How to win a $50k client project without ever meeting face to face

We all provide loosely the same service, so why can some freelancers (and freelancer/brands) command significantly more per client?

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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:

  • Email
  • Skype
  • InDesign / PDF
  • Echosign

… 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:

Language
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”

Design
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.

If you feel that’s too far away from you right now think again, there are ways to hack your way to a higher level of client then I have a video on being the specialist, even when you’re not.

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.

Be available

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.

Summary

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?

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  • Christina

    Hi Liam, great post! I would love to see your thoughts on the value of collaborations and how to find the right people to collaborate with. I think many freelancers underestimate the power of team play. Personally I think having the freedom and flexibility to work with other freelance professionals who complement your own skills for different projects is the most valuable and rewarding thing when it comes to “working solo”.

    • Atelier Pan

      Good point, Christina. I totally agree with you on the power of team play and the value of collaborations. Why is it that freelancers think this way (myself included at times)? And how do we overcome this? I’d love to join a team and still be able to do ‘my thing’. I believe we can achieve so munch more when we collaborate. At the same time it scares me a little to join a team… weird huh?

      Looking forward to Liam’s future post on collaboration. Great post btw, Liam :)

  • Liam at Freelancelift

    Thanks Christina! Yeah definitely agree. I suppose by definition a freelancer (as in free, unconnected, solo) is battle-hardened at working alone. This naturally builds up an ability to multi-task and learn new skills outside ones comfort zone which means sometimes we plough through and get the job done even if it means wearing a few ‘hats’.

    As you say though, there is an opportunity to build a collaboration team which achieves a nice balance. As a designer, I used to work with writers and video editors/producers and always found that was a nice blend. I’ll make a note to try and cover collaboration in a future post.

    Thanks for the comment :) Liam

  • rayjacksonart

    Hi Liam, I am going through a “creative block” currently when it comes to naming my freelance business (which now, just consists of me, although I have a team of people I know and have worked with that I can call on if a project is out of my range of abilities). At first, I just considered using my name – but that does give the impression it’s just me and that my abilities could be limited – which may result in a prospective client turning their attention toward an “agency” or “business” instead of me. I feel like, without this “brand”, its hard for me to move forward ( gaining clients, getting business cards printed, creating a website, etc. ) Is there a process or resource you can recommend that would help? I have had a hard time finding information specifically on this topic – especially in relation to the design/creative industry.

  • Colin Willems

    This is honestly one of the best emails I’ve ever received – in fact all of your emails are of such quality unlike any other freelance type emails that I get. I rarely leave comments but I felt compelled to after reading this in its entirety. I’m a freelancer and although I have my own clients I have some amazing contacts with some of the UK’s best print houses and suppliers, as well as that I work with some amazing web developers so no matter what I pitch for or clients that I attain I have confidence that I have some “heavy backup” behind me that I can call upon. I built these contacts for this reason. I really liked what you said about “branding” yourself too – that’s really given me some confidence for expanding this year. I see a lot of freelancers just use their name and I know there’s some really successful guys out there that use their own name ( David airey for example) but I do wonder how far “newer” freelancers can get using just a name, not to mention some names have a better ring to them than others. I go by the name “JustAnotherDesigner” and I’ve got this set up in more of a logo type fashion but I’ve highlighted the word “not” in another, so when you see my logo it looks as though it reads: not just another designer – which is exactly the message I want to get across – implying that there are a lot of designers out there but they should work with me because im not just another designer because I am capable of a lot of amazing things. I really like what you said about trust and depth too – maybe some potential clients do think that just someone’s name is almost too easy and doesn’t tell you too much about them. Maybe some potential clients expect something half interesting (after all this is our job right?) or even clever. Thanks again to freelance lift – I’m learning so much from your emails and your website is a valuable resource to me as I grow my freelance career.

    Colin
    JustAnotherDesigner
    UK

    • Liam at Freelancelift

      Thanks Colin, I’ll reciprocate and say that’s one of the best comments I’ve received. So good stuff all round!

      Yeah you’re right on the personal brand thing. I wouldn’t say it’s a defining factor, as you rightly point out there are people doing great things on the strength of their names but those guys are more exception than rule.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment :)

  • Hazel Lau

    One of my clients sent me her proposal done by her previous designer. Even I as a designer couldn’t understand some of the terms used. My client kept saying her previous designer didn’t understand what she wants.

    I took a different approach, I recorded short videos to explain what I would do for her instead. I’m still experimenting this. What I found was it took me longer time to write and sketch to explain my ideas. So why not just do screencast and video demo right away. I use Jing. At the same time I get to practice talking in front of camera. I’m not a native English speaker so this also pushes me out of my comfort zone. :)

  • http://www.jonmyers.com/ Jon Myers

    Great post and thinking here Liam.

    I do regularly close projects in the $50k range. In fact, just closed one myself with a VC firm that is launching a bank. I beat out all the agencies. I was even asked to do spec work like the agencies, which I refused to do. I don’t participate in the Design as Decoration Dog and Pony show.

    I have closed in the low to mid six figure range as well.

    A couple things I would add.

    Get your offering (in my case I’m a UX/ UI guy) tied as close as possible to revenue.

    Meaning, you must come in as a business analyst. Not just a “designer”.

    I typically enter in as a strategist and analyst who happens to filter my offering through the lens of design to support a customer’s business objectives.

    Think in terms of how your deliverables help support “business positions” not just live in vein.

    If you take this route, you need to make it clear to the customer how you approach projects, communicate why it’s a better route and demonstrate a process for delivering it.

    I keep getting dragged kicking and screaming into design consulting/ freelancing (kidding, I love it) – I used to have an agency back in the Silicon Alley days and have been more of a startup guy over the last decade, but there is a lot of demand for design services.

    I have shied away from setting up an “agency” again – and simply have tied my name to my business.

    I’m changing that this year.

    My goal is to have my minimum project cost be around $250K.

    For that you need to be a studio not a lone wolf. But small, lean and mean.

    I’ll be going after more banking projects and I have experience in the biotech space as well.

    I’m more formalizing my design studio, separating it under a different brand and am experimenting at the moment with a staffing, scaling approach.

    Basically, when I take on new customers, I require them to hire internal resources (design, PM, etc..) to support me. They hire, manage and pay that staff.

    I come in train the staff on my processes, get them up to speed and have them doing support work for me.

    If they want me to oversee the work of those resources, I have them pay a use it or lose it, monthly management fee.

    Doesn’t work for every customer, but quite a few have went for it.

  • http://letsreachsuccess.com/ Lidiya K

    Great post.

    I was taking notes while reading.

    Very much agree with the point about brands. And I’m not dealing with big clients yet, but have noticed that even if you’re a single freelancer working with any client that’s serious about his small business, it always looks better if you have a brand behind your back. Which goes together with taking your online presence to the next level, of course, and connecting these two in the best way possible.

    Another thing I’ve seen to work that not many freelancers pay attention to (I guess), is that offering ideas while talking to a potential client and being genuine makes you connect with him on a special level. And he may end up thinking he needs you now that you’ve given him such valuable and creative ideas. Plus, it’s obvious that you’ll be the best option to start working on them right away.
    It’s what you talk about in the point on being the go-to resource. I like what you say there too.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Best,
    Lidiya

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