What really separates a sole freelancer from a brand or lofty agency? Is there really that much difference, especially online? This is a question I’m often asked.
An agency (or freelancer with the backing of a team) is justified and empowered bill more, but why is that? Whether you’re a designer, writer, marketer or coder you probably manage most of your communication online – including finding and onboarding new clients – so what are the ingredients that make a client want to buy from you at such project costs without having ever met in person?
I thought up the outline for this post on the plane, somewhere over South East Asia 5 or 6 weeks ago. Gazing through the window (above!), tapping key points into my iPhone notes whilst sampling my way through the in-flight beverage range. My destination was a kick-off workshop with my colleague Anthony and a new International client for my agency, Tone.
The interesting thing about this project (and why you should pay attention) is that the deal was concluded entirely online, across different timezones utilising only:
- InDesign / PDF
… and guess what, we were awarded the gig at a final figure of $50,500. Not only this, the client is/was delighted throughout the process and we’ve made a great start to the project meaning we’re really happy too.
To loop back then to my main point here, the client had never met us in person and so really had no idea of our size, they had not been bowled over by the schmooze associated with creative agency stuff. We’d not given them a proposal utilising only interpretive dance, nor took them out and got them so drunk they’d forgotten they signed the contract. There were no gifts, no grand tour of our brand new quirky premises.
So when you strip back all of those layers it’s a little more even, so what really is the difference between you as a freelance service provider and a brand able to justify a $50k web build quote?
Can you give this impression while still being a one/two person freelance business? I believe you can, its all about the perception aura around you and your brand, coupled with impactful framing around the problems you’re really solving.
I wanted to break down the key ingredients for you, tell you in plain English why I believe the client made this call and how you can make it work for you. For some of you, at this point in your journey you’d be happy with $50k as a total figure for an entire year.
Invest time and energy in a proposal
We spend a lot of time on our proposals. It’s something that we feel really separates us from run-of-the-mill service providers. They’re designed to be the pinnacle of our capabilities in terms of:
If you have a brief from a client, the worst thing you can do is parrot back to them what they’re looking for. What we do instead is look between the lines for really what the underlying issue is and speak to that sensitivity (which often the client doesn’t even realise they have). For example:
“About 40% of our visitors now come from mobile devices, but they don’t convert well – so we need a quote for better landing page copy.”
Could be re-framed and pitched as:
“There is an issue with mobile traffic converting, we believe there is a real opportunity to improve conversions, generating more inbound enquiries by building the site with mobile in mind, via a custom responsive experience for mobile & tablet devices”
This type of language works as it:
- First agitates the surface problem by repeating
- Pivots into optimism with “real opportunity to”
- Spells out the upside “generating more inbound enquiries”
- Provides an element of intrigue and positions you as an authority by mentioning something which was explicitly requested “custom responsive experience”
Remember, in most cases you are not alone in pitching for this work. Our proposals are highly customized to the prospect. Lots of imagery break up text. Great use of fonts and an almost ‘magazine’ type experience.
Nowadays, there is absolutely no excuse for poor design or boring, Word doc proposals. There are numerous InDesign templates which give you the layout for you to drop in the content (like here) or using a platform like Bidsketch you can take most of the design out of the equation and still end up with a great proposal. (Bonus for Freelancelift readers – 3 months free with Bidsketch)
Where possible, we’ll even have the proposals physically printed and sent out to the client ahead of deadline. It ends up costing us around $30 but for that ‘front-of-mind’ impact its invaluable.
For more on creating freelancer proposals that convert you can check out my short book Hourly Rates Don’t Matter.
Have relevant, credible work (with referees)
This will come with time of course, but you should have great work in your portfolio to call upon with happy clients to boot, who will vouch in the case of being asked. The new client did reach out to one of the referees we put forward and thankfully they gave us a glowing review. Moreover this client was in a similar space and had a strong name.
Spell out the upside
Remember, you are not being hired because you can design/write/code, you’re being hired because the client has a business problem to overcome and your design/writing/coding is the means to that end.
Does your client really care if it takes you 10 hours or 1000 hours to achieve that goal? This is not the information they’re looking for – so why include it?
This was a topic of discussion on a recent Freelancelift Q&A with Brennan Dunn who sums it up perfectly, to “focus on the goal instead of the deliverable, make yourself an investment rather than an expense”.
Have multiple voices
If you’re a single freelancer this is difficult, but one of the separating factors between the sole operator and an agency is the comfort factor a client feels from a depth of team. More people (in a clients eyes) = better ideas, security, double-checking of work, cover for absences, less likelihood of disappearance etc.
We’re a 9 person outfit so that depth is genuine but if as a freelancer you can acquire a remote team, or team up with other freelancers (in the case of Cycle Studios thousands of miles away from one another yet still putting forward one cohesive brand)
Don’t lie about it, or create yourself numerous email personas as you’ll tie yourself in knots. Just consider how you might genuinely provide that depth, remembering if you’re doing business online you don’t need to be sat right next to one another.
The phrase ‘start as you mean to go on’ sounds like it was almost designed for early-stage internet relationships. If you are always available for Skype calls, clarification emails and for providing additional information to your proposal quickly and with a smile; you are instantly elevating the impression you leave with the prospect.
You’re professional, serious and are proving that you really want their work. Too many times freelancers are unavailable, uncontactable or don’t do that extra 20% to make sure they really win the job. Remember, if you aren’t doing that 20% extra someone else is.
Be the go-to resource
We positioned ourselves such that no question was outside of our realm. Strategy ideas (outside of web)? No problem. CRM recommendations? No problem. WordPress demo? No problem.
In line with the above, you should make it so easy for clients to bounce ideas off you (yes, even before you win the work) that you become the de facto choice for the job. After all, you’re an informational resource now not just a designer/writer/marketer/coder.
Caveat: You should only invest your time in this pre-sales activity if there genuinely is an opportunity on the table. A mark of a good freelancer is that they’re able to quickly tell the difference between good clients and bad. That’s why you won’t find top bracket freelancers on Elance.
Be a brand
The final point here, and something you can work to your advantage even as a freelancer again comes back to comfort. When you move into a higher price bracket it’ll soon become apparent that your client roster will more resemble businesses than individuals, so you should be prepared to follow-suit. If you are dealing with businesses already then just know that the decision maker at the other side of the desk would much prefer to report into their superiors that “We have [brandname] on the job” rather than “yeah we have John Smith, Freelancer to help us out”.
In some cases, you’ll find it difficult to make it through that first stage without a discernible brand which echoes your key messaging.
Please do yourself a favour though and lay off the [colour][animal][randomfruit] format. It’s tired, cheap and actually does more harm than good. That includes you Blue PigApple Creative.
I have a few posts upcoming which will start to give you a little more context on how to really make the step up, to win more projects and earn more per client. All without the default freelancer so-so advice. Whether your aspirations are to stay as a one-person business or to scale to meet any eventual demand you’ll be able to pick up ideas and methods you can put into practice right away.
So I’m interested to know, what techniques have you found to be effective when concluding freelance deals online and how have they affected the rate you can command?
Learn anything? Please share