Getting new clients is hard. It takes time and energy and sometimes a fair amount of money. So, if there was a way to do all of it on autopilot, why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you encourage people to come to you with their projects instead of the other way around?
Too many freelancers let perfectly good clients walk away – not out of apathy or lack of interest, but because they don’t understand the power they have. It’s not easy to find a good freelancer either, so when someone hires you, it’s a very real opportunity to create a lasting client relationship that will benefit you both and go a long way towards turning your freelance career into a thriving business.
To help you keep clients in your portfolio and minimize the amount of time and effort you spend finding NEW clients, I’ve put together a list of 23 tools, techniques and methods I use to build lasting relationships with clients.
Obviously not all of these will work all the time, but when used properly, you can almost always maintain communications and order-status with your clients with at least one of these.
1. Weekly Meetings
Some clients prefer their contractors to be out of sight and out of mind – working away wherever they are and delivering content on time. Other clients want to know you are working, see the results, and offer feedback to improve the final product.
For the latter, be proactive and schedule a short weekly meeting via Skype or on the phone so you can share these details in advance. Transparency is big and any business owner will appreciate the offer, even if they aren’t interested in the meeting.
2. Outlines and Mockups
This is a must. Whenever I start a new project, the first thing I do is create an outline for the finished product. For articles, that means titles and keywords. For website content it means headlines and CTA’s. For eBooks it means a working outline of the book.
Whether you write like I do or you develop websites, make sure your vision of the project is 100% approved by the client BEFORE you start. Simple misunderstandings about the scope and nature can be worked out much faster, saving you time in edits later, and ensuring the product makes your client happy.
Remember, happy clients are repeat clients.
3. Willingness to Speak Your Mind
For a long time, my approach to a project was that of an hourly employee. It’s not my business – I’ll just do what they say. But this is a horrible attitude to have. It makes you replaceable. Anyone can follow directions (well, most anyone). But can you be proactive, provide insights about the project and help your client get the most out of your work? Don’t be afraid to speak your mind – respectably of course.
4. Say “We” Instead of “You”
This goes with number 3. Become a partner in the success of your client. Think about it this way. If they take the eBook you just wrote and sell 5,000 copies of it, they are going to hire you again.
If they sell 50 copies of it, they might hire a different writer next time and think nothing of it. Your client’s success affects your chances of maintaining that client relationship. You can’t always affect that, but if you see the client as a “partner” instead of just another paycheck, you will work that much harder to ensure their eBook is worthy of the readers who buy it.
5. Always Be Available for New Projects
If an existing client asks you to do something, find a way to do it. This was huge for me early and helped me create a number of ongoing and build new client relationships that still exist to this day. It’s easy to say “sorry, I need a week’s notice” but all you do then is give your client an excuse to look for another contractor.
Instead, say yes to everything. Unless they try to lower your rate or squeeze free work out of you, say yes. Be a partner that they can rely on and they will have NO reason to replace you.
6. Prioritize Existing Clients
New clients are exciting. That project award on Elance or the call you just got out of nowhere gets the blood pumping – it’s a reminder that this career has endless possibilities.
Existing clients are old hat – you know what they want and how to produce it. It feels…boring. But it’s the backbone of your business. Someone who has already ordered multiple times will probably continue to do so. You know what to expect, you can schedule it. These are the projects and clients that help you grow your business to new levels. But not only is building new client relationships hard, the existing ones are known quantities.
So, prioritize. Help the people who have helped you – don’t look at clients and see dollar signs. See a person that has made your dream of freelance success a reality. Prioritize their needs.
7. There Are No Small Projects
The second bedroom in the upstairs apartment of our house had been converted into a dining room and the door was long gone – so we needed a new one put in so we could keep the dog out.
So I started calling people who do door work. Some didn’t call back. Others quoted $500. Others flat out told me “that’s a small job”. I called more than a dozen people before finding a contractor who would come out and put a new door in.
I understand the reflex – small jobs are often less profitable, often have demanding requirements, and never seem like they’ll turn into more work. But they do. Sometimes a small job is a test job from a client. I can’t count how many times a 5 or 10 article project turned into recurring monthly work.
So in my eyes there are no small projects. I view every project as just as big, just as important, and just as potentially profitable long term as the big, recurring monthlies. When it comes to client relationship building, this is a huge factor – how important do you view even the smallest projects?
If you take your client’s needs seriously, however big they are, not only do they come back, they refer you to others.
8. Send Holiday Cards
We did this for the first time in 2012 and it was very effective. We sent eCards for Thanksgiving and then physical cards with nifty Great Leap Studios USB sticks for New Year’s.
You don’t need to do anything so formal – just occasional reminders that you appreciate someone’s business and that you are willing to take the time out of your day to thank them is a big deal in any business, especially freelancing. Most clients won’t expect it, and anything they don’t expect is a great relationship builder.
9. Offer Discounts for Long Time Clients
This really depends on what you charge people, how much you need to make and what type of client you have, and it only works if you make sure they know you’re doing it.
Since your rates are likely to increase over time, the best way to do this is to offer a preferred, grandfathered rate for long time clients. For example, Great Leap Studios rates increased by 20% in 2012. For long time clients with existing relationships we didn’t raise them at all. Those rates are locked in for now and we make sure they know it by offhandedly mentioning, if they refer us to someone, that rates will be slightly higher.
10. Personalize Invoices
However you send invoices, find ways to personalize them. Don’t just send an email saying “you owe me $500”. Some clients like to have invoices and others don’t care, but it’s a good business practice to send them to everyone.
At the same time, find ways to make them unique. Add a logo to your spreadsheet. Put a fun quote in the notes section. Write a personal note to the client thanking them for their hire. Make it unique and personal and clients will remember it.
11. Provide Training Tools for Content
Rule #1 in client relationship building is the “we” mentality. If your client succeeds, they are more likely to hire you again.
So help them succeed by training them to use the content you produce. Not only do we build our website around educational content more than selling content, but we provide tools to our new clients to help them upload new blog posts, insert links, distribute it and generate more traffic, none of which we charge for.
We give this information away not only because it helps our clients (which helps us), but because it encourages those same clients to tell others about us.
12. Be Willing to Meet Up
Freelancing is more agile than ever before. You can work with people 10,000 miles away and never see their face or hear their voice. But sometimes your clients are closer to home and they want to meet up to discuss details.
I say do it. Meeting with a client in person helps them put a face to their provider, making it easier to think of you as a member of their team. Combined with the “we” mentality discussed above, you’re much harder to replace when you build this kind of relationship.
13. Learn their Sticking Points
Every client is different. They are bothered, annoyed, frustrated, angered, and overjoyed by different things. So, do your best to learn those things early.
If a client offhandedly mentions that they hate PDFs, make a note and never deliver content in PDF format. If they don’t like the color orange, don’t send mockups in orange. If they tend to be less agreeable on Mondays, don’t schedule meetings for Mondays if you can help it.
Learn what gets them riled up and then do your best not to rile them up. They may not realize what you’re doing, but they will certainly like you better for it.
14. Quality Trumps Speed…But Not Communication
By far and away, business owners would rather have a good final product than a fast contractor. Of course, they probably want both, but if they have a choice, quality almost always comes first.
So, don’t rush anything. At the same time, I’ve found that communication is almost on par with quality as a desirable trait in a freelancer. The mere act of responding to an email within 12 hours, updating a client once a week with your progress, and scheduling meetings as discussed in point #1 can have a HUGE impact on their perception of you, regardless of turnaround time. Of course, don’t enslave yourself to your inbox, either. Find a balance between reliable communication and efficient workflow.
15. Maintain a Calendar
Keep a detailed calendar that lists when projects are due, when you need to perform followups, and when to send in milestones.
I’ve worked with a lot of freelancers in my career and I can always tell when they use a calendar of some sort and when they are winging it. The problem is that the ones who wing it don’t quite understand the problem. The project is done, so who cares if I missed a couple milestones?
But as a client, I’m on a schedule too. I need to know things are moving ahead properly so I can communicate that to my clients. It’s a cycle. One broken cog stops the whole clock. So, keep yours running smoothly with a regularly updated calendar.
16. Ask for Feedback and Act On It (Positively)
Every freelancer I’ve ever met says they are open to feedback. But very few actually are. As human beings we are naturally defensive. We don’t like criticism and some people have bigger hangups than others when they hear something negative about their work.
But as a freelancer who is being paid for your efforts, you not only need to take that criticism seriously; you need to learn from it. Clients are doing you a HUGE favor – providing you with information to improve your services. Better yet, by listening to them, you show you care about their feedback and will provide a higher quality product next time they hire you.
17. Connect on Social Networks
We have clients that only contact us once every six months for content. But they do it like clockwork. Not all clients are so dependable, so it’s your job to maintain a connection and one of the easiest ways to stay on their radar without being in their face is via social media.
LinkedIn is great for this if it’s a medium or large sized business, but even a simple Facebook Page can be a very powerful connection tool. We get very few comments on our Facebook Page, but we have dozens of clients that follow us and reach out on occasion because of our posts.
18. Ask for Feedback in a Questionnaire
Anything that shows you are eager to provide a better service is a good client retention tool. And yet most freelancers avoid feedback like the plague. They figure “no feedback” is good feedback, so if they hear nothing, they tiptoe away quietly.
When a client doesn’t leave feedback, it often means they are unhappy, or worse that they forgot. You need them to be happy and to remember who you are, so actively solicit feedback after every project. It’s not just a marketing tool you can plaster on an Elance account. It’s a way to get better, stay on your customers’ radar, and build stronger relationships.
Even if you discover they held back because they had a bad experience, you can learn from it – what did you do wrong and how can you make it better?
19. Create a Blog and Invite them to Participate
Just like a good Facebook Page, a well-written blog can keep your clients connected to you in the weeks or months between orders. Write about what you do, provide advice for people who hire you, or simply ask questions of clients to get their feedback in a public place.
It’s easy to do and the upsides are substantial – even if no one actively comments on your blog, you’ll love it when a client cites it in a phone call.
20. Create a Welcome Back Package
Create a simple welcome back package with a card, a $5 gift card to Starbucks, and a chocolate bar when a client returns after a long hiatus from ordering.
Maybe they didn’t need your services for a while, or maybe they hired someone else in the interim. Either way, make sure they know that you appreciate their business and that you’d like this second or third round to be a huge success.
21. Create Buzz Around Your Brand
A lot of freelancers groan when I talk about their brand. They see themselves as individuals providing a service – what is there to brand? But a good freelancer can become much more than just another keyboard-jockey by creating something memorable and unique.
When you build a strong brand, market it actively through blog posts, social media and referrals, and then present it to your clients, they’ll remember. Better yet, they’ll appreciate it and want to be involved in what it stands for.
You don’t need a billboard in the financial district to do this. Just the small touches, like monthly followup emails, quirky notes in your invoices, and simple, interesting blog posts can make you unforgettable.
22. Build Relationships with Other Brands Your Clients Trust
Become a recognized member of the niche in which you operate. Instead of being just another writer, designer or developer, become someone that your client’s colleagues will recognize.
I just hired Anthony Chatfield.
Very cool – I hear he does good work.
That’s all you need. You can’t do this with freelance projects alone though. You need to get out there and become a contributing member of this niche – writing blog posts, commenting on social media, producing podcasts, being interviewed by other thought leaders, etc.
23. Market More than You Create
I love this idea – the Pareto Principle. It’s that 20% of your effort often results in 80% of your rewards.
So you need to be smarter about how you use that 20% to generate effective interest in your services and to make sure your clients know you are the right person for the job (still).
You can do this in a few ways, but the best is to shift the focus from creation to marketing. Less content on your blog and more time spent promoting it. Promotion is the hardest part – actually going out and talking to people, promoting it to blog owners, and networking. But those tasks will have a much bigger impact on the success of your business as a whole.
Focus on What Already Works
Stop trying to reinvent the wheel and focus on the clients you already have, because the fastest way to really scale your freelance efforts, earn more money (yes, you can charge more from the same clients), and start working less is to make your current clients happy.
Ideally it means a higher retention rate, more repeat projects and lots of referrals – all things that are good for your business as a whole.
What tools or techniques do you use to engage your clients and build relationships that last longer than the duration of a contract? Have you tried anything on this list and had it backfire? Let’s make this an even more valuable post for the new and expanding freelancers out there trying to improve their retention rates.