How to find ongoing freelance clients

It’s the freelancers dream: a constantly flowing stream of long-term projects.

Let’s face it, getting started as a freelancer is fairly easy, in the grand scheme of things.

Almost anyone with a reasonable skill-set can find a single project to freelance on. Most can easily find two or three. But what really sets apart a successful creative freelancer from the rest is their ability to sustain a steady stream of work (and income).

The goal is reaching that critical point where you have enough ongoing work from freelance clients that you don’t need to spend as much time on proposals etc.

You have more control over your working schedule, and likely a great deal less stress about finances too.

How to get more long-term clients is one of the questions I get asked the most often, so today I’ll go through the process.

One of the most important aspects of this, however, is knowing who your ideal client is. You can figure that out using something like my target audience worksheet, which you can download for free here.

From small seeds, a mighty trunk may grow…

The first thing you have to do is change your perspective a little bit.

Although it may seem logical to look for big projects that will require a lot of work over an extended period, in reality very few clients actually say that upfront.

This is not to say that there aren’t clients out there looking for long-lasting relationships with freelancers who they trust. There are definitely many of them. They just don’t say (or maybe even know it) themselves.

Take, for example, my current web developer/techie freelancer.

When I hired him initially, it was to help fix a couple of issues with my website. I didn’t ask him to help improve and debug it for the next 5 years. I didn’t ask him if he would be available in a year to redesign it.

I was looking for someone who could help me fix a couple of things that had stopped working on the site. The developer I found did a great job, and I enjoyed working with him. So, of course, the next time I needed a change on the site, I emailed him. And the next time.

Later, when I needed a new website and some major changes, we worked together to create a plan of action on a much bigger scale. This was over a year since we had initially started working together. And I don’t foresee any reason I would need to use another developer instead of him in the future.

The mistake most freelancers make when trying to find ongoing work, is turning away the small jobs because they don’t think they’ll get repeat business.

As with anything, start small and scale. The best way to get long-term jobs is to do an amazing job on the small stuff, and nurture your relationships with your clients.

First of all, you’ll be able to easily get the small jobs. And the work you do on that small job will probably be better because you’ll be focused on one task and really solve the problem.

Once the client sees that you do great work and solve their problem, they’ll want to work with you the next time they have an issue. Of course, not all small jobs lead to long-term wins. There are of course certain types of clients that are more likely to ‘convert’ into a longer-term partnership. You wouldn’t propose on the first date right?

Having a good idea of your ideal client, using a detailed target audience or buyer persona, is key here. If you haven’t worked out your target audience yet, you download a ‘Target Audience Worksheet’ here, which should help you work it out.

Compare each client and project as it comes through against your buyer personas, and make sure that ‘having a need for ongoing work’ is one of your qualifiers.

Don’t rush your decision – you never know which small task will turn into an ongoing role and don’t make the mistake of charging too little to get the work. Once you start that way, it’s hard to change it.

The secret every successful freelancer knows is that creating a consistent income stream isn’t about more clients. It’s about building trust with the clients you already have.

Trust can be a hard thing to come by online, and you’d be surprised how many clients you come across have been ‘burnt’ in the past by unscrupulous freelancers or agencies.

Building trust with them won’t just bring you ongoing work from that client – they’ll be so happy to work with you, because they trust you, that they’ll even tell their friends about you. Make them successful and you’re golden!

If you get the chance to work with a great freelancer, you’ll notice it’s a bit like working with a friend, or a close colleague, a partner – someone who really cares about the success of the project and the success of your business.

There’s an old parable about a father who decides to hand down his business to one of his two sons.

He decides to pass it on to the younger son, at which the elder son is outraged; “Father, why would you not give me, your first child, your business?”

To demonstrate, the father sends both of his sons to buy 5 more cows from a neighbouring farmer. The elder son returns with 5 healthy, strong cows, and some small change.

The younger son returns without any cows at all. When the elder son sees this, he begins to crow delightedly, “See Father, you were wrong, he cannot even buy 5 cows!”

So the father asks his younger son why he has not returned with any cattle. The younger son replies, “Well father, there were 5 cattle available for sale, each for $2000, but if we were to buy 6, we would be able to reduce the price by $100 per cow. Also, if we are willing to wait, there will be fresh cattle available for sale, of a stronger, better breed. If we’re in a hurry, we could get them delivered for tomorrow morning.”

The father turns to his older son and says, “That’s why your younger brother is getting the farm.”

Most people only do what they’re asked to do. Those who are actively engaged in a cause will go above and beyond to make it as good as possible.

Think about it like this:

EVERY freelancer can create a decent-looking design for a fair price.

How many will take the time to find out if the design actually achieved  the desired result? Your clients don’t really want a logo, or a website, or a blog post – they want more customers.

Almost everything you do as a freelancer, whether you’re a designer or a developer or a writer, should boil down to what you can do to increase profits for your clients.

This may not always be apparent but you should keep this in the forefront of your mind.

Creating a consistent stream of work as a creative freelancer boils down to this:

1) Change your mindset and go smaller projects where you can get paid fairly. ‘From small seeds, a mighty trunk may grow.’

2) Know who you want to work with. Make sure it’s on things you care about. Don’t work with anyone else. Seriously – just don’t.

3) Commit to the client’s business as if it was your own. Understand and look for ways you can bring value to their business, whether it be in the project itself, or general advice. People will notice when this is genuine.

4) Go above and beyond wherever you can. Note: I didn’t say ‘underpromise and overdeliver’. This is the wrong way to look at it: actually go out there and above and beyond. This bit is actually not too hard if you follow the 3 rules above properly.

5) Focus on building better relationships with your clients, whether that be in-work or out. Send holiday cards, a ‘Happy Birthday’ note. Follow their business and them and check-in to congratulate them on their progress.

I realise that the above probably seems a little ‘easier said than done’. But that’s kind of the point. It’s going to be hard. You’re definitely going to make mistakes.

The most successful freelancers all struggled for the first few years because they made the same mistakes as you. And we’ve all accepted work we knew wouldn’t lead anywhere just for the money.

But as you build a better idea of who and what you want to work for, you’ll get better at finding clients that you can build a long-term relationship with.

And sweat the small stuff even if it doesn’t seem worth it – you’ll build a reputation that will bring you work better than any marketing tactic.

 

Don’t forget to pick up your FREE target audience worksheet here, to help you work out who your ideal client is.

What happens when you need to tell a client ‘no’

Sometimes no matter how well you get on or how much you want a relationship to work (professional or otherwise), it simply won’t.

Last year, one of my clients decided to fire a client. They had been working together for 6 months and it just wasn’t working out.

Despite several meetings and discussions about how to make it work better, my client suddenly became very clear that it would be best for all concerned to move on as quickly as possible.

He didn’t have the clarity right away. It took some time, but he woke up one morning and he just knew. When you follow that kind of ‘knowing’, you can’t go wrong.

Whether it’s because of a misalignment of interests, a miscommunication of goals, or poorly-set expectations, sometimes you just have to say, “No.”

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Knowing when and how to tell your client or potential client, ‘No!’ is an essential part of becoming a successful creative freelancer.

So, saying ‘no’ is what we’ll be covering today for you.

Why you need to say ‘no’ to a client

As humans and budding freelancers, saying ‘No’ to work can be a pretty scary prospect. After all, you want your clients to like you, you want their referrals, you want them to believe in you and your business. And of course, you want to keep them as a client.

But, as my little story at the beginning hopefully demonstrated, when you don’t tell a client ‘no’, you’re not necessarily helping your business.

Try to reframe what it means for you to say, ‘no’. When you turn down work, you’re turning away a project that can only end badly, or that stretches you emotionally and negatively impacts your other work or life.

The clients I’m talking about are the clients that don’t know what they want, the clients who just want it, ‘cheap’ who don’t care about design, or the clients who feel that the work is never good enough. This is stuff that is toxic, to you and your business and these are things you should be saying no to.

If you’ve been freelancing for any period of time, you will likely know exactly what I’m talking about. No matter what, those small underlying issues manifest themselves in a big way sooner or later.

It could be a refusal to pay, endless rounds of revisions with no direction, or simply poor communication and deadline-keeping (on the client side).

Whatever it is, usually your relationship with the client deteriorates to the point where neither of you wants to work with each other.

This is typically accompanied by blunt and passively (or sometimes openly) aggressive emails, delayed payments, zero referrals, lost time, wasted energy, emotional stress and ultimately – you don’t get to do what you do best.

Now, I’m not saying that these things are certain to happen. It’s just that they’re much more likely to happen when you don’t know how or when to say ‘no’.

When you say no to a client, you’re protecting yourself and your business. Keep that in mind when deciding when to say no as well.

When to say ‘no’ to a client

Knowing when to say ‘no’ is often harder than actually saying it.

The first thing is, don’t agonize over it. You’ve been blessed with the power to say no, so use it when you need to.

The second thing is, you’re the person who gets to decide who you work with and why. Don’t waste that. One of your biggest weapons in this is having a good idea of who you want to work with, and most importantly, who you don’t.

Put together a Buyer Persona or Target Audience (if you want help with this, you can download my free target audience worksheet here. This will help you get really clear on your ideal client so you can spot trouble-makers or clients that you know you’ll have problems with.

Some freelancers find it useful to create ‘Negative Target Audiences’ too. This can be a useful way of filtering your prospects out. But the most important thing is learning to actually say that little word.

As a creative freelancer, it’s only natural for you to want to please a client, whether they’re old or new.

We don’t just want to design their website, or write their articles; we want to absolutely knock their socks off.

We want them to come back a week later, shaken and confused, Google Analytics print-out shaking in their palm…”How?” they’ll mumble, “How did you do that?”

Not; “I don’t know why I don’t like it, can you make it, like, ‘pop’ more?”

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Remember this: You’ll never regret the bad jobs you didn’t take. Only the ones that you did.

Oh, and people will actually like you more when you kindly and authentically tell them no. Putting your foot down at the first signs of disrespect or unprofessionalism will help to set a precedent for your future relationship with them. Make your first impression count.

Below are some ‘Red Flags’ that should help you identify when it’s probably best to refuse a request from a client, and how to do it without ruining the relationship forever:

You may even want to include some of these in your Target Audience (grab your worksheet here if you haven’t got one yet). Then you can use these to frame questions to help filter out potential problem clients.

Say ‘no’ when the client wants you to work on spec or for much less than your normal rate.

For the freelancer, this is the first and probably the most important ‘No’ we need to learn to say.

We’ve all been there with a potential client who tries to get a discounted rate. This instantly belittles your skills and risks compromising the quality of work that can be produced.

This is a pity because the client doesn’t appreciate that a proper investment is required to ensure a thorough and quality outcome. In other words: you get what you pay for.

To avoid clients pinning you down on price, don’t reveal your day rate; this increases the likelihood they will try to reduce the price. Once they’ve told you what they want, simply tell them it will cost $X to complete the work.

If you absolutely have to reveal your day rate, set it a little higher (+25%) so that you’ve got some room to negotiate without suffering a real loss. Remember: you can always come down but you can’t go up! Don’t reduce your rate, change the scope of the work.

The client’s budget has to be part of your target audience/buyer personas. Once you have your Target Audience mapped out (download a free worksheet to find yours here), stick to it, especially when it comes to pricing.

Say ‘no’ when the client has a reputation for being overly demanding or dishonest.

This one is a little trickier to determine, especially if this is the first time you’ve come into contact with a client. However, these days a quick Google search will often tell you all you need to know about a business.

Be wary of clients who have not paid freelancers in the past, or have a reputation for being overly demanding or have unrealistic expectations.

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Also, watch out for clients who have worked with many design firms in the past; this is often an indicator that they will be a problem client. Don’t work with clients who are trying to get you to save the project for a cheap price because it didn’t work out with someone else.

What exactly makes a client a ‘problem client’ will differ depending on you, so make sure you use your Target Audience worksheet to go effect, to determine people who are not the best fit for your business. Here’s another one: don’t do the work for free, thinking that it might lead to something ongoing.

This is often a good indication of underlying cash-flow problems within the company. If this is not the case, then likely they do not value the service you provide very highly, which spells future trouble for any creative freelancer. Ask about the financial health of the company. They may not give you exact numbers but can tell you if they’re profitable.

Even if they agree, later this may manifest itself as a repeated requests for changes or work that wasn’t in the original scope. This is where a good contract can come in handy too.

If you know the client has unrealistic expectations or goals, don’t be afraid to say ‘no’.

This one is tricky and is not always obvious from the first meeting with a client. However, usually in such cases, a client will have vastly unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved given the time and resources available.

A great example of this is website design/builds. A client may say they want a website when what they really want is 1,000 customers.

You can make the most beautiful website in the world but your design alone won’t bring them new customers. It’s an important skill as a freelancer to be able to pick apart what your client wants from what they say, and then determine if you can deliver to their expectations. Be sure to find out their objectives right from the start.

Setting realistic expectations for a project is key. If a client refuses to alter their expectations, and you know they are unrealistic, don’t be afraid to walk away.

When the client or project requires you to go against your moral and ethical beliefs, walk away.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Do not sacrifice your personal beliefs for the sake of a client, and certainly do not do anything illegal.

This may even be because you don’t believe in it or agree with the business behind the project. Do not skip this one, as easy as it may seem to be to ‘just take the money’. You will not do as good a job as you would if you believed in the project. Knowing yourself and your target audience is key here, as with all of these.

Say ‘no’ when you are too busy, have plans, or cannot realistically keep to the deadlines.

These are often some of the hardest decisions to make because we feel responsible. But it’s better to postpone or pass than to say yes and not be able to deliver to your full capability later.

How to say ‘no’ to a client

There are a multitude of reasons why you may need to say no to a client, both before, during, and after a project.

The most important thing is, ironically, to avoid just blurting one out; “Sorry, it’s a no. 

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When I first drafted this, I thought I would add a ‘how to say no’ to each of the main things above. But, the reality is that each situation you need to say ‘No’ to will be unique; as will each reason and each response.

All the same, here are some examples of ways to say ‘No’ that should help give you an idea of how to say to and still leave you and your client feeling good about the situation.

Saying ‘no’ when you don’t like the project;

“Sorry but I don’t think I’m the best fit for your project- here are some designers who might be a better fit.

“It’s been really interesting working with you so far but I think it’s time to let someone else a crack at it. I don’t think I’m doing it the justice you deserve, I can recommend a couple of good designers for you.”

Saying ‘no’ when the money isn’t there:

“I really appreciate the opportunity but I wouldn’t be able to make it work for that price and you wouldn’t be happy with the result. Perhaps we can work together in future.”

“That’s a pity – let me know when your budget situation improves and I’ll be happy to discuss this again.”

“That’s totally understandable – there are so many different qualities and prices for freelance work – I’m sure you can find another freelancer who will do it cheaper.”

“Sorry but I’m a small business so financially I can’t position myself to take that kind of risk – that’s why I ask for the 50% deposit.”

Saying ‘no’ when they ask for extra work (scope creep)

“Yes, we can do that, no problem. Only thing is that it wasn’t part of the original project so it will take an extra {time} and {money} to achieve – you’re looking at X$. Please let me know if you’d like me to go ahead.”

“It’s been great working together but due to some changes in personal circumstances, I’m no longer going to be able to help you out. I’d recommend {Company X} instead.”

“After doing some strategic analysis, I’ve decided to shift my/our focus to only serve a specific niche going forward. Due to this, we regret to inform you that we will no longer be able to work with you. Thanks for your understanding.”

The key here is, knowing when to say no, being confident enough to say it, and knowing how to say it in the best way.

Getting your Target Audience right is going to help you a lot with this. If you don’t have a target audience or an ideal buyer persona, you need one.

Download the free target audience worksheet, which will help you get started putting together yours. Then have a read of my post here, which will tell you a bit more about finding your target audience.