More than 55 million Americans work as freelancers, a steadily increasing number that now represents at least 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to an Upwork survey. Those numbers have grown in part because the great recession pushed some people into self-employment, but technology has also made freelancing a more viable career option than it was even a decade ago.
I started freelancing full time in 2001 because I didn’t want to live in New York City anymore, but I wanted to keep writing and editing for a living. Although many people assumed (and still assume) that working as a freelancer is more of a hobby than a real job, those of us who treat freelancing as a business can make a living just like any other business owner. During my first year as a freelance writer, my income almost matched my former salary as a mid-level staff writer and editor, and in several of the years since, my income has more than quadrupled that former salary.
One of the drawbacks of freelancing, of course, is that your income is unlikely to remain the same every year. Economic downturns, market conditions, and your own lifestyle can play a part in those ups and downs. But one thing that can keep your business going — and your income growing — despite the circumstances is the ability to consistently attract and retain clients.
In my experience, which includes keeping my freelance business going through several relocations, three babies, and world economic upheaval, ongoing attention to building and maintaining client relationships is crucial. That may seem intuitive, but for many freelancers, building a client base often takes a backseat to completing the work at hand.
Most businesses are solidly focused on “business development” or sales activities, but many freelancers are so focused on completing the projects on their schedule that they neglect to keep developing new clients. Then, when the current work dries up or projects come to an end, they must suffer through a dry spell before more work comes along.
If you want to build or sustain your freelance business, consider these five tips for getting more clients on your roster.
Meet Face-to-Face Whenever Possible
The majority of my work is for clients whom I have never met in person. Although that arrangement often works fine, meeting someone in person allows for a stronger, more personal relationship.
So, I always take opportunities to meet clients or potential clients in person when I can. That may mean attending a conference that some of my clients will attend, scheduling a meeting when I happen to be traveling to the city of a client, or scheduling a coffee date if I have a chance to work with someone in my local area.
Pick up the Phone
Freelancing may suit you because you can work at all hours of the day or night, and you can communicate via email rather than spending your time tied to the phone or in meetings at an office. However, it’s important to avoid hiding behind email. Instead, you’re often better off simply picking up the phone and having a chat with a client or potential client.
A quick conversation typically gives you a much better sense of a potential client’s personality than 15 email exchanges will. And the client will also get a better understanding of your personality and whether the two of you may be a fit. Don’t be afraid to talk by phone and let your personality shine through.
Connect Potential Clients With Others Who May Be Helpful to Them
If you’ve met a potential client who needs a service you don’t provide, take a minute to recommend someone else who may be able to help them. (It’s a great idea to develop a network of other freelancers who offer similar or complementary services to yours. For instance, if you’re a graphic designer, it never hurts to know a good copywriter and photographer.)
Make it your business to be helpful even when helping out doesn’t result in a paycheck. People will remember you when they — or someone they know — can use your services.
Nurture Relationships With Past Clients
Just because a project comes to an end doesn’t mean you should write off that client. Even when past clients don’t have another project for you, keep them on your radar. Follow up from time to time to see if they need your services again, ask them to refer you to others in their organization who might need your services, send a holiday card, or forward an article that you think they may find of interest. Remember that business is about people, and if you can build and maintain relationships with the people who can use your services, you’ll likely get more work.
Continue Marketing Activities – Even When You’re Busy With Projects
This may be the most important advice of all. Although it seems like there’s never enough time in the day to complete the projects you already have on your schedule, commit to doing at least three marketing activities per week. They don’t have to be big or time consuming. A few ideas include sending out an email to a potential client, attending a local networking function, updating your website or portfolio, or responding to a job ad.