Strategies for Forming Stronger (and More Fruitful) Client Relationships

Client RelationshipsI talk to freelancers every single day.

Designers, developers, writers, photographers … pretty much any discipline you can think of.

And each person has unique goals, aspirations, strategies, and tactics.

But they all face a common challenge:

Making sure their inbox is always full of new opportunities.

Struggling to find new work is an almost universal pain point for freelancers … and if you stop to think about it, this actually makes a lot of sense.

Why?

As a freelancer, you’re probably pretty good at what you do.

So, understandably, you focus most of your time designing, coding, writing, and so on.

But the real challenge is this:

Balancing the need to deliver on the commitments you’ve made to your current clients with the need to secure future clients.

Let’s face it:

No one’s paying you for the hours you spend chasing down work.

Sure, you can build that time into your fee, but there’s still an upper limit to how much you can reasonably charge your clients.

So, we’re left with two choices:

  1. Sacrifice billable time to manually search for qualified opportunities, pitch prospects, negotiate rates, chase down approvals and signatures … or …
  2. Invest heavily in client relationships, providing outstanding communication, support, and service delivery that results in ongoing work or referrals.

(There’s actually a third option here — automation — but I’ll share a little more on that later).

Which one sounds like a better use of your time and energy?

The most successful freelancers I know spend very little time chasing down new work.

Instead … they focus on facilitating interactions with clients that naturally lead to follow-on projects or generate word of mouth referrals.

They don’t have to go out and sell to strangers because the quality of their work and the strength of their client relationships do the selling for them.

As solopreneurs, we’re able to avoid some of the annoying aspects of “office life”, but we also miss out on the social opportunities that eventually lead to partnerships, promotions, or career progressions.

The isolation that comes with working for yourself has inherent risks, but it’s certainly not a show stopper.

It might be a little harder for us to reap the benefits of strong relationships, but don’t fear!

I’ve put together a free workflow to help maximize the value of every client relationship.

Strategy #1: Treat Your Clients Like People, Not Paychecks

“C’mon, Connor. I know how to treat my clients right…”

I get where you’re coming from, but hear me out…

Dehumanizing clients happens to the best of us.

It’s an easy trap to fall into in a world where some people earn 100% of their income through online interactions.

What makes it even worse is that most of the time we don’t even notice we’re making some critical communication mistakes.

Let me ask you few questions to illustrate my point:

  1. How many times do you talk to a particular client in a given week?
  2. When was the last time you heard that client’s voice?
  3. How many of your clients have you personally seen or spoken to verbally?
  4. Do you know which of your clients have children? What their favorite sports teams are? Where they went to school?

I’m willing to bet that for most us, the answers to those questions look something like this:

  1. About 2-5 times per week, usually via email. Sometimes more via Slack or some other chat service.
  2. Probably on our last call before they signed the contract. Maybe on a recent project update call.
  3. Seen in person? Almost none. Talked to verbally? About half…maybe 75%.
  4. No clue. I think I heard a dog barking in the background once?

If you said anything similar to that you’re not alone.

That level of (or lack of) intimacy between freelancers and their clients is very common.

It’s easy to treat freelance clients as “just another job” without even realizing it, especially when most of your work is done online and you are constantly communicating with faceless email addresses or chat handles.

A lot of freelancers think they have strong client relationships just because they communicate regularly with their clients.

But often times those conversations are transactional:

Here’s that project update I owe you.

Hey, just following up on that invoice I sent over…

Can I get your feedback/approval on this first iteration?

Is that the kind of conversation you would have with your family?

Or your friends? Or your mentor?

The truth is:

Your clients are people just like your friends, your family, or your neighbors.

They just happen to be paying you money to solve a business problem they have.

So, don’t be afraid to get personal:

Ask them about their weekend.

Congratulate them on their new baby or grandchild.

Get the scoop on their recent vacation.

You don’t have to become best friends, but you also shouldn’t default to emotionless corporate-speak.

Keep it professional, but know that it’s okay to get to know the person behind the screen.

Why have I covered this in such detail?

Because forming strong personal relationships with clients is a critical step to moving from “service provider” to “trusted advisor”.

And who do you think a client is more likely to call for long-term, high budget projects:

The freelancer who barely knows their email address, or the one who sent them a touching note on their birthday?

I’ll give you one guess…

BONUS Pro-tip:

If you’re dealing with a lot of clients, consider investing in a customer relationship management tool like Zoho or Insightly.

These help you keep your conversations and client information organized so you can document all of the important details that help you nurture each relationship.

Strategy #2: Approach Projects Like a Marathon, Not A Sprint

The vast majority of the sales calls I listen to go something like this:

  • Client describes narrow, seemingly urgent problem they are currently facing
  • Freelancer immediately latches on and starts talking about all of the ways they can solve this problem quickly
  • A little Q&A to clear things up for both parties
  • Freelancer closes by giving the client a ballpark quote and a turnaround time before asking, “When can we get started?”

You know what that is?

That’s a conversation that leads to a revolving door of low-value client relationships … the kind where you have to sell five or six a month to hit your revenue goal.

Why?

Because that person took the client’s description of the problem at face value and structured their entire sales pitch around a narrow problem.

In other words, they locked themselves into a “one night stand” type of project.

Here’s what you should do instead:

  • Begin every new client engagement by pretending that you’re sitting at the desk of the highest ranking person you know at the company.
  • Consider the things that are most important to them: their responsibilities, their goals, and areas of risk or opportunity. What would be keeping you up at night?
  • Now, when you’re in a sales meeting, ask open-ended questions that get the client talking about these strategic business needs rather than near-sighted project specifications.

During a project scoping conversation, you want to avoid “yes/no” questions like the plague.

Instead do this:

Get a decision maker to describe the secondary and tertiary implications of this project for other areas of their business so you have plenty of ammunition to add one or two zeroes to the end of your proposed rate.

Here are some examples of nearsighted questions that have been re-phrased to inspire “big picture” responses:

Bad QuestionBetter Question
What are you looking to have done?What are some of the challenges you’re currently facing? How does that affect you and/or your business?
So, when do you want to get this done by?How does this project fit into your broader strategic goals?
What is your budget for this project?If we could solve this problem, what would that mean for your business?
Where should I send the proposal?Is there anyone else I should speak to about this issue? Anybody who might be directly or indirectly affected by our work?

By practicing intellectual curiosity, you can use their own stated objectives to craft a proposal that addresses some of their most pressing business challenges and opportunities.

Moreover, you can move away from the role of “transactional service provider” and position yourself as a strategic business advisor who can drive long-term performance improvements.

Clients will frequently have narrow, specific requirements for a project, but they don’t always know what additional value may come from doing things a little differently.

Similarly:

They may say they want to get something done as soon as possible, but that’s only because they aren’t aware of the problems that may come up down the road.

In other words:

They (and you) have rushed through the process.

The moment you go from someone who is brought in to put out a fire … to someone who makes sure that fires never happen in the first place … is the moment you add another zero to the end of your invoice.

Strategy #3: Turn One-off Jobs Into Ongoing Engagements

I’m willing to bet that although you work directly with certain individuals, most of your clients are businesses … and businesses are engaging freelancers more than ever.

The nice thing about working with businesses is that they often have larger budgets and more demand for long-term or recurring projects.

Here are a few “green lights” that indicate the potential for ongoing work:

  • They always refer to themselves as “we” instead of “I”.
  • They have mentioned working with other freelancers in the past.
  • They have a fair amount of clarity around requirements, goals, budget, and timelines.
  • They have pre-existing processes for getting you access to their systems, communicating with team members, and transferring deliverables.
  • They’re coming to you for something that’s repeatable (Ex: Product Brochure Design, Website Updates, or Copywriting Services).
  • They make comments about “expanding,” “continuing,” or “refining”.

If you notice any of these things, you should definitely shift to a long-term mindset.

Picking up on one of these cues can open the door for one of those strategic, open-ended questions we talked about earlier:

“Sure, I’d be happy to put together a product brochure for you. If you don’t mind me asking, how often do you launch new products or roll out new models of existing products?”

Imagine for a second that the client tells you they roll out new products quarterly.

Here’s what you respond with:

“That’s quite the cadence! Have you given any thought to how you might ensure that your marketing messages stay consistent across product lines or geographic regions?

I’ve worked with other clients who have caused confusion among their customers and salespeople because they had multiple teams creating their own versions of marketing collateral for the same product line. They were actually losing sales because of it.

In that situation, they opted to let me take ownership of brochure development, working directly with an internal team of copywriters to ensure that a customer heard the same marketing message, regardless of whether they walked into a store in New York City, Dallas, or Los Angeles.”

Did you hear that?

That’s the sound of their jaw hitting the floor.

This kind of strategic perspective tells them you don’t need to be micromanaged and that you’re already intellectually invested in their work.

It also lays the foundation for bringing you on to work on multiple brochure designs, as that’s the best way to ensure consistent messaging and presentation across the board.

This kind of exchange builds the credibility you need to submit a comprehensive proposal that includes a plan for the original scope of the project,

But not only that:

It also presents a monthly retainer or expands the project scope to include multiple deliverables.

Either way, the lifetime value of that account likely doubled or tripled thanks to a single, highly impactful selling strategy.

Strategy #4: Maximize the Value of the Relationship, Not the Profitability

Say it with me one more time:

“Clients are people, not paychecks.”

Upselling is smart.

Securing long-term agreements or locking in retainers is important.

Translating an initial project into follow-on work is sound business practice.

But at the end of the day, your singular objective should be to maximize the value of the relationship you have with each client – and value is a two-way street.

When I consult with freelancers about how to manage their clients, I love to paraphrase the teachings of great coaches like John Wooden, Dean Smith, and Nick Saban:

“Focus on the process – the actions and mental states you can control day in and day out – and the outcomes will take care of themselves.”

As an example, here’s what the Alabama Crimson Tide football team has accomplished under the leadership of Nick Saban:

  • Won 84% of their games.
  • Claimed 4 national titles.
  • Developed 2 Heisman trophy winners.
  • Named 29 consensus All-Americans.

That’s a track record of success that is indisputable.

But they don’t head into the weight room, the film room, or the practice field thinking about winning their next championship … they focus on the process that will get them there.

Every day, players and coaches are dead-set on perfecting the execution of this particular workout, this individual skills drill, this game tape study session, or this physical therapy session.

They know because they’ve seen the process in action.

Getting all of these “little things” right will put them in a position to hoist the championship trophy at the end of the season.

So, let’s bring that back to a freelancing context…

If you show up every day laser-focused on delivering high-quality work, ensuring open lines of communication, and delivering tangible business value outside of the scope of your engagement, the money will take care of itself.

The key is to focus on what you can control:

  • Helping clients solve immediate and adjacent business issues.
  • Advising them on the strategic implications – positive and negative – of certain decisions they are about to make.
  • Educating them on what “good” and “bad” look like when it comes to your discipline so that they understand the value of your work.

All of these things, directly or indirectly, help your clients run their business more effectively.

Approaching client engagements with a relentless focus on delivering value means are key.

When you raise your rates or suggest a follow-on project, the client will respond with a resounding, “When can you start?”.

As freelancers, client work is the lifeblood of our business, but rounding up hours or cutting corners on deliverables is not the way to maximize profitability.

Instead, focus on nurturing strong relationships that provide value to your clients first, knowing that they will translate into higher rates, long-term engagements, and referrals to other clients.

Strategy #5: If Things Aren’t Working, Don’t Be Afraid to Fire a Bad Client

The majority of your working relationships are going to be hassle-free.

Your client is seeking a solution to a problem, you provide said solution, and everybody goes home happy.

But eventually, you will find yourself wrapped up in a toxic client relationship.

No matter how good your lead qualification and client management processes are, some bad clients will slip through the cracks … and they just don’t play well with others.

So, here’s what you do when you suspect that an engagement is heading south:

1. Keep your cool and try to view things objectively.

You may be clearly in the right, but it can take time for clients to come around and see that their expectations or requests might be out of line or not in the best interests of their company.

2. Respond, even if you aren’t technically obligated.

When clients are upset, going radio silent is never the right answer, even if your work has already been “approved.”

You don’t have to invest a lot of time …

And you certainly shouldn’t do any work for free …

But replying with a simple message of, “I’m sorry that you’re facing this situation. How can I help?” can go a long way toward smoothing things out.

3. Lay out a clear plan for making things right.

It’s not helpful to publicly blame anyone, regardless of whether the finger would be pointed at you or the client.

Focus on identifying the root cause of the problem and the business implications if it isn’t addressed.

Then, use solution-focused language to communicate a plan for making things right with clear milestones and tangible outcomes.

4. Afterwards, make adjustments to your internal processes for finding clients, delivering work, or managing relationships.

Depending on where the problem occurred, you may need to alter the way you run your engagements.

For example, you might be able to identify a client or project criteria that would filter out similar opportunities.

You might also add, amend, or remove certain steps of your service delivery process to avoid similar conflicts in the future.

Either way, after the project has ended you should conduct a retrospective review and identify what can be done to make sure this particular point of friction never happens again.

Most importantly:

If you have a client relationship that just can’t be “fixed,” do your best to wrap things up professionally and deliver the best client outcome possible, even if it’s sub-optimal.

Never burn a bridge if a relationship ends poorly.

Be polite right until the very end, even if the client is hurling insults and curses.

After all, time heals all wounds.

You never know which clients might have strong networks that could make or break future opportunities based on the outcome of this individual engagement.