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5 quick and simple ways to turn your one-off freelance clients into long-term business relationships

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When just starting out, it’s normal for most freelancers to jump from one project to another. At this early stage of your freelance business, your retainers are few and far in between – if any – and your earnings are just as inconsistent. Often you would go to sleep thinking about how to generate new business, and even more often you’d rise up every morning with fewer ideas than the night before.

Wouldn’t it be great if all those one-off projects turned into long-term business relationships?

It’s not easy of course. If you’ve tried to keep one or more clients and failed, you know why it can be so challenging. Clients have varying budgets, they have ever-changing needs, and especially at a smaller scale, all they need is a small job done. You’ll never hear from them again.

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Image credit: Carbine

How to turn a client into a retainer

There are a few ways you can stop working for one-off clients and start building an expanding list of regulars. All of the five tips below, however, have one simple pre-requisite: that you stop thinking about new business so much.

If you are too focused on selling yourself and finding new business, you won’t have the efforts to focus on a genuine, trusting relationship with the clients you want to keep. If you’ve been marketing yourself for ages, it can be difficult to shift that mindset – but a mindset shift is exactly what you need. Clearly what you’ve been doing so far isn’t working. It’s time to try something new.

Raise your rates

It can sound counterintuitive, but hear me out for a moment. There is one simple way to understand if your rates are high enough: do you think they are too high? If that’s the case, they could probably be higher. Raise your rates until you feel absolutely certain that you couldn’t go any higher without ripping a client off.

When you start pricing yourself higher, you give more value to your own work. Clients will see that, and in turn, you’ll start attracting the right kind of clients which want to do serious business with you. Those clients know how valuable it is to find an experienced, capable professional that suits their needs perfectly – so they are willing to pay a premium for them, and they will do all they can to retain them. So long as your work is to a high-enough standard, of course.

Make and ask favours

I’ve seen this tip online a lot, and I can’t say I disagree. If you want to appear more likeable to a client, be sure to make a few favours here and there. This doesn’t mean to bend over backwards and forfeit a few invoices for them – but if there’s a job that needs less effort than you thought it would, just make a cheaper invoice. If there’s a way you could deliver a work earlier, do so. If there’s anything you can do to help your client make the best out of the work you just created, make sure to let them know.

Conversely, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for favours. Studies show that we instantly look at people more favourably if they ask us for help. The part asking for a favour is usually seen as exposing their vulnerabilities, and our sense of empathy kicks in. Making and receiving favours will ensure your relationship is more human, more unique, more personal. It may be more difficult to pull off with a one-off client – which is why you should always think about going the extra mile. More on that later.

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Stunning illustration by Oleg Buyevsky, represented by IllustrationZone.

Be authentic, honest and transparent

Even in business, we strive to find the most human and agreeable relationships we can. Business can be boring as it is, all about money and KPIs and deliverables and growth, without us making it more unpleasant. Why shouldn’t we seek an authentic, honest and transparent relationship with a client? Why shouldn’t they seek one with us?

The key to developing such relationships is to always be open to communicate issues whenever they arise. People won’t always say what’s on their minds, so try to read their body languages or understand their silences; if they don’t seem convinced to you, ask a few questions. Clear their doubts. Help them understand how transparent and honest you are – and of course, it goes without saying, charge fairly. Don’t include hidden fees in your invoices, don’t be dishonest and always make sure that things go as agreed. If you do so, you’ll be off to a great start.

Be engaged

Most clients aren’t just detached or alienated line managers – they genuinely care about their brand’s or business’ success. They are emotionally and personally invested in them – often, financially too. That is why you should research any company you work for deeply, understanding their business and history and mission statements through and through. You want to show your client that you genuinely care and are truly interested in working with them.

This sometimes means making suggestions too. If you can in fact turn a one-off client into a retainer, at some point there will be a chance to have a conversation about the business or product at hand. Perhaps they will be open to accept your ideas. Perhaps they will be open to discuss strategy with you. Show your personal investment in the business you’re helping. You’re not just a creative machine churning through some briefs to deliver content – you are a creative professional. You are a person. You’re not a number on a P&L document at the end of the year; you’re an actual professional working with the business. Be that professional, be that person. The more invested you are and appear to be, the longer a lasting impression you will leave on your client.

Go the extra mile

Finally, as you may well expect, it helps to exceed expectations. Tons of freelancers out there can make a top notch, quality piece of work – but can they do it like you do? Can they deliver it ahead of time, with extra ideas or polish, perfectly presented and executed with proficiency? Can they go the extra mile to surprise their clients?

Put a little bit of your personal identity and character in your work, make it powerful and touching, make it a part of yourself. If the client has given you a set budget to shoot a campaign, don’t use it all up; maybe leave some at the end, but only if you don’t need to. Give a first-time discount on your invoice, maybe even up to 20%; deliver your work well ahead of the deadline to ensure the client has time to go over it and make some final changes, if needed. Surprise your client with your unique sense of business and make them understand why you are absolutely indispensable to the way they do their own business.

In short, be the freelancer everybody would like to have on their team. Only then will you be able to turn occasional clients into retainers; only then will your efforts truly start to pay off.

Header image: Ben The Illustrator

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