Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The 6 Fundamentals of Client Building

For many freelancers, the path to new clients is a bumpy one.

Sometimes, successful prospecting can seem like a secret formula — or just plain luck. The realitys somewhere in between. Prospecting combines strategy, authentic relationship building, and throwing yourself in the path of opportunity.

The kind of influence needed to acquire clients doesn’t require money or status. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has pinpointed six key elements of influence or persuasion. We all use them. Once they’re on your radar, you’ll spot them everywhere. You can apply them to make a connection, strengthen a bond, stand out, or even navigate tricky situations.

1. Reciprocity 

We learn early that giving helps us get on in life. Share the blocks and you can build a bigger tower together. Invite Janie to your sleepover, and she’ll probably invite you to the water park. That’s reciprocity.

Reciprocity is most powerful when the gift is unexpected and costs the giver something in time, energy, or other resources. It’s doing a good deed not because you have to, but because you want to. It’s Love Theory in action: Build your “Love Bank” account and your relationships will compound in value over time (and good relationships lead to referrals and more clients).

2. Consistency

When someone calls me and says something like, “Because of your work getting health benefits for freelancers, I was hoping I could ask for some advice about a healthcare project I’m trying to launch,” I listen. Why? Because helping out would be consistent with my interest in health care and with my reputation as an advocate for affordable health benefits. When you’re consistent with your expertise, prospective clients know exactly when to come to you with potential work.

Its doing a good deed not because you have to, but because you want to.

3. Social Validation

Looking for a romantic restaurant? Get friends’ recommendations. Hunting for a preschool? Ask parents you trust. Got a call from a prospect? Talk to contacts who used to work there. We’ve all done things like this.

Life throws us tons of decisions, from what toothpaste to buy to what candidate to vote for. Finding out what other people are doing can help us size up our options fast. Marketers, of course, know this. Which is why we’re told how many copies were sold, how many patrons were served, how many subscribers the newsletter has, and how many votes the candidate got (or didn’t). This is why testimonials are such an effective tool to attract to work: it helps those on the fence find social validation.

4. Liking

We tend to feel more open with people if we share some kind of bond. Maybe we went to the same school, belong to the same professional group, or go to the same place of worship.

When you meet people, look for a common connection, but don’t be ridiculous about it. You’ve got a minute or two to get to know each other, and you either find that connection or you don’t. Be genuine and interested and you’ll have the best chance of finding the place where liking happens. In the groups you’re involved with, step up, volunteer, be helpful, and you’ll discover how quickly the good energy spreads and just how many people like you—and yes, maybe even love you.

We tend to feel more open with people if we share some kind of bond.

5. Authority

All the doctors I’ve ever been to display their diplomas in their offices. It promotes trust in their authority. You can do the same in many places and ways: via your résumé, website bio, portfolio, client list, professional titles, memberships, certifications, special training, and awards.

With prospects, mention your experience: “I recently worked for a photo house, and I know this budget will only buy about two-thirds of the images you want.”

6. Scarcity

Scarcity definitely pushes our survival buttons. In your freelance life, scarcity can look like this:

  • “Limited edition prints.
  • “Only three slots left!
  • “Sale ends tomorrow!
  • “These contract terms are available until X date.
  • “Class size is limited—enroll early!
  • “The first fifty people to sign up get a twenty-percent discount.
  • “Exclusive rights to the image will cost X.

In the end, networking and prospecting are about connecting with like-minded people. When you work from that win-win place, your confidence is strong and your enthusiasm contagious. You start to see that life is filled with opportunities to connect, apply your trade, and attract more projects (and people).

How about you?
How have these fundamentals worked for you?

Sara Horowitz

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Sara Horowitz founded Freelancers Union in 1995 and is the author of the book The Freelancer's Bible. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
load comments (14)
  • Tushar K Motwani

    Been There, Done This. Thanks for structuring these insights. Very useful. Appreciate It!!!

  • Nathan Mileur

    As a rising freelance artist, I have come to find that reciprocity definitly rings most true.
    All of my clients I am currently working for were referred from one of two “starting” clients… And with both of these clients, after I finished their projects, I offered everything for free. Didn’t charge a dime for the final product.

    Sounds stupid, but the way I see it:

    1) I’m a starting designer. My work probably isn’t as pleasing as the next guys at this point. I’ve got to prove I am far superior.

    2) A week or two of free work is worth these bigger and bigger connections… Not to mention that the client will have 0% of a feeling that they were not treated well. This leads to them recommending your services far over others they may have used.

    Through these few connections, I’ve built websites, logos, even music videos. All of these get great exposure and people ask about my work. All because I’m not afraid of a little free work to gain reputation.

  • Christian

    Interesting Point Nathan…

    Just one short question: Did you tell your clients before that you gonna work on this project for free? Or was it more like a suprise and at first you made an offer?

    And aren’t you afraid of underselling yourself? Or getting a mistaken reputation?

    Thx for your answer!

  • Christian

    Sry if this reply is posted two times, but I don’t get it… the comment function is not really working…

    Interesting point Nathan…
    Did you tell your client before that are going to work for free on this project? Or did you submit an offer?
    And aren’t you afraid your underselling yourself and getting a wrong reputation?


  • AllenaTapia

    Aren’t you afraid that the word will spread up that chain that you did it for free? I have a hard time respecting people I hire who UNDERCHARGE (let alone give away). I tend to think that they don’t value their talent, so why should I?

  • Bmoney

    No. 6 is Powerful—Scarcity. I used to sell bedding many years ago and every couple of weeks, on my top of the line mattress (which was a latex foam)…I would falsely put on my website “out of stock” and tell my physical customers–“I’m sold out”. For some reason, whenever I did this, sales would be double what I’d normally get if the bed was available. Scarcity is probably more powerful than setting a high price for your good or service. It’s the reason, clean drinking water costs more than oil in undeveloped countries, why platinum costs more than gold, etc. Use it to your advantage. Tell your customers sometimes that your too busy to meet with them. When your are finally ready, they will view you as a premium object and treat you accordingly.

  • Ben Racicot

    I agree with this but it’s a delicate reality compared to the bold way Nathan is saying it in my experience.

    Many business owners will take advantage of freebies but at least 50% of them are surprised when you do decide to bill for something after you have proven that you’re willing to jump ‘however high’.

    Freebies put you on a ‘less-of-a-professional’ level with business owners. While teaching them ‘how to fish’ can sometimes create that respect and validate charging if they don’t want to be bothered.

  • Satish Rao

    Fantastic thoughts Sara.Cant agree with you more on these.I have done through the similar path and can relate with what you do say

  • Catherine

    All the information in this post is on point! THANK YOU!

  • Adar Darnov

    Being real is so much better than being fake. Its possible to move up by fudging it, but what’s the point if you don’t enjoy it?

  • Adar Darnov

    Doing free work is one route to getting more clients. But I would guess it’s much harder to get people to pay you and pay well after your reputation is for free work. I don’t know if that’s actually the case because I don’t have experience with that route, but I am curious about how it is working for you.

    • Adar Darnov

      It also seems that the point of this article is to establish real relationships with people as though they were friends. In a healthy relationship I would never let anyone take advantage of me. But I’m not critisizing your approach just offering my opinion.

  • Promod Sharma

    Hi Sara. Thanks for your nice interpretations of Robert Cialdini’s six universal principles of influence. I’ve been applying them since I met him twice in 2007. My interpretations of his live presentations are at

    PS Working for free has pros/cons. You get experience but devalue what you offer …

  • Aronno_Shihan
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