There are a lot of horror stories out there about freelancing.
Freelancers are getting screwed over on websites like Upwork, they’re driving their prices lower when competing against others, and they’re investing hours into writing proposals — and only closing around 25% of those they pitch. (And often even less than that.)
This isn’t sustainable, and isn’t the path to success.
To help with this, all of us at team DYF spent some time thinking about own individual consulting businesses and the businesses of the freelancers and agencies we’ve featured on our student success stories directory.
We challenged ourselves with this prompt:
If we could boil down success to a recipe, what would that recipe look like?
Today’s post is that recipe.
The 6 Traits Shared By Successful Freelance Consultants
1. Successful Freelance Consultants Have a Strategy for Getting Clients
I maintain a steady stream of clients by speaking at conferences and by having created courses on marketing automation. This lands me high-quality consulting clients who see me as an expert in automation and personalization.
Back when I ran an agency, we regularly ran seminars and other events that expanded our audience and kept our sales team fielding leads full time (when you have 11 people to support, you need significant deal flow.)
But even those who aren’t perceived as industry experts or don’t have the capacity to host weekly business seminars can still create systems for selling.
When DYF students go through The Blueprint, they learn to create their own sales funnels. Each student creates a system unique to them and their business. The formula is fairly structured:
- They influence and educate many people at scale (through blogging, appearing on podcasts, speaking at user groups, etc.)
- They have compelling reasons for people to go deeper, usually by delivering something valuable in exchange for an email address.
- They nurture and develop relationships with their audience, both automatically and one-on-one.
These freelancers end up having an audience that either refers work to them or hires them directly. They don’t turn to job boards, marketplaces like Upwork and Craigslist, or other low-quality channels for getting work.
2. Successful Freelance Consultants Have a Client Intake Process
From the beginning of a relationship with a new lead, successful freelance consultants are in control.
Here’s an example of one of my intakes:
Before we do anything, I do a bit of research into the prospect’s business and put together a simple questionnaire for them. I break it out into three sections:
- Business: What kind of business do they run? What’s their business model, and how do they make money? How many new customers do they get a month? How many new subscribers? What sort of marketing work have they done in the past, and what effect did it have?
- Demographic: Who is their customer? Why do they buy? Why don’t they buy? Who is their ideal customer?
- Financial: Realistically, what increase in sales would make this project a success? A home run? What’s the average value of a subscriber? A customer? How many of your customers are repeat buyers?
Truthfully, very few clients actually know all of this data. But they all give it their best shot. And because I’m asking for some sensitive data here, I send them my Master Services Agreement. This agreement includes a non-disclosure clause, which forbids me from sharing whatever they tell me (note my liberal usage of censorship in the above screenshot — I’m under NDA!)
What’s most important, though, is that I’ve set myself up as someone who only cares about their success.
I’m not talking tactics or technology. I’m asking them, from one business owner to another, about where they are now and where they want to be. This allows me to be prepared for our Roadmapping session, and to come equipped with a few ideas and talking points that we can use to kick off the meeting.
Which leads me to…
3. Successful Freelance Consultants Require Roadmapping
Every. single. successful. consultant. I. know. has some version of Roadmapping or paid discovery that pre-empts every project.
This is a paid engagement, often lasting just a few hours, that helps extrapolate the data collected during the intake into an actionable roadmap that can get a timeline and budget assigned to it.
There are two benefits to Roadmapping:
- Considering my average project budget is somewhere around $50,000, offering an intensive ~$2,000 session allows both the client and me to test the waters. They’re not committed to working with me, and I’m not committed to them. And it’s a minuscule amount of money compared to the full engagement cost. Because Roadmapping is a self-contained “product”, it’s valuable in its own right. My goal is to leave my clients speechless. To show them what realistic opportunity they’re currently missing out on, and provide a plan of action on the best way to capture that opportunity.
- My clients get better estimates, which is a good thing for both of us. Project estimates are often made off of assumptions. You pretend to read your clients’ minds, only to realize knee-deep into the project that what you were thinking and what they were thinking were on two totally different wavelengths. This has caused the death of many technically successful projects — not because the estimate was necessarily wrong or the work shoddy, but instead because the freelancer and the client weren’t seeing eye-to-eye.
Notice that Roadmapping is NOT just a way to “get paid for estimating.” It’s a mutually valuable tool that allows both parties to commit to exploring the project in detail.
4. Successful Freelance Consultants Practice Value-Based Pricing
If you’re an experienced freelance consultant and you’re still billing hourly, it may be time to stop.
In my mind, there are 3 acceptable forms of pricing:
- Fixed fee (preferred): Once you’ve been Roadmapping and you have a better idea of what’s involved in the project and what the potential return-on-investment could be, you’re able to then anchor your costs against the payoff. With a recent project of mine, I presented two pricing options to the client. I also made it clear how, based on how I’d be prioritizing the work, they’d pay off their investment in working with me during the first phase of the engagement, with the subsequent work yielding nothing but ongoing profit.
- Monthly subscription or retainer: If you’re selling any sort of productized service that optimizes, insures, or educates your clients over time, you’re essentially fixing your fee, but having it repeat monthly.
- Weekly or iteration: If you’re working on long-term projects where the scope fluctuates and there’s no time to reassess the budget continuously, billing by the week is a good option. Many Agile projects, where the scope is often defined just-in-time, are best billed weekly.
5. Successful Freelance Consultants Own The Engagement
When they sign a new client, they have a process for just about everything.
- They onboard new clients and establish expectations both verbally and through tools like Laura Elizabeth’s Client Portal.
- They establish a communication framework. “Here’s when we’ll meet each week, and here’s how I’ll expect feedback to be submitted to me.” They don’t allow their clients to call or message them at any time.
- They host regular retrospectives, which allow both parties to get a reading on the health of the engagement.
- They have a client offboarding process, which guarantees their clients are never left in the cold to fend for themselves.
Without these processes in place, the client can (and will) often try to do what they do best: be a boss.
The freelancers who I’ve heard from who feel taken advantage of and walked all over by their clients often set themselves up for that. When there’s a management and communication vacuum in place, the client is often the one to jump in and try to start micromanaging the engagement.
Your clients want to conform to your processes. By having processes, you’re sending a strong signal that you’ve done this before and that you’re in control. Without them, the client often attempts to reduce risk by assuming control — which good clients don’t want to do, but when left without direction often do.
6. Successful Freelance Consultants Make Time to *Grow* Their Business
It’s a classic mistake for new, struggling freelancers to get stuck in fulfillment.
Always broke and needing more work, they spin their wheels, focusing only on fulfilling their latest commoditized, low-paying project ASAP so that they can move as quickly as possible to the next one.
The trouble is that this cycle only leads to more low-paying, commoditized work.
The only way to get out of that hamster wheel is to be fastidious about making time for growing your business and actually getting ahead, rather than putting all your attention on doggy-paddling just to keep your head above water.
(Which is easier said than done when you’re drowning.)
The best way to start: ask yourself what you’d need to do to put point #1 from this list of successful traits into practice.
In other words, if I were to tell you to get yourself to a psychological place where you could go on a podcast that your potential audience listens to and offer them some valuable information, what would have to happen for you to get there?
- Would you need to pick an audience first?
- Would you need to educate yourself on their problems (and the solutions to those problems) more?
- Would you need to get more comfortable with speaking, writing, or interviewing?
- Would you need to squash your inner imposter syndrome?
Spending time on growing your business will always feel a little scary and out of your comfort zone when it’s new — whether you’re building your audience, hiring your first staff members, or something else entirely.
If you’re not careful and intentional, it’s easy to de-prioritize this “important and not urgent” work in favor of the urgent “client fires” that need putting out. My recommendation: create a habit that happens every day/week at the same time and stay consistent enough with it that it doesn’t require so much willpower to get your butt in the chair to work on it.
What’s worked best for me is 30 minutes in the morning, first thing, before any client work or inputs. I.e. before I check ANY emails, slack messages, etc. This allows me to approach my “growing the business” work with “fresh energy” instead of having client requests stealing attention at the back of my mind.
This list is by no means the only way to run your consulting business. But it’s a good start. If you can aim to just implement a few of the above strategies, you and your clients will end up more successful.