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.

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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.
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