At the height of my own freelancing career I could boast a 10% conversion rate from first contact to closing the deal, this was up from 3% when I started. After years of optimising, the process of gathering leads to making contact and then winning the work, I discovered there was one tactic that I could rely on to give me an edge when competing with others to win work.
I originally got this idea from another industry, Architecture. When an architect sets out to build a big fancy new building they have to enter competitions and design the whole building before they’ve even been awarded the contract. At first this seems crazy, but there is so much competition out there for architects that the only alternative would be a race to the bottom in terms of the price the client would be willing to pay. At least this way, the winner gets paid a fair and good price for their services — because they won by being better for the client than the competition was.
Remember that the biggest concern for a client looking for a freelancer is risk. Risk that you’ll disappear, can’t do what you say you can do, or can’t turn their business goals into a solution that works for them. There is only one way I know to reduce that risk to practically zero — and that is to offer to work the first day, or first few days for free. If they decide they don’t like what you’re delivering. If they do like it and want to continue it’s paid, just like the rest of the project.
Giving your clients an easy way to get rid of you is the same as giving them as easy way to say “Yes”. The easier they can say yes, the better chance you have of working together in the long term. You can use the principal in the same way. For example: offering to travel to see them in their office for a kick off meeting. If the meeting is focused on getting started, you’re almost guaranteed to walk away with the full project sold. It could be 1 page designed, or 1 article written — either way you’re giving them a clue to what the future of the project would be like with you. And usually that’s way more than the competition are willing to do.
I’m not advocating free or speculative work. I think of this more like a free trial, or money back guarantee. And when you do this, you must be sure that your chances of winning the full project are close to 100%, otherwise you’re going to lose a lot of time.
Most freelancers shy away from giving anything away because of the horror stories we read about our peers being ripped off. Big agencies spew “No speculative work” like digital dogma. But the advice of big agencies is not going to be relevant to your freelance business. The reality is, trust is hard to build remotely and digitally. Sometimes it requires you to go back to basics and build that trust with people in person or as close to in person as possible.
When you’re the one looking for work, you have to prove yourself before people will take a risk on you. If you have clients coming to you, then you’ve probably already done this, paid your dues and no longer need to build trust — because the trust is in your brand, and in the word of other people referring work to you.