients in a reasonable timeframe. (Responding within the same day for clients in your time zone and within 24 hours for clients who are half way across the world is a reasonable starting point.)
Communication builds trust, and clients want to keep working with people that they can trust and depend on.
#3 – Deliver on Your Promises
Completing the work that you promised – and completing it within the timeframe that you promised – does more than just get you paid. Like proper communication, delivering on promises builds trust, which in turn builds amazing and profitable long-term client relationships.
Delivering on your promises means getting organized.
Use a project management software such as Asana or Basecamp to track your client work and deadlines. When quoting timelines for new work, don’t just try to impress a client. Refer to your existing schedule and set a realistic timeline that you can actually achieve.
If you want to minimize late nights, then leave space in your schedule for things to go wrong. Despite our best efforts, projects can take longer than expected. We might have an off day. We might get sick and be out of commission for several days.
Besides, if you get the work done earlier than expected, your client will be overjoyed and you can take the afternoon off.
#4 – Help Your Client Succeed
Clients hire us because they are trying to achieve a result. That result is oftentimes bigger than the work itself.
For example, a client may want a beautiful new website design, but the result that they are truly hoping to achieve is to get customers through that new website. Accomplishing that goal is ultimately how they will judge whether their money was well-spent, and whether to spend more of it.
Take the time to understand the real results that your client is hoping for from the project. Then do whatever you can to help make sure that they get that result from working together. Chances are that your client isn’t an expert in your field, and you can easily provide valuable input and help them make decisions that lead to that success.
If you don’t believe that a client’s idea will accomplish the result that they are seeking, sometimes the best and most ethical option is to simply pass on the project. While you can’t guarantee a client’s success, it sure feels better working on a project that you believe vs one that you feel is doomed to fail.
#5 – Use Strategy Calls to Book More Work
Once you have completed the hard work of finding the right clients and building great relationships with them, it’s time to win more projects.
Sadly, emailing existing clients to ask if they have more work for you rarely works all that well. It’s not that they don’t want to keep working with you, it’s that they haven’t given much thought to how your services can help them solve even more problems in their business. But there’s a much more effective approach:
Work with the client to identify problems in their business that your services can solve, and show them how you’ll do it.
This can be done by setting a “strategy call” with your client every quarter or so. The goal of the call isn’t necessarily sales (even though it often leads to more work). The goal is to sit down with the client and find out how the work you’ve done is benefiting their business, what they might be struggling with, and ultimately to use your expertise to point them in the right direction to solve these problems.
Done right, these calls are highly appreciated by clients because it’s a chance to have an expert (you) to give a fresh assessment of what they are doing well, and where they are overlooking opportunities. Your client should walk away with insights, even if they don’t always result in more work.
Learn more about how to use strategy calls to win freelance clients.
Putting it all Together
Winning clients takes real work and time. By building deeper, long-term client relationships, you ultimately get a “roster” of great clients. In turn, you get to spend far more time doing the work you love, and doing it for people who you love working with.