Don’t have enough good clients (as a freelancer)? On self-limiting beliefs and how to upend them (with Ed Gandia)

Freelance creatives routinely complain about the difficulty we have finding quality, high-paying clients: In the American “Freelance Industry Report” (published in 2012), 37% of creatives named it as the greatest challenge we face.

Other surveys since then have shown that 53% of US freelancers struggle to find good clients. The numbers are not much different in Canada—and may clock in higher, especially in less populous and affluent parts of the country.

Or so we tend to say. But American copywriter and coach Ed Gandia,  co-author of The Wealthy Freelancer [2010])  and of training programs at AWAI (American Writers and Artists, Inc), wants to turn those concerns on their heads. Instead, he says, we should consider how freelance creatives can be our own greatest liabilities in the process of securing good clients.

Ed suggests that “the common view and attitudes about attracting and landing quality clients are simply misguided. They’re based on a limited view of reality, and they’re destroying freelance businesses every day” (podcast, June 20, 2013).

He recognizes the “vicious cycle”—a “downward spiral that’s VERY difficult to escape from”— when freelancers have little or no work and so accept projects beneath their abilities just to “pay the bills.” When we’re desperate, we often quote fees that devalue our work, which in turn feeds (underpaying) clients’ expectations that we’ll do more such work and at that low rate. What Canadians call a “poverty mentality” takes hold.

Yes, there are cheap clients, and there are regions of the country (and continent) where clients with deeper pockets are harder to find. But Ed says that equally–if not more so–the problem is that freelancers subscribe to “self-limiting beliefs and assumptions,” that he describes as “dangerous”:

(1) We assume that there is just “too much competition,” because the market is flooded with self-employed creatives who bring down fees and that this challenge cannot be countered.

(2) Self-employed creatives also assume that a “difficult economy” makes it very hard to secure good projects with good fees.

(3) Content mills (e.g. Upwork, etc.) create an “ultra-competitive market” because they undercut proper pay for freelance creatives.

(4) Freelancers believe that the quality of clients is receding, because it seems that clients simply don’t value our work.

Ed doesn’t deny that there are legitimate kernels with these concerns, but that they’re based on “a very limited view of reality” that can destroy even the most gifted and committed freelancer. (We can become our own businesses’ greatest liabilities, if we unthinkingly accept our own limiting beliefs.) 

He counters these common concerns, thus:
Even a poor economy doesn’t have to undermine a freelance business, because of the “diversification principle.” That principle tells us that only a “sample size of 30 or larger will give you statistically valid results.” Because we can usually take on only about three to six clients as freelancers at one time, our financial success does not depend on overall economic conditions or forces.

Freelancers can thus create their own “micro economy,” by developing a system of prospecting for clients that “yields enough clients every year to keep yourself booked to capacity.” So the overall economy won’t be relevant.

Ed also stresses that freelancers who think they must diversify should realize that it can hurt, not help us. Why?  Because narrowing our sites on a niche can help us to become a “trusted expert” in our fields, instead of pandering to the “bargain basement” crowd. As a “trusted expert,” the ratio of clients to available freelancers diminishes, the higher one’s fees rise. (For example, Upwork may have as much as a 10: 1 ratio between the number of jobs versus number of contractors, whereby no freelancer can win.)

What he says is key is to change our strategy, approach and effort to that of a “Trusted Expert” level (versus the “bargain basement”), where there are more clients than freelancers. For such ideal clients, our fees are only one factor that matters, among four or five others.
Clients at this level know our value, our record and “proven expertise.”

He recommends freelancers take four steps to reach the “Trusted Expert” level (or sweet spot):

1. Become totally clear about who our ideal client(s) are. How large is their company? Do they have capacity to hire without consulting others? Do they have scope to value the freelancer and see their fees as fair for their expertise and experience? Can this client continue to funnel work down the pike to us, over time?

2. Go after “hungrier markets.” These are markets that are willing to pay for quality writing, so we can double or triple our fees for our hard work.

3. Develop a “systematic way to attract great clients.” We may need to prospect among medium-sized companies with deeper pockets. When the economy weakens, freelancers may seek projects considered urgent to their clients and whose own clients have equally important and urgent products or services that need filling. As Ed says, “Go where they’re starving!”

Freelancers need to develop a more systematic approach for such prospecting. We need to use, in Ed’s words,  “proven and reliable marketing tactics that yield disproportionately high results when compared to the effort, time and money required to execute them.” And make sure those efforts are relatively easy to commit to (e.g. strategize the value of networking, cold-calling, direct mail, social media, public speaking, article writing, blogging, eNewsletters, tapping one’s network, etc., in relation to our prospects and according to our own gifts.) Ed recommends setting aside at least 10% of one’s work week for marketing-related action. 

4. Deliver great quality service: Provide the best work we can, in the most professional and congenial way, to get more work and more referrals. As AWAI has said for years, “be easy to work with.”

Be sure to follow through on meeting deadlines and doing what we have promised.

Be flexible if some elements of a client’s contributions are not presented on time—if there are delays or if scope changes, mid-way through a contract. Freelancers need to roll with the punches and “come up with a creative win-win situation rather than complain or threaten the client.”

Ed concludes his mammoth podcast by saying that we can make ourselves a highly valued contractor to client teams by showing an interest in their businesses—asking them about what they do, what makes them outperform their competitors, meeting their people and learning about their culture and goals and so on.

Such engagement tends to make clients “loyal and not very price sensitive.”

And now it’s your turn: Do you find Ed’s tips on how to avoid our self-limiting beliefs and assumptions to be valid? How can his tips to overcome them help you? Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.