Understanding how to get more clients for your business is probably the most important factor in becoming successfully self-employed. If you’re able to find or build a consistent and sustainable source of new work, it removes much of the risk, and provides a solid foundation for your future.
Even if you’re currently fully-booked, it’s important to continue investing time into your new client pipeline. Having an excess of demand for your services gives you a range of good choices, including raising your rates, scaling up your business, or referring work to other trusted freelancers.
While there are quick fixes you can try for any sudden shortage of work and income; most will be more effective if you’ve invested some long-term planning and effort. Having an overall strategy for your future, and tactics you can use as needed, will give you the best results.
- Understand your industry, your niche, and your potential clients
- Make sure it’s clear what your business offers
- Encourage referrals and recommendations from existing clients
- Invest in business assets to attract new clients
- Great ways to reach new clients
- Make the most of your efforts
- More support to grow your self-employed business
It’s always important to understand the freelance sector you’re working in, and how it might be evolving over time. When you’re working within an industry on a daily basis, it can be difficult to step back and see how technology, trends and client priorities may be changing.
Especially if you’re only talking with your existing clients. It’s obviously a good idea to keep current customers happy, and to understand their needs and concerns for the future as well as the present. But it’s potentially more important to get insights from those who didn’t hire you, to avoid the problem of survivorship bias.
Competitor research is a common recommendation when you’re new to self-employment, but when was the last time you researched businesses offering similar services, or generating interest in your local area? Have they changed what they offer, or how it’s presented to potential clients?
Networking with other freelancers and self-employed professionals also helps you understand whether you’re facing common problems with bringing in more work, or clients cutting back on their external resources. And it may give you opportunities to collaborate, or develop new services together. Speaking with people at larger companies and agencies will also help you understand where they are struggling to fill roles or specialisms.
It's common to think that expanding the services you offer will attract more clients, but concentrating on a specialised niche may be more beneficial in securing more business. Not only will there be potentially less competition, but you’ll be able to focus your efforts on becoming the top freelancer or consultant in a specific area.
You might be one of many consultants offering marketing, design, IT support or business transformation. But you could be one of a few people combining that with specialist knowledge of a particular software platform, or a specific industry sector. And that will help you stand out in a crowded market.
Once you understand what potential clients are likely to be looking for, you can make sure your business identity and messaging convince them that you’re best placed to provide it.
It’s pointless investing time and money in getting people to view your website or social media, or to attend events and chat to prospective clients in person, if you can’t clearly explain what you do, and how it will help their business.
When you’ve been self-employed for a while, it’s easy for your identity and proposition to continually expand and become increasingly vague by adding more information and services. So, it’s important to refine it down on a regular basis. If something isn’t part of your business strategy, you may want to eliminate it, outsource fulfilment, or even sell that particular product or service area.
This clarity doesn’t prevent you from discussing other topics, sharing insights into your personal experiences or talking about other interests. But it’s important to avoid distracting potential clients when you only have a short amount of time to make an impression or take the final steps in hiring you for a project.
As an example, you may cover all sorts of subjects on your business website. But your contact page or anything for new client sign-ups should be as clear and simple as possible, with the key reasons why someone would hire you rather than anyone else.
The best and most obvious way to encourage referrals and recommendations from existing clients is to consistently deliver great work. Which means meeting or exceeding expectations for quality, reliability, and consistency.
Most people like to be seen as knowledgeable and helpful to friends, family, and business contacts. And many of your current clients will know other business owners who aren’t in direct competition with them, which means they can happily pass on your details.
Relying on personal recommendations and word-of-mouth referrals can take time, but will often be the best source for good future projects. But if it’s moving a little slowly, then it’s possible to encourage referrals and recommendations.
The simplest approach is to simply let existing clients know that you’re currently looking for more work. Make it clear that it won’t lower your existing commitments to them, whether that’s because you have billable hours or additional resources available.
Another option is to incentivise referrals via a commission, either on a one-off or ongoing basis. Make sure that any financial agreements are clearly stated, and be aware that it will obviously lessen the impact of a recommendation if payments have been involved.
And make the most of happy clients by securing reviews and testimonials which they’re happy to see shared publicly.
For a sustainable, long-term source of work, it’s often best to invest in business assets to attract new clients rather than short-term tactics. While you may be able to build a thriving career purely through personal recommendations, it’s always helpful to have places to direct potential new clients, or to maintain contact with them.
A business website has a range of benefits, including allowing you to use a recognisable domain name and email address for your freelancing or consulting. You can choose whether to create a simple portfolio site which allows potential clients to easily contact you, or develop a more comprehensive resource designed to sell your products or services more effectively without requiring you to be personally involved.
You can also use search engine optimisation (SEO) to appear in the results search engines show for relevant queries, which can bring new visitors to your website.
Building an email list is also a worthwhile method for staying in contact with current, former, or prospective clients. Emailing a newsletter or updates or a regular basis reminds people that you exist, and the services you offer, direct in their inbox. And lets you send out special discounts or promotions to individuals, or segments of your email list.
Adding a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) can also be extremely useful to keep track of your contacts. It’s possible to keep these updated manually or automatically with details such as the last time you spoke about working together, if there were any future plans, or any specific issues they had.
Branding has the least direct impact on attracting new clients in a way that’s possible to track and measure. But building a strong identity will develop recognition and confidence over time as people encounter your name, logo, visual identity, and tone of voice.
Having a recognisable brand means that you stand out to potential clients in search results, on social media, or if you appear as an advertiser or sponsor. From supermarkets to sports teams, or cars to clothing, you’ll instantly recognise your favourite brands and the most well-known names. And you can have the same results within your freelancing sector.
With all of these assets to attract new clients, you can potentially save money by investing more of your own time. But it’s always worth weighing this up against time taken from client work, and the added value a professional can bring to areas including design and copywriting.
There are a huge range of options available when you’re looking to reach new potential clients. Most consultants and freelancers will find success by choosing one or two tactics to focus on initially, and then expanding their approach as time and revenue allows.
You’ll find a brief overview below to demonstrate many of the popular options, with more in-depth guides either already available via the IPSE Advice section or in progress, along with dedicated webinars and events and the IPSE Resource Library for members.
Advertising: Whether you opt for traditional media, such as local newspapers and radio stations, or use digital ads in search engine results, via social media, or directly on relevant websites, advertising remains an effective way to attract new clients.
The most successful advertising either grabs the attention of the audience by being creative, or works with a specific discount or offer to entice people.
Affiliate marketing: Rather than individual commissions for referrals, you can set up affiliate marketing to offer a regular amount for successful conversions sent to you by other individuals or businesses.
Article writing: This includes creating blog posts for your own website, or writing thought leadership articles for industry publications. Demonstrating your knowledge, providing helpful information, and answering common questions can be a hugely useful way to raise your profile, impress potential clients, and also boost the SEO of your website at the same time.
Cold calling or emailing: Simply contacting companies directly is likely to have a low success rate unless you’re able to target your approach in some way. But it can bring in new clients, particularly in your local area.
Events: Attending or hosting events can be a great way to build your network and reach new clients. Whether in-person or online, you could provide some free introductory help or advice, a way for business people to meet and collaborate, or even launch a regular networking event or conference.
Some larger events allow anyone to apply for speaking slots if you can show knowledge and suggest an interesting subject to cover.
Former employers and clients: Hopefully your existing clients are already recommending your services to other people. But what about previous employers and clients from years ago? Assuming you left on good terms, they might have new projects available, or be reminded how good it was to work with you.
Job boards: General and specialist job sites will have a constant stream of potential new clients and projects. You can choose to apply for everything available, but it’s typically more productive to pick the most interesting opportunities and tailor your applications, CV and supporting documents each time to be as relevant as possible.
To get started, here are some of the best online job boards and sites for freelancers.
Lead pages: If you have a business website, then you may be able to attract more clients, and convert them more successfully, by creating bespoke lead pages with special offers or tailored information. Especially if you offer multiple services which can appeal to different audiences, or want to target multiple industries.
Partnerships and white label work: Collaborating and partnering with other companies or freelancers can be a great way to build up client numbers for both businesses. You’re both able to offer more services, without diluting your focus or quality of work. Just make sure you have everything agreed before taking on client projects.
Another option is to white label for larger agencies who may need temporary cover in specialist areas, bringing you new work without having to find clients directly.
PR and media: Public relations (PR) and making yourself available for media appearances can raise your profile. It’s possible to pitch interesting stories about any business, particularly to local publications and outlets. Or to respond to journalism enquiries via specialist sites or on social media such as Twitter. And getting to know industry and local journalists or broadcasters means you’re more likely to receive future opportunities.
Social Media: A potentially massive area to cover, but broadly speaking you can use social networks to try and build the largest possible audience, or to engage more deeply with a smaller group of contacts. Your activity can range from passively monitoring for relevant content, to regularly posting insights, case studies and more. The most important tip is to consciously plan your approach, rather than randomly varying your efforts across too many different platforms.
You’re able to choose between the networks your industry tends to use, those you actually prefer, or the ones where your content will stand out the most.
Sponsorships: Rather than hosting or simply attending relevant events, why not sponsor one? If you team your sponsorship with a specific offer or discount for attendees, it can quickly attract new clients.
Testimonials and case studies: Sharing evidence of happy clients will provide useful social proof and reassurance for anyone visiting your website. But case studies take that further with more detailed information and evidence on what you have achieved in the past.
Update your profiles and portfolio: Adding your latest clients, skills or achievements will keep your online profiles and portfolios up to date, and many networks will alert people when their connections update any information. Meaning you’ll appear in front of them once again.
Videos and podcasts: Demonstrate your knowledge or simply share your story by appearing in videos and podcasts. Or create your own video guides to relevant topics and connect with guests on your own podcast.
Make a shortlist of the 2-3 tactics which are most applicable to your business, considering the time, money, skills, and resources they’ll require, and the potential time before results start to appear.
Plan how you’ll use each one over the coming months, including setting some basic targets to aim for in terms of both output and what success may look like. And make sure you set up a way to track whether they produce any clients or work, whether that’s by asking how people have found your business or using tracking codes and your website analytics.
You’ll need to give each tactic some time to grow and start producing anything like consistent results before judging whether to continue with it, change your approach, or try something different. As a rough guide, sticking with something for 6 months should give you enough data and insights to show whether it needs a little more time, or should be swapped out.
If a new opportunity appears, then don’t be afraid to make changes. It could be the launch of a new social network, or the opportunity to appear in the media on a regular basis. Just make sure that if you’re committing to something new, you account for it by either dropping an existing plan, or by outsourcing something to free up more time.
Whether you’re actively growing your self-employed business, or making plans for the future, you’ll find a wide range of support available. We have a wide range of advice for freelancers and the self-employed, covering specialist areas including winning work, financial planning and wellbeing, legal guidance and more.
IPSE members also have access to a calendar of webinars and events on relevant topics, offers and discounts from partners providing services to the self-employed, and helpful support including tax and legal helplines, cover for tax investigations or contract failures and much more.
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