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A Guide to Building a Steady Client List

And no, it does not involve endless content marketing, cold emailing, or selling your soul to the devil.

Over the holidays, my family and I went on vacation. We had a lot of changes in 2019 (including some pretty monumental losses in our family) and felt like getting away would be a good change of pace. So we traded our snowy, blustery days in western PA for some warmer weather and sunshine in Florida.

Turns out, Disney World and the beach with two small children is exhausting — for everyone. Though it was super fun, this type of vacation was not relaxing by any stretch of the imagination. When we got back, I definitely felt like I needed a vacation from my vacation.

Thankfully, a solid last quarter in 2019 left me feeling like I could slowly ease back into work in January without too much financial pressure.

Unlike in previous years, I had wrapped up multiple projects (many in a huge flurry of emails and deliverables) before the holiday break (and my vacation). This left my calendar WIDE OPEN going into January. Even as a seasoned freelance writer, that kind of open availability is kinda scary if freelancing is your only means of income and you don’t know when or where the next project might come from.

But sure enough, as the new year rolled in, so did the client inquiries about availability for new projects. And not just one, but three, projects appeared in my inbox within the first week back without me sending some form of “Happy New Year! Do you have any work for me?” kind of email to past clients. (BTW, please don’t say that directly. There are better and more tactful approaches.)

And that got me thinking, how exactly have I made my freelancing business work for me and avoided the hamster wheel of marketing, client outreach, and pulling rabbits out of a hat to find new and consistent work?

For most freelance writers, the feast or famine nature of client work can be the bane of their existence. You may have months of nonstop and frantic client work followed by months where the work trickles in at a snail’s pace — or not at all. It can be infuriating.

While I don’t have all of the answers, I can share the tactics that have worked for me time and time again.

Treat Every Client Interaction Like It’s Your First (or Your Last)

Remember how you felt when you first met your in-laws? Hopefully, you were friendly, super polite, overly respectful, and listened more than you talking. You minded your p’s and q’s.

Well, in many ways, the client relationship should be the same. Remember that the person at the other end of the phone (or email) is a human being and try not to treat the interaction as solely a business deal. Remember that neither you nor your client is an automaton — showing some personality and being genuine can often go a long way.

Be kind. Be gracious. Be respectful. Say thank you.

Don’t take criticism personally. Let the small things roll off of your back. Be flexible. Think of solutions to problems and don’t be the problem.

Here are two recent examples where things could have gone south with clients, but I did my best to right the ship.

Example 1: A brand new client reached out to me to edit some documents for a grant application. The timeline was extremely tight, and I was basically going to have less than 24 hours to get the project back to them. Typically, not a scenario that I want to be in, but I gave them a shot. Long story short, the materials came in late, faculty submitted a new version after I had edited a copy, and I had less time overall to work. When it rains, it pours.

However, this client had been overly gracious, appreciative of my flexibility on such a tight timeframe, and willing to pay the (standard) 20% rush fee. So you know what — I kept the whole situation light and airy, and I found solutions when needed. When the new document version crept in unexpectedly, I responded with, “No problem, let me see if I can merge the documents to keep all of the changes.”

Given that this client is investing in start-up companies for hundreds of millions of dollars, I can grin and bear it through a hectic day when there is likely to be consistent work coming down the road.

Example 2: A longtime client of mine did not submit my invoice to accounting. Actually, this client thought that he had submitted it, but the invoice went to another employee and not the accountant. Add in the holidays and my vacation and weeks went by before the mistake was caught. Annoying? Yes. Worth severing a long-standing client relationship? Absolutely not. The client apologized profusely once we figured it out. My response, “No worries. Glad that we have it straightened out.”

Even when I’m fuming internally, externally I’m as cool as a cucumber. This client has consistently brought $30–40k/year in work to me, and they are always a pleasure to work with.

I know — sometimes, the relationship isn’t salvageable. Shit happens. But even if you think that you will NEVER work with a certain client again, take the high road. Thank them for the opportunity and move on.

Be Persistent

Lindy Alexander wrote a great piece a few months back on the parallels between freelance writing and gardening.

Some years, the garden’s yield is lean. Some years, the yield is bountiful. You need to always plant a lot of seeds. Sometimes they sprout and sometimes they don’t. Even when you do ALL the right things.

Similarly, when you plant a seed (outreach) with a potential client, it can take months or years for that seed to sprout into paying projects. But you keep watering it and nurturing it with the hopes that one day, that seed will grow into a plant that bears fruit.

That example above about the super tight deadline for the grant application — the client had received my name from a fellow local writer (in a different writing space) that I had connected with about two years ago. Two years ago! We had been in touch sporadically throughout that time.

Sometimes, you just need to be in the right place at the right time (or have the right availability).

Sow your seeds with new clients. Nurture them. When the time is right, they will reach out.

Produce Great Work and Meet Deadlines

I’m amazed sometimes at the stories that I hear from my clients about their experiences with other freelancers.

Stories about freelancers being overly sensitive to changes in their work when it is reviewed. Stories about freelancers completely blowing deadlines. Stories about freelancers ghosting them on projects. Stories about freelancers completely missing the mark on projects.

These unfortunate circumstances can leave a bad taste in the client’s mouth and leave them hesitant to work with new freelancers. Boo.

Can these situations be avoided? In most cases, yes.

It’s simple — ask a lot of questions up front if you’re unsure, take critiques of your work in stride, meet your deadlines.

Seriously, do these things and you’ll be head and shoulders above much of the competition.

Treat Your Clients as Your Partners, Not Just Your Paychecks

I previously devoted an entire blog post to this topic. The takeaway: remember that there is a lot of uncertainty for clients when working with someone new.

Most often, clients want to work with someone that they know, like, and trust. This usually can only happen through repeated interactions with the same client — you build a rapport, you develop a better understanding of expectations, you develop great work that makes them happy. They reach out to YOU then next time a suitable project is available. Rinse and repeat.

I believe in building strong client relationships so much that I’ll often bring up this point, even on our first kick-off call. I proudly share that I typically work with a small list of repeat clients, and I like to keep it that way because it makes it easier for both parties. The client has a better understanding of my capabilities and the level of work that I produce, and I can better meet the expectations of the client because I’ve worked with them before. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Have you ever been at a loss of words or stumbled when the client asks, “Can you tell me a little about your business?” Instead of spouting off the list of services that you offer from your website, why not try telling them how much you value your client relationships and how one of your goals is to make your client’s job easier? I would almost guarantee that a few simple sentences about those points will put their mind at ease and make them want to work with you on an upcoming project.

In my mind, fostering these ongoing client relationships is always going to be a safer bet than blindly going after new clients all of the time. And it lessens the need to constantly market your services.

Diversify Your Offerings

It took me a while to decide on a niche within medical writing. At first, the thought of limiting my services was terrifying. How do I know what I should focus on? How will I know if it’s a good fit? What if I can’t find enough work?

Those little voices of self-doubt were further amplified by many other online writing ‘experts’ who love to tout that you HAVE to pick a niche…they argue that’s how you set yourself apart from other writers, create more targeted searchability online, etc, etc. Yes, there are some perks to choosing a niche.

But in all reality, selecting a niche and even advertising that niche all over your website and social media doesn’t (and shouldn’t) limit your opportunities.

For example, I currently say that I’m a freelance medical writer who “specializes in CME content and grant development.” However, in the past year alone, I have done onsite advisory board coverage, virtual advisory board coverage, slide development for patient education, literature reviews, and scientific reviews of manuscripts in addition to my traditional CME work. Maria and I even developed and hosted a writing workshop for corporations. Just recently, someone reached out to me asking if I could prepare user manuals for medical devices.

Not once did a client say to me, “You know, Jenn. I’m not sure that you can do this work because your website says that you focus on CME.”

Nope. Instead, it was more like, “Hey, Jenn. Since we’ve worked with you before on project X, do you think that you could do project Y?”

See how that works? It’s all dependent on having a strong client relationship and ensuring that they know, like, and trust you and the work that you can do.

Here’s the TL;DR — don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Branch out, try some new work. Your clients won’t bat an eye if your website or profile says something different.

I know that all this advice is easy to give and may even be overwhelming when you’re just starting out. But keep in mind that successful freelance businesses take time to build and what I’ve shared here is the cumulative wisdom of several years. So, go at your own pace, treat clients right, and go beyond your comfort zone when clients offer you projects you’ve not done before. Before long, you, too, will be coming back from vacation to clients who can’t wait to work with you.


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