“How can I get better clients? And, while we’re at it, more of them?”
I hear some version of these questions all the time – and not just from freelancers and consultants who are new to the game. The quest for better clients just may be the existential condition of soloists.
It gets right to the heart of our businesses. To the extent that we get better clients, we increase our odds of staying in the game.
When our client base isn’t what we’d like it to be, there’s usually not a single cause – so there’s not a single fix, either. The success of your solo biz depends on many factors working in harmony.
But the first step, as business owners, is to accept that if our clients aren’t what we want, that’s at least partially our fault.
And that means the solutions are within our control too.
So here are 14 reasons you may not have better clients – and some fixes for each.
1. You haven’t defined your ideal client.
When I’m meeting a freelancer for the first time, I always ask: “Who’s your ideal client?”
I’m dismayed by the number of soloists who can’t provide a clear answer. There are a lot of Vague Virgils out there.
Let’s do better than “anyone with a budget and a pulse.”
Define your ideal clients. What are their key characteristics? This can include industry, challenge, position on the org chart, budget, values, or anything else.
Stuck? Review your clients from the last three years. What were the characteristics of the clients you loved, and of those you’d prefer to avoid?
Write down this definition and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day.
2. You’re not upholding your own standards.
It’s one thing to define your standards, and another thing to maintain them.
And who among us hasn’t ignored red flags and immediately regretted it?
Apart from the misery, there’s an opportunity cost: Poor fits absorb bandwidth that would have been better applied elsewhere.
Remember: Part of selling is screening. You want a win for both parties, not just for the client.
Play a game of “Green Flag / Red Flag.”
At the start of every project, write down the green flags and red flags you encountered in the selling process. Then, at the end of the project, return to this list and see how well your expectations matched your experience.
(In 25 years, I’ve yet to have red flags magically turn into green flags.)
3. You need too many clients.
A few months back, I wrote about Fred, “Maybe the Worst Freelancer I’ve Known.” One of Fred’s mistakes was designing a business that required “only” 100 clients to hit his targets.
When you need a lot of clients, you increase the odds that some of them will be awful.
Aim higher. Ask yourself how could you make “fewer, higher-value projects” your default mode.
4. Your prospects don’t know, like and trust you.
Clients can’t hire you if they’ve never heard of you. But awareness is not enough.
Clients also need to trust that you’ll deliver the goods, and sense that you’ll be someone worth spending part of their lives with.
Don’t just “do some marketing.” Do consistent marketing that builds authority and credibility.
And when you’ve delighted the client, ask for referrals.
5. You’re fishing in the wrong pond.
A truth: Some tactics will be much more effective than others at delivering the clients you’d love to work with.
And you have limited bandwidth for your marketing, so you must choose wisely.
If you haven’t already, review your marketing activities from ‘22 and the first quarter of ’23. Which delivered the goods? Why not double down on these? Which did little or nothing? Why not cut them entirely?
6. You’re targeting the wrong level of the organization.
Another truth: The higher someone is on the org chart, the more money they can spend (and the easier it is for them to get a project approved).
Higher-value projects are approved higher on the org chart.
Think “one level up.” If you’re currently working with brand managers, make it a strategic priority to identify what their directors need.
Another angle: Start with your offer and identify how you can pack more value into it. Conduct this exercise at least twice a year.
7. Your pricing is too low.
Pricing sends a signal. Only the worst clients want “the cheapest option, quality be damned.” Don’t send even one signal that you’re that person.
Maintain a working knowledge of how your rates compare in your specialty, niche, and geography. And a tip from experience: If you’re not losing ~20% of your bids on price alone, your rates are probably too low.
8. Your offer is not sharp enough.
Are you clear on what you do, who you do it for, and how they benefit? Are you clear on the difference you make and the change you create? Are you solving important problems?
Do your research. When you win or lose a gig, ask why. Before you start, understand the value your client will derive. At the end of every project, revisit the value they received. Use their words to help sharpen your offer.
9. You don’t speak in terms of their value.
When I first started out, I violated this rule big-time. I cringe to think about my early pitches, which must have sounded like, “You need positioning! Dammit, you do! And I am good at it!”
Clients don’t care about what you do. They care about what they get.
Review your website and other sales materials. Look for opportunities to replace “I” language with “you” language. The frame should always be their transformation, not your skill set.
10. Your marketing is inconsistent.
Meaningful projects take some time to close. So if you wait until you need work to start marketing, you’re already behind the curve.
Further, it’s difficult to sell something the client doesn’t think they need. It’s far easier to be front of mind when they’re ready to act.
Do something every day that advances your marketing. Setting aside 30 minutes a day for your own marketing can only result in good things. Most soloists don’t do this, so you’ll have a huge edge if you do.
11. Your selling can improve.
Most of us get into this line of work with little to no sales training. You may even have a visceral aversion to sales, as I used to.
But selling doesn’t have to suck. Approach it as an opportunity to serve, and you may actually enjoy it.
Lose the shady tactics, and instead focus on your delivered value. Develop a list of very good questions to ask a prospect. Listen closely to their answers. Then ask more questions.
Do these well, and you should find yourself writing more agreements than proposals.
12. You’re unprofessional.
Some service providers simply fail at the service part. (Topical aside: Xfinity, which holds the cable and wireless contract for my condo building, is an absolute black-belt at making it difficult to resolve issues.)
But – “cold water to the face” time! – we soloists aren’t beyond reproach. In my client-side and consulting careers, I’ve hired dozens of partners, and it turns out even large firms struggle to properly reply to an RFI.
Put systems in place that enable you respond to qualified inquiries within 24 hours. Hit all promised deadlines. Double-check the details. Remain professional and polite.
Do these things and you’ll be in the top third of your competitive set.
13. Your beliefs are self-limiting.
The vast majority of my interactions on Twitter are pretty positive. But every now and then, I get a reply that rubs me the wrong way. Exempli gratia:
Really, dawg? Everyone in your field sells the same thing and works for the same rate? Not one person has cracked the code on high-value offers?
Look, we all have bouts of imposter syndrome, self-doubt and good old-fashioned insecurity. When I face mine, I like to remind myself of two things: First, these beliefs are costing me real money; and second, if someone else has figured out the problem I’m working on, why the hell can’t I?
The market will present sufficient obstacles. Don’t place your own in your path.
14. Your idea of a “good client” has changed.
As we evolve, our businesses evolve too.
When I started out in consulting, I had a soft spot for start-ups. I wanted to help them win, especially when they were challenging the orthodoxy in a positive way.
Then I learned that many start-ups operate in a world of self-created chaos and moving goalposts. But they usually didn’t have the budgets to offset that pain. I still work with start-ups, but only in very specific conditions. My idea of a good client has changed.
At least once a quarter, revisit your definition of a good client. If it’s changed, take the next step and ask yourself how your offers and your marketing need to evolve too.
Well, That Was a Lot. If I Want to Get Better Clients, Now What?
It was not my intention to overwhelm you with this list. But I did want to be thorough, because few things are more crucial to the health of your business than getting better clients and more of them.
From here, I recommend some diagnosis. Of these 14 areas, what are the two or three where you’re struggling most?
Then, commit to action. Use the action steps above as a jumping-off point. Define one to three focus areas for the next 90 days. (Less time than that is usually not enough to see results.) Execute with intent.
Remember: Rumination bad, action good.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. I’m not some guy who’s been freelancing for a minute – I’ve been doing it since 1997, with brands you’ve actually heard of. Click here to find out more about how my customized coaching can help you level up.
Copyright 2023 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the footer section.