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How to find new freelance clients: secrets from a high-ticket freelancer

One thing that often catches freelancers off-guard (veterans and newcomers alike!) is the age-old challenge of how to find new freelance clients.

Sales was something that I hadn't considered when I first started freelancing full-time over five years ago on the heels of a six figure director of marketing in the San Francisco startup industry.

But once I decided to take the leap as a full-time freelancer, I knew I needed to learn how to drum up new business for myself as a freelancer...and FAST so that I could replace my income and start growing my book of clients.

These are my very own secrets to sales for freelancers who want to find new freelance clients.

You don’t have to dread or avoid doing sales as a freelancer – you CAN master the art of sales and land new freelance clients!

Embrace The "Selling Is Good" Freelancer Mindset

The first thing I knew I needed to do was rid myself of the idea that sales is icky and because I wasn't a salesperson by title, that I couldn't learn how to get 'good' at selling my freelance services.

I've written a deeper dive article into embracing a positive mindset around sales but the gist is that you have to let go of the insecurities you have about doing sales. For one thing, there isn't a 'sales' gene that you're born with or not – sales is totally a learnable skill.

And secondly, there is absolutely nothing wrong morally or ethically with the practice of professional selling. In fact, your potential new freelance clients are going to expect you to guide them through a sales process.

There's this general sentiment in the freelance community that sales is bad. I'm not sure if it comes from the fact that most freelancers are creatives at heart and there's the age-old concept of the artist sell-out who trades her creative integrity for dollars... or if it comes from fear and insecurity in the ability to do sales well... or if it comes from a lack of confidence in the quality or value of your final work product.

Whichever of those reasons you may have (or if you have another reason altogether) for any hesitancies you have towards the idea of selling, you have to let them go and treat sales as a brand new skill to learn and hone.

Why The Ability To Find New Freelance Clients Is Absolutely Critical To Your Success As A Freelancer

By honing your sales chops, you’re no longer at the mercy of whatever opportunities the wind blows your way – you can turn the “new freelance client” faucet on and off as you need to add new clients or replace clients that are leaving (or that you want to part ways with!)

I probably sound like a broken record but I tell my coaching clients over and over again that as a freelancer, you are a business owner.

You – and you alone – are in control of your destiny as a freelancer.

You control your work/life balance.

You control your income and earning potential.

You control how your clients treat you.

The way you do all of these things is by having the ability to find new freelance clients at the drop of a hat. If you let fear and insecurities prevent you from keeping your sales pipeline fat and happy, you will find yourself backed into corners you don't want to be in.

When you aren't able to harness your abilities as a salesperson to predictably drum up new freelance clients...

  • You may find yourself allowing yourself to be treated as an employee rather than a freelancer.

  • You may find that you're tempted by the idea of (or worse, you fall victim to) accepting work that's way underpriced.

  • You may be hesitant to part ways with a difficult client because you're afraid you won't be able to replace that income quickly with a new client.

  • You may find yourself at the mercy of whatever client opportunities blow your way with the fear that if you don't grab those opportunities with both hands, that you won't know when or where your next client will come from.

So you can see that sales and the ability to SELL your services as a freelancer are vital in your quest to find new freelance clients.

What Is A Freelance Client?

This may sound like a trick question but I think it's important to actually define the difference between a sales lead and an actual freelance client.

So let's level set on some sales lingo: a lead is a person who has a need for what you have to offer. Leads aren't yet qualified. They're simply people who have expressed an interest in buying what you have to sell.

A lead becomes a prospect when you qualify them – more on that next. The main difference between a lead and a prospect is that a lead is someone you've identified as a potential client but hasn't yet been vetted by you as to how likely that is to happen or whether they'll meet your requirements for working together.

A prospect becomes a client when they agree to work with you, they sign your freelance client contract, AND they transmit payment which has cleared in your bank account.

THEN... and ONLY then... do they become a freelance client.

Side note: personally, I always get upfront payment -or- a 50% upfront deposit on larger flat-rate projects.

Getting paid upfront ensures there's no issue with getting paid for services rendered, which is always a concern but much more so (in my experience) with new clients. So those are my three requirements for when someone ACTUALLY becomes a client.



Protect Your Time By Qualifying Quickly (And Doing It Twice!)

So one of the most important things you need to know about how to find new freelance clients is that sales takes time. I mean that in the most literal sense – every sales lead that you talk to is going to eat up some of your time for that discovery call so you can get to know each other.

A half hour here, a half hour there... it doesn't seem like much time when there's a potential opportunity on the table but I promise you, wasting time on calls that you should have never booked because they were never going to turn into actual paying clients will zap your bandwidth and your energy.

They're also a distraction from your goals as a freelance business owner – to generate income and maintain profitability.

Qualifying potential new freelance clients before you set aside time to talk to them and again after you’ve done so prevents you from wasting your time on pointless discovery calls and on wasted proposals

The way you avoid wasting time on pointless sales calls with people who are just tirekickers, who don't have a reasonable budget to work with you, or aren't actually serious about whipping out their wallets is to get really good at qualifying before you invite someone to a call. Qualifying means that you weed out sales leads based on those types of criteria so that you don't waste each others' time.

And qualifying means you only go after potential new freelance clients and projects that pass the sniff test.

"What's the sniff test?" you might ask! Well, the sniff test is pretty simple.

You need to put your blinders on and try to quickly pass on any sales lead that doesn't seem like they'd meet your qualification criteria OR if there seems like there's a potential for shadiness or bad vibes.

So as you are looking at gig/job postings and/or communicating with potential clients over email or messaging, you need to use your common sense to determine whether or not you think they'll meet the BANT qualification criteria. BANT is a tried-and-true set of criteria that salespeople rely on to help them judge whether or not a lead is qualified and worth spending time on.

Basically, you need to ask yourself (and/or ask questions of the potential client to find out for sure) whether or not this sales lead has the proper budget, decision-making authority, need for what I have to offer, and appropriate timeline to get started working together in the near future.

If the sales lead passes this gut check, then you can determine that they are qualified, which makes them an actual sales prospect. You’ll then set up a discovery call with them where you’ll want to qualify them again in discussion with those same criteria. It can take some time to not feel awkward asking someone point-blank about their budget or timeframe to get started/finish the project but you need to keep at it.

The last thing you want to do is find yourself strung along by someone who wasn’t totally serious about working together or waste your time preparing a proposal and client agreement if they’re not even going to consider signing it.

I'll leave you with two pieces of advice on qualifying potential freelance clients – do it quickly and stick to your guns.

Don't waste time waffling back and forth on whether or not you think a lead is worth your time. Your gut feeling is probably right.

You'll become more confident in your qualification abilities with time. You'll also worry less about passing on someone who "could have become" a client (but was probably unlikely to) as you develop your abilities to source leads so you won't be afraid of losing the bird in the hand when you know you can easily find more birds.

It's dangerous to waste a lot of time on unqualified sales leads as a freelancer because your time is so, so valuable so when in doubt, I avoid leads that don't pass the sniff test because I know that I can very easily find leads that are very clearly qualified.

Start The Sales Process By Drumming Up Leads That Can Turn Into Freelance Clients

Okay, so we now know that every new freelance client starts as a sales lead. And the more leads you have, the more likely you are to be able to avoid wasting time on unqualified leads... so being able to find leads is an important aspect of sales for freelancers. The question is... where can you find leads for freelance clients?

There are two ways to find freelance client leads and they work quite differently:

Option 1: Sourcing Freelance Client Leads

The first option is to source leads for potential freelance clients. That means that you are essentially locating those leads – so they already exist somewhere in the form of a job posting, a marketplace website (a la Upwork, Fiverr, or PeoplePerHour) or a request on social media such as a potential client who posts in a Facebook group that they are looking for a freelancer to help with graphic design, social media management, etc.

Pros: These leads are readily available and we can assume that someone who has taken time to post a job posting, a gig posting on Upwork, or a Facebook post requesting freelancer applicants is someone who truly has the intention of hiring a freelancer. They're doing the hard work for you by telling you they have a need in the near term and they have the budget/desire to hire someone! They're pre-qualified themselves with BANT.

Cons: For one thing, marketplaces take a cut of your revenue, and that adds up over time. Also, there's a lot of competition from other freelancers so you may find you spend quite a bit of time 'applying' to gigs or job postings only to never hear back.

Lastly, the marketplaces also have their own Terms of Service which are legally-binding agreements that you enter into.

A note about freelancer marketplaces as a place to find new clients:

Many freelancer marketplaces and platforms, including Upwork, require you to transact all client/freelancer relationships and projects for a certain period of time.

As of publication time, Upwork requires you to use their platform (and their platform only in most cases) for communication and payment for two years from when you first started working with the client if you met through Upwork.

The only way out of this two year requirement is to pay what they call a Conversion Fee, which is "12% of [the freelancer's] hourly rate x 2,080 hours (52 wks x 40 hrs)" – which is quite hefty.

That said, if you find your clients on a third party platform, then you have to play by that platform's rules so know what you are getting into before you do that. Don’t expect to grab a client and then ditch the platform.

Option 2: Generating Freelance Client Leads

Generating your own freelance client leads may seem intimidating but it’s a learnable skill that puts you in the driver’s seat of your freelance business.

The second way to find freelance client leads is to generate your own leads. This is a more advanced process that requires a more sophisticated approach to your sales process but generating sales leads yields richer rewards. In its essence, generating leads is basically sales outreach. It might take place on social media platforms like Linkedin or it might take place over email – or even (in non-pandemic times!) in person.

Pros: Less competition, no 'middleman' to take a cut of your earnings or dictate rules/policies on how you conduct your business. You are 100% in the driver's seat.

Cons: A new skill to learn with a healthy learning curve, more time consuming to get started, no 'middleman' to handle payment transactions such as holding escrow or mediating disputes.

So which is better? The reality is neither client acquisition strategy is better that the other. If you are a relatively new freelancer, you will probably want to start with sourcing your leads from marketplaces, job postings, or social media requests.

As you develop your sales process and skills, it's a good idea to mix lead generation into your client acquisition strategy so that you have a diversified strategy to finding new freelance clients and you aren't dependent upon a single channel.

Option 2: Generating Freelance Client Leads

Generating your own freelance client leads may seem intimidating but it’s a learnable skill that puts you in the driver’s seat of your freelance business.

The second way to find freelance client leads is to generate your own leads. This is a more advanced process that requires a more sophisticated approach to your sales process but generating sales leads yields richer rewards.

Develop A Sales Process & Continuously Refine It

Sales becomes significantly easier when you have a structured sales process to follow each and every time you engage with a potential new client.

The sales process eliminates the uncertainty of having to ask yourself 'what should I do next', it quiets down the nerves and butterflies because you build muscle memory for each stage of the process so you'll feel autopilot kick in, and it also makes it easier for you to get quicker and more effective at selling so you spend less time on sales and over time, you improve your outcomes by landing new clients with less effort.

Defining that process may seem intimidating – especially for sales newcomers! – and that's absolutely valid. It IS intimidating. I was intimidated when I first started doing sales and wasn't sure what my process should look like. I don't think I even knew that I should HAVE a set process but over time, one formed naturally and I've been able to refine and tweak it throughout the years.

Today, I have a standardized process for sales and can take someone from lead to new client in a matter of days at most.

What should your sales process look like? Well, let's start with a pretty typical sales process for services-based businesses like what we do as freelancers.

Creating a sales process that works for you and your unique needs is a worthy time investment. The payoff is that you won’t feel like you’re “winging it” when it comes to talking to -and vetting- potential new freelance clients AND you’ll save time over the long run thanks to the efficiencies you’ve created for your business.

Your freelancer sales process might look something like this:

Step 1: Identify lead

Step 2: Engage lead

Step 3: Qualify lead

Step 4: Discovery call

Step 5: Send proposal, client agreement, 1st invoice

Step 6: Collect signed agreement and receive payment

Step 7: Client onboarding

Step 8: Project kicks off

So with a sales process like the example above, each and every potential new freelance client goes through the same linear process.

You might learn over time that adding or removing a step or shuffling the order is beneficial to your unique freelance business.

You may have an entirely different set of steps. That's totally fine!

The point is that by standardizing your process, you eliminate the mental burden you place on yourself of trying to figure out 'what next' as you're talking to multiple potential new clients. Having a standardized process also allows you to work on refining and optimizing each step.

For example, I keep a running list of ideas and additions I want to include in my contract so that I can make batch updates periodically. I also have my proposal template and client agreement/contract at the ready so when I get to that step of the process, it’s ready to go and I don’t have to waste any time creating them from scratch.

Hit The Pavement: Landing Clients Is A Numbers Game

Lastly, when it comes to finding new freelance clients, you need to know that sales is often a numbers game. What I mean by this is that you very likely need to talk to a lot of people before you start landing clients.

Another good analogy for the process of finding new freelance clients is the whiskey still – a lot of grain and heat goes into the still just for some precious bourbon to come out at the end of the process.

You’ve got to make sure you put enough raw materials into your still at the start so that at the end, you’ve had plenty of prospects in case some evaporate out of your sales still for mismatches in budget, timeline, etc. as well as the inevitable prospects that will ghost you without explanation.

One of the biggest mistakes I see freelancers make when it comes to sales is that they aren't talking to enough potential new clients. Usually the response when I tell them that is, "well, I've spoken with all of the prospects I have that are interested!"

And therein lies the problem, my freelancing friends.

You aren't adding enough volume to the very start of your sales pipeline to that point where you have lots of options (i.e., interested prospects) to work with in order to qualify out anyone who doesn't fit your BANT qualification or pass the vibe check.

So they get desperate and try to make it work with prospects they likely shouldn't have ever been spending time on to begin with.

The solution is to lace up the virtual sneakers and pound the pavement.

You have to get in front of many, many potential clients in order to catch the attention of a handful who are interested in talking to you.

Out of that handful, you might disqualify one or two that don't meet your BANT qualification criteria and politely send them on their way.

Then you may only have 2-3 prospects left who are interested in speaking with you AND you believe would be a good fit to work with.

After speaking with those 2-3 prospects, only one or two might be worth sending a proposal to.

One of those two potential clients might ghost you after getting your proposal – that's totally normal by the way.

Then the one remaining prospect might give you the thumbs up by signing your contract and remitting payment so you can get started. Sometimes you get awful close with a few potential freelance clients only for none of them to work out.

That’s why you’ve got to keep the hopper full of qualified prospects –it's a numbers game! You can only win new freelance clients if you keep adding targeted leads to the top of your pipeline – which you can only do by getting in front of enough targeted eyeballs!

That might be applying to Upwork jobs, reaching out to people you think could be good clients on Linkedin, sending cold emails, going to networking (or virtual) events and making it a point to introduce yourself and your business to the folks you meet, etc. etc.

Tips for getting in front of potential new freelance clients:

  • Be patient and consistent – don't just sprint through a few days of sales outreach/prospecting and then quit when you don't immediately see results. You have to keep at it. You may not get immediate responses from interested parties... keep going!

  • Mix up your approach and don't just rely on a single channel like Upwork or Linkedin or cold email – try them all!

  • Be as methodical and structured as you can so that you can keep track of your outreach activities.

  • Find ways to make yourself more efficient – template messages that you can customize, setting follow up reminders, using a spreadsheet to track replies... create systems that will help you work smarter so that your energy isn't wasted on inefficiencies.

  • Don’t be coy about why you are connecting with people. Be upfront and confidently so. You can’t land a client if they don’t know what you have to offer them.

  • Try something like: “Hi, I’m Kathleen Smith and I’m a freelance social media manager with experience helping retail brands up their social media game so they can attract more customers. Would you be interested in setting up a time to chat about how I could support XYZ brand?”

Closing Thoughts: Finding New Freelance Clients Is Hard But You CAN Do It!

Finding new freelance clients is a SKILL that you need to learn and practice.

Over time, the anxiety butterflies will quiet down as you build a level of comfort with the process of selling your services. Stick with it and use your ‘why’ for freelancing as your motivation to keep at it!

I hope this guide has been helpful for you as you embark on your journey to land new freelance clients. There are infinite opportunities to drum up new business – some of them are already defined such as what you'll see on the marketplaces or in social media requests for freelancers but most of them haven't been defined yet.

There are literally millions of business owners, corporate professionals, and all other types of people out there who need what you have to offer. They may not realize it yet or they perhaps haven't taken the time to write a job posting for it but they have a need that you can help solve.

Get in front of them and share what you have to offer. That's sales in a nutshell and the more you practice selling your freelance services, the more you will see and believe that sales is not a dirty word. It's how the world does business and it's how freelancers succeed in growing their own businesses.

Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and you will find that, over time, the discomfort with sales will fade to background noise.

Good luck... go forth and prosper – you got this!!

Need some guidance on how to hold a proper sales (or "discovery") call with your potential new clients?

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