Marketing your business

The Ultimate Guide to Building Client Relationships

By Brennan Dunn

Today we have a very special article from Austin Church, one of the speakers at Double Your Freelancing Conference: Europe, 2016. In this article, Austin talks about how to effectively build client relationships — take it away Austin!

You love freelancing. You can work from anywhere. You get to make your own schedule. You’re boss-less.

But once you move past the honeymoon phase, you face a lot of uncertainty. Bills don’t pay themselves. How do you build a “sustainable business” business? How do you keep your pipeline full and build your client base?

Magnets, not Megaphones

These days, your marketing needs to be a magnet, not a megaphone. Megaphones annoy. Magnets attract. What is your magnet? Generosity.

One of the things I teach my consulting clients is that generosity is the single most attractive thing in business.

To attract better clients, give more.

All of the attraction tips that I’m about to share have giving at their core. I’d recommend that you pick three, write them down, and take action on those three this coming week. (I even have a worksheet that you can use.)

Bare Minimum

Generosity may be your magnet, but your magnet can only work if you take it out of the drawer.
 Consistency trumps everything in marketing. Even if you only stay consistent with these three things, your freelancing business will grow:

  1. Updating your website, blog, and socials
  2. Practicing great follow-up
  3. Sending referral requests

If you aren’t staying consistent with these three things, it’s probably not because you think they’re irrelevant or ineffective. It’s probably because you always seem to run out of time. Make the time with Future Money. This one simple habit will transform your business.

Tips for Attracting Better Clients

  1. Do more of what’s working.

Five things that have worked for me recently are 1) writing and publishing new blog posts, 2) hosting free events, 3)hosting business retreats, 4) treating people to lunch, and 5) buying thoughtful gifts for clients who send referrals.

Track and measure what’s working for you. How did you get your last great client? Was it a referral? Who made the referral? A past client? Did you ask for it, or did he/she recommend you off the cuff? Did you by chance catch up with him/her at lunch or via Skype video chat?

Now, take this process a step further. How did you land your last five good projects? What are five ways that new clients have come to you? Drill down.

Chances are, you can dig a repeatable process out of your last five projects.

  1. Practice great follow-up.

Stay in touch. One repeatable processes you may need to implement is one I mentioned earlier: staying in touch. 

You’ve done your research. You’ve got great products and services. You know your target audience and your clients love you. To maximize all that hard work, you must follow-up consistently. What’s the best way to make sure that happens?

Automate and systematize as much of your follow-up as possible. 

Freelancers and creatives around the world lose millions of dollars every year simply because they get busy. They fail to follow up with leads from networking events, conferences, social media, email, voicemail, referrals and more. If you want or need to make more money, put a process into place.

My follow up process is super simple. I have a column in Trello called Leads. I create a new card for every lead that comes in and add it to the Leads column.

Then, at regular intervals (typically on Mondays), I’ll just go down the list and send people “nudges”: “Hey, just following up on our conversation about (blank). What’s the status on that? Any progress? Hope all is well with you! Cheers, Austin.” 

If people ask me to follow up later, I’ll set a reminder in Highrise. That way, leads don’t fall through the cracks.

You can learn 7 Ways to Follow Up with Past Clients and Silent Prospects Without Annoying Them here.

  1. Define “high-end client” for yourself.

Call it a buyer persona, customer archetype, or ideal client avatar. The questions you must answer are these:

  • With whom do you prefer to work?
  • Why?
  • What are their emotional drivers?
  • What do they have to believe in order to become your client?

For example, my clients need to believe that content marketing is an effective way to generate leads. They also need to believe in generosity and consistency. Otherwise, they won’t be interested in an ongoing retainer. (Note: If you want my client avatar template, look for instructions below.)

Finally, zero in on personality traits and other attributes that you like. Here are mine:
 generous, trusting, responsive, optimistic, low-ego, and appreciative.

  1. Fire Kryptonite Clients.

Pick up any business book, and you’ll find a reference to the Pareto Principle—better known as the “80/20 Rule.” A few individuals cause most of your headaches. 

You may need to dump, politely, the bottom 20%.

On the flip side of that, who are your Kryptonite Clients? Who brings out the worst in you?

Here are some attributes of my Kryptonite Clients:
 ignores boundaries (e.g. calls at night)
, pays late
, slow to make decisions,
 doesn’t read emails and other messages, haggles over price, goes dark mid-project.

  1. Give away your secrets.

Every brand is a publisher. High-paying clients read about and share results-focused posts, not ones that cover cheap tricks. Start with 7-10 flagship posts on your blog:

  • Case studies where you show instead of telling
  • Strategy breakdowns where you talk about the best way to do something to achieve optimal results
  • Tenets of your business philosophy
  • Failures and mistakes (and what you learned from them)
  • High Fives posts where you praise your peers, heroes and clients

Write blog posts that help your clients solve their problems. Or sell your clients based on what they need to do for their clients. Content marketing gives you a way to share your business philosophy and expertise and generate leads.

For example, here’s a breakdown of my project management process.

The surprising thing about flagship posts is that you can tell people exactly how to do something, and they will still want to hire you.

  1. Use lead magnets to capture email addresses.

At the end of each flagship blog post, give more content away for free in exchange for an email address: a template, checklist, report, tutorial, cheat sheet, copywriting swipe file, audio file, short guide or fluffy kitten.

This lead magnet should complement the blog post. For example, at the end of this post, I offer a worksheet that you can use to take action with this blog post.

The best lead magnets are brief, actionable, and genuinely valuable. You don’t want the download to sit on someone’s desktop for months. You want people to use it in fifteen minutes or less to get a quick win.

A couple of days after people download the lead magnet, shoot them an email. “How’s it going? Were you able to insert desired outcome here ()?”

  1. Run Facebook ads to your flagship posts.

Send new readers to your flagship blog posts with Facebook ads. People on Facebook generally aren’t in “buying mode,” so rather than promote your products and services, you educate them on a topic that appeals to them.

Once you have your Facebook retargeting pixel in place, you can later market an email course, lead magnet or product. At that point, you won’t be a stranger. You will have gained some trust, and you can begin benchmarking the cost of a new subscriber or another type of conversion that you desire:

  • How much do you pay per click on average?
  • How many clicks to you need for one new email address?
  • How many new email addresses do you need to attract one new client?
  • How much is one new project worth on average? 

Brennan Dunn’s post “How to Get New Clients with Facebook Ads” has a ton of valuable information. Read it.

  1. Find your strategic partners.

Can you think of people who talk to people who need what you have but don’t sell it themselves? If you make videos, then you get to know talented photographers and web developers in your area or online. If you make websites, then consultants and business attorneys already have the clients you want.

Can you think of any businesses and brands that already have your customers? For years now, marketing, advertising, and interactive agencies have fed me content marketing and copywriting projects.

I also, on occasion, manage creative and marketing projects for large brands and companies that need help, for whatever reason. My point of contact is the VP of Marketing or Marketing Director.

Don’t overlook your competitors. They may eventually have more business than they can handle and send surplus business to you (especially if you agree in advance to pay a 10% commission). Competitors can become friends.

  1. Give away silk kimonos.

You can find many examples of “host-beneficiary marketing” online. My favorite involves free kimonos.

A startup women’s boutique convinced the owners of the local BMW dealership to send out a letter to their customers: As a small way of thanking you for your business, we’d like to give you a gift. Stop by such-and-such boutique to pick up your complimentary silk kimono—retail price, $100.

The kimonos cost the boutique $16 each. Over 600 women responded, and during that initial visit they spent $400 on average. The boutique spent $9,600 to generate $240,000 in gross sales while also building their own customer base.

Why build an audience from scratch when you can borrow one that someone else has spent months or years growing? Brilliant.

What is your silk kimono? Designers can offer free “one hour” logos to the clients of a business attorney, knowing that some of them will upgrade to a premium identity package.

Your strategic partners will love your silk kimonos because you enable them to be generous to their clients. People will loan you their audience if you make them look good.

  1. Treat people to lunch.

Growing your network of relationships is easy. Invite strangers and acquaintances to go to lunch. Everyone has to eat, right?

Tell them in advance that lunch is your treat.

Toward the end of the meal, ask, “How can I help you? What’s your biggest challenge?” Then, figure out how to help the other person.

Make an Introduction.

Find the right blog post.

Make some recommendations for strategy or resources.

Here are more thoughts on free lunches.

  1. Give your clients the perfect gift.

In the realm of creative services, it’s rather common to pay a 10% commission or referral fee. For examples, I recommended a PR firm to a friend, and after that firm sold a $10,000 project, the principal wrote me a check for $1000.

Earlier this year, I began experimenting with something similar. But instead of cash, I give gifts.
 For example, I bought KUIU ultralight hunting gear for a client who sent me a referral, and a hand-picked selection of high-gravity Belgian beers to the same client after another referral. All told, that client had sent me over $11,000 in new business.

A massage and babysitting voucher went to another client who has probably done $200,000 in business with me over three years.

I stalk them on Instagram and Facebook and find out what they like. Pinterest is a goldmine for gift ideas.

My wife has a Pinterest board called “Wish List.” Duh. Your clients probably do too.

  1. Court your clients.

Courting clients is the email equivalent of a cold call except that you get in touch for the purpose of giving away valuable ideas for free.

You create an opportunity to help. For example, you do a free website audit in advance. You then send a detailed email outlining what you think they’re doing well, as well as 5-7 recommendations for strengthening the site as a whole.

This is a no-strings-attached gift of creativity and cleverness that you’re giving to a company with whom you want to work.

Though it’s fine to mention that you would welcome an opportunity to work with them, you don’t pitch them hard in the first email. Instead, end your email like this:

I know you’ve got some really smart people on your team, so you may have already thought of some of this stuff. That being said, I would welcome an opportunity to get to know you better.

Are you available for a 15-minute chat next Tuesday at 1:30pm EST?

Kind regards,


Most people will be shocked that you took the time to write and to offer in-depth recommendations for free. Most people will want to get to know you better. Schedule a video chat on Skype and let the relationship develop organically from there.

You can read more here.

  1. Do an application-only giveaway.

Every time I give away something, I get additional prospects. I’m not talking about free consulting, off the cuff. I’m talking about a well-defined package of services and/or products valuable and remarkable enough to create buzz.

But is this type of giveaway doing “free work”? Yes. Isn’t free work a bad idea? Not necessarily.

Generally, the larger the prize, the more attention the giveaway will get. You can have a ton of fun giving something away, help someone in need, create awareness for your business and generate leads by virtue of being generous.

My friend Jon and I are gearing up to do a business tune-up giveaway called Design Hope: We decided to introduce a twist: People can’t nominate themselves. They can only nominate another business they admire.

But we’re also rewarding people for being thoughtful enough to make a nomination. Everybody who makes a nomination also gets entered to win a separate giveaway for consulting.

  1. Make introductions.

You can create value by making introductions.

During lunch, a new friend tells you that her video editing guy flaked out on her. Can you find her a replacement?

Help her solve her problem. Rack your brain and try to remember videographers and filmmakers you know. Ask for recommendations on Twitter or Facebook, and once you’ve found some people, make an introduction.

In terms of what you say in the email, you want to be very clear on several counts:

  1. What your relationship is with each person (for example, you might say that this video guy is a friend of a friend);
  2. Why you’re making the introduction;
  3. How both people need to look for ways to help one another; and
  4. They must be sure to vet one another thoroughly.

Even if both individuals have your vote of confidence, they may not work well together. The wrong introduction can hurt more than it helps, which is why #4 above is a critical piece of the introduction. 

  1. Host parties and events.

My friend Paul hosts cocktail parties and cigar nights. He assembles people he likes in one place then introduces them to one another over the course of the fun evening. He creates value for his business contacts by sharing his network with them.

I like to host SPACE Retreats for entrepreneurs and executives, Mastermind dinners for interesting people, and workshops for freelancers.

I do not pitch Wunderbar. No, the point is good food and good conversation in good company. Business opportunities naturally emerge from these meaningful experiences.

You could host a free meetup or paid workshop. You could throw a client appreciation party. Your top clients have access to lots of other top clients just like them. Why not host a Mastermind Dinner where you all hang out and discuss what you’re most interested in right now? 

  1. Make a Top 20 list.

With whom would you like to work? What companies and brands do you admire? Figure out who the decision makers are for your Top 20 prospects.

Do some Internet stalking, and check out the things that interest these people. What articles have they shared on Twitter? Write a flagship post that is in the same vein.

Send them the “courting clients” email already discussed, and at the end of that email, share your case study, strategy breakdown or High Five post.

Now that you’ve got your foot in the door, nurture the relationship.

Interview the clients you really want.

A man I admire taught me this: If you ask for help, you get advice. But if you ask for advice, you might get help.

Reach out to someone who works at one of the companies on your Top 20 list. Schedule an interview. Make it clear in advance that you are happy to pay for his or her time.

The goal of the interview is to find out what types of services, products, or outcomes interest the company and how the company forms relationships. How do they hire people who do what you do? 
Have they had positive or negative experiences in the past? Is what you do currently a part of their mix? Why or why not?

Toward the end of the call, ask if there’s any problem they’re currently trying to solve. Offer to help as a small token of your gratitude.

Your goal isn’t to get new business out of the interview but to gain insights into how your ideal clients think about creatives and consultants.

You may make a friend, and more business opportunities will come from that friendship than from a pitch inserted at the end of the call.

  1. Pick three.

Now that new ideas are running through your mind, pick three. If you chase too many of them at once, you won’t catch any of them.

Chances are, excellent new clients are already within reach. Maybe you need to pick up the phone and call a past client. Maybe you need to invite an acquaintance to lunch.

Maybe the simplest advice is what you need to take action: Do more of what’s working.

Regardless, commit to generosity and consistency. You won’t be disappointed.

Free Attracting Better Clients Worksheet

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. You’re a champ. I put together a companion “Attracting Better Clients” worksheet that will help you take ideas from this post and use them to grow your client base. If you want it, click here.