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4 Mistakes Freelancers Make When Selling Themselves


You’ve probably heard that you should always be selling. It doesn’t matter if you’re sporting a suit and tie at a conference pre-party or chatting business with a fellow parent at a kid’s birthday party: if the person you’re talking with could end up either hiring you or referring you to others, you better sell yourself to them.

And this is good advice. You should be “selling” yourself. Human relationships are forged on people selling themselves to others. (I had to sell myself to my college’s admissions office. I had to sell myself to every boss, client, and customer I ever worked with. I had to sell myself as a potential boyfriend, and later husband, to my wife).

But I think this advice can often lead people to think that selling is a win-or-lose game. That your job is to create a positive impression as quickly as possible, make your pitch before whoever you’re talking to becomes disinterested, and go in for the kill — I mean, the sale.

I’m generally introverted, and have never been too comfortable using the same advice insurance and car salespeople use. Besides not being a huge fan of pushy sales tactics, I also tend to think my “product” — the business-changing stuff I do for my clients — is worth the price, and that no one’s being short changed and needs to be convinced using whatever it takes.

So today I want to extract a bit from my upcoming course, Double Your Freelancing Clients. It’s a handful of mistakes that new, and even experienced, freelancers make when talking with people about their businesses.

1. Not asking the right questions

Let’s say you’re talking with someone at a backyard BBQ. They bring up that they have a construction business. What happens next?

Well, you might be inclined to jump into trying to talk about your business and the sort of stuff you do. After all, there’s blood in the water now — you feed off people like them!

But hold up. Let’s let them talk. Let’s hear their story.

You: “So tell me about your business.”

Business Owner: “I’m in construction – I’m building that new Hilton down by the beach. My team and I handle organizing all the subcontractors – builders, architects, and so on…”

You: “Nice! How do you find organizing all that? It must be crazy. I do a lot of work with software, and it seems like you’d need some crazy huge project management tool to manage all of that – especially since you’re building a highrise!”

BO: “Yeah, it can get complicated. But Microsoft Excel keeps it all chuggin’ along.”

You: “So you’re coordinating building a tower with Excel? That must be quite the spreadsheet!”

BO: “Well, the office manager and my assistant do a great job managing the chaos.”

You: “Just out of curiosity… How much time do the two of them spend each week working in this spreadsheet?”

BO: “Lately, pretty much full time. It’s a lot of work.”

You: “Are there other things they could be doing?”

BO, with a blank stare: “Of course, but this is their job now.”

You: “I understand. I sometimes feel like I’m in the business of putting people like your office manager and assistant out of work.”

Another blank stare from the BO: “…What do you do?”

You: “I help businesses solve things that can be simplified with custom software. So let’s say I worked with a company like yours, I’d figure out what routine tasks were booking your team full time – and find ways to either eliminate those chores or make it take a lot less time. I know one problem with things like Excel are that it’s really hard to get multiple people working out of it at once. So when a company outgrows something like Excel or pen and paper, they come to me.”

Notice that the focus is all on them, and their business. You only come in with what it is you do when you discover a point of intersection — a place where the needs of their business overlaps with your business and what you provide.

Grab my Socratic Questioning Worksheet [free], which is from Double Your Freelancing Rate. It’s a great primer for helping you ask the right questions.

2. Not giving anything away for free

Many of us are reluctant to give away anything for free. We don’t want to be too eager to prescribe solutions…. because, for all we know, that prospective client we’re talking to might take your prescription and find someone else to do the work!

The other day, I was sitting down with a project lead, and we were talking a bit about his project.

I didn’t try to persuade him too much on hiring me, instead I tried to persuade him on the right course of action he should take. I told him exactly what I’d do if I was running his business, and what resources he should check out.

A lot of us fear giving away our “secret sauce,” especially when we’re still trying to court the client’s business. But it’s important to realize that the kind of clients we want to work with aren’t the type who will take our prescription and either try to do it themselves or price shop it around. Good clients know that 1) their time is too valuable to try to figure out how to do whatever it is you do and 2) it’s risky as hell to find good, solid talent.

I sell myself through teaching. I want clients to realize that I don’t just know what the buzz words are, but that I know how to use them and are capable of thoroughly diving into a problem and solving it. By diagnosing a problem on the spot and providing a solution, you’re showing a prospective client that you’re confident in your ability to turn problems into solutions.

And early on, this sends a strong signal. You’re in the business of architecting solutions. You don’t just respond to requests; you’re instrumental in fulfilling the requirements.

3. Not including a “call to action” in their conversations

The mistake a lot of people make when selling is to end a conversation without a call-to-action. If you’re chatting with somebody at a bar, and the conversation turns toward them and their business, and you drop hints that you run a business that could probably help them, don’t end by saying “I’ll give you a call.”

You’re not giving them anything. For all they know, you’re blowing them off. We’ve all probably been on the receiving end of an “I’ll call you” — knowing full well that we’ll never actually get a call — after meeting a cute prospective partner. Business isn’t really all that different.

Make sure that each interaction you have with a prospective client has a clear next step.

If you’re talking with me about business and I think I can help you, I’m going to leave you with an option to talk with me about working together in an environment that isn’t a bar.

“Jim,” I would say, pulling out my iPhone and opening my calendar app, “I have next Tuesday and Thursday available at 10am. Which day would be better for me to come by and talk to you more about whether we could work together?”

Jim’s only available response is either “Yes, Tuesday at 10 will work” or “No, I’m booked both of those days,” (which can lead into another volley of dates and times). Had I just said “we should talk”, neither of us are committing to anything. There’s no implicit expectation that something should actually happen next.

4. Thinking that people are more interested than they really are

People need to know enough to be able to make an informed decision — and nothing more.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of why test-driven development with rspec is better than the alternatives or why WordPress is the most feature and plug-in rich blogging platform available. But all too often, we let our passions overflow from their rightful place — user groups, tech conferences, industry blogs, and so on — and spill over into our interactions with clients.

A few months back, I sat in on a conversation with a very talented designer who was trying to convince a business owner that they needed to make their website responsive. The business owner was being taught the ins-and-outs of media queries and pixel density and on and on. The eyes on this poor business owner were visibly glazed — she had no idea what he was talking about, and I couldn’t figure out why she should care!

It’s like when I go in to get my car fixed. Admittedly, I know very little about cars outside of I like it when they work and are capable of bringing me from Point A to Point B. But I’ve talked to mechanics who try to tell me way too much about the inner workings of my engine. If I’m in a repair shop and my car needs some non-urgent service, I want to be told why I should consider the service being proposed to me. If I don’t get it, is it possible my car won’t start tomorrow morning? Next week? Next month?

Likewise, pixel density and media queries don’t tell Sally the Business Owner anything about why she needs a responsive site. They’re the features, but clients buy for benefits. Will a responsive site help her get more customers? Will it be easier for people on small screens to see what Sally offers, where she’s located, and when her business is open?

What are some mistakes that you’ve seen freelancers make (or maybe you’ve made yourself)? Let me know in the comments below!

  • Dermot

    I think the quieter, more introverted people have an easier time selling. Clients tend not to trust the louder car salesman type seller.

    • Clients do appreciate confidence, which the louder types often exude better than us introverts. Somebody wants to know that their investment is going to be put to good use – and shyness and uncertainty often make a client unwilling to move forward.

  • Some people believe that the only two options are being shy or going into a full sales pitch. But if you don’t know how to sell benefits, you’re going to have a difficult road.

    It’s not about selling what you want to sell, it’s about finding what the client needs and delivering that to them. The first dynamic is centered on self, the second dynamic is focused on others.

    • That’s exactly it, John. Transactions are built on a mutual exchange of value, and “selling” is really just aligning what you have (your technical expertise) with a business problem (the need of a client). Aligned well, this translates to a sales pitch that’s focused on the benefits of receiving your product.

  • Brent Randall

    I have always had the problem of catering my sales tactics and pricing to what I think the customer can afford. It is tempting to try and cater the description of my work and quotes given during sales meetings. I will end up undercutting myself in an attempt to make the client happy BEFORE they are even my client. And in every case, I undersold my services and got locked in. I catered my price to the client, instead of catering my price to my time.

    I have been working now on giving the REAL value of the work I do(after being nudged by your webinar and DYFR book), and then selling them as to why that cost is necessary. The clients who can’t afford me, I don’t need. They are looking for somebody who doesn’t offer what I do. I’m weary from getting clients that don’t understand and appreciate the value of what I do, and they almost always take advantage of me.

    My prices are now based on me, not the client.

    • John Vice

      That’s all well and good, but you can only charge up to the limit of the clients budget. If 90% of your client base can only afford to spend 5K on a project and you charge 15K per project then you just cut out almost everyone in the market.

      How is this a benefit? Does Brennen address this in any of his paid or free materials? This is my biggest sticking point. I went down the road of charging what I felt I was really “worth” but the clients simply just didn’t have the money, even if they really wanted to hire me.

      • I had the exact same concerns with you before purchasing Brennan’s book.

        You are right that, unless clients have the budget, they won’t be able to afford you. But. Do you need a lot of clients? Do you really need all of the clients who approach you?

        I used to work with many clients and seek new projects all the time. I charged low, or as low as my fellow freelancers. And it was soul-sucking: too much anxiety, too much work, too little free time.

        In 2014, I started charging higher. Way higher than the other freelancers. I positioned myself better and I understood the client needs better. This way, I was able to work with fewer, but higher-budget clients. In 2014, I only got 4 client projects, yet, I made 4 times more income than any previous year!

        I live in Greece (which is bankrupted) and the freelance rates are VERY low. Instead of seeking local clients, I expanded in the EU and US markets. I opened a new website/blog and started teaching about my favorite technologies (Kinect and Natural User Interfaces). As a result, I had a pool of clients to choose from. Using the techniques described by Brennan, I could then filter the clients and choose the ones that could afford me. The results? In 2014, I worked with 3 lucrative foreign startups and 1 big local corporation!

        If you can afford it, purchase Brennan’s book (the basic package). I’m not saying that it will work for you, but, at least, it will make you see your business from a totally different perspective.

      • What Vangos said 🙂

        There’s nothing wrong with outgrowing clients. Some clients CAN’T afford the rates you’re now charging — and that’s perfectly fine. And charging $15k/project doesn’t cut out everyone from the market — it simply moves you into a new market, with differently kind of clients who want different kinds of projects.

        • Adam Rasheed

          What about the scenarios where you have build enough of a network that you’ll be completely out of projects if you price yourself too high?

  • Omari

    I’ve been easing my way out of a lot of these mistakes. Initially I would jump to making a pitch based on what I thought they needed which would fulfill my hero complex but didn’t quite take into consideration what the client actually wants. A lot of times the client doesn’t even know what they want – It’s like your job is to first help them articulate what it is they reallly want and once you’ve extracted that you can inject it with what you know they need.

    • A lot of freelancers, especially those used to the employer employee dynamic, don’t really think too much about what their clients want. As consultants, we need to diagnose the problem, write the prescription, AND deliver the “drugs”.

  • I like the car mechanic analogy you bring up at the end because it actually brings up another point you didn’t go into depth on this post. Yes, in your case you don’t want details from the mechanic – you just want to know if your car will start. But another customer does want the details, because he/she is more familiar with the inner workings of their car and they want to know exactly what the issues are, whether they should just go out and get the parts themselves (the mechanic shop will charge double – that’s where they make a lot of their money), etc. The key point is for the mechanic (freelancer) to assess their client appropriately, and know when to go into more detail and when to be concise.

    • You know, in my notes I meant to cover this — you’re absolutely right, there are different types of clients. Some are more technical, and will want a more technical explanation. Some aren’t. It’s important to sell somebody on what they need and in the style that matches their personality.

  • Manuel Vicedo – CPOThemes

    For me it’s been a bumpy road when pricing services. At first I used To go with static pricing, charging a set amount for a particular project. Then I switcher to hourly-based billing, thinking that it might be a better incentive for the client (clearer projects, Bill only based on costs).

    Now I’ve gone back to a set price for each project. The difference is, I’m now focusing on the value provided instead on the amount of code that needs to be written. When you start thinking from the client’s side, it’s a whole new perspective and suddenly you can defend your prices (and increase them too).

    • That’s exactly right, Manuel. Though I would caution against fixed prices when you’re working on projects where the scope is dubious and liable to change. The sort of multi-month development work I used to do was suicide at a fixed rate; these days, I’m doing smaller engagements with more specific deliverables, so I’m OK with charging a specific amount — it would be very hard for me to not make my margins.

  • Julian

    Thank you I can relate!! I’ve done three probono projects in Londln for a family member and now I want to convert them into a paying client. I think they believe I’d be happy to continue in the way we have. I did that to prove myself but realised afterwards it wasn’t necessary for me to do that.. They seem to value things based on literal quantity for price not overall value and outcome.

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