• Advice

Big clients: How to find them and what they want

Stop trying to catch lots of little fish. It’s time to climb the food chain.

As is probably obvious to you, landing big-spending clients is a great thing -- for your career, for your cash flow, and for your sanity.

Most freelancers want big-spending clients, but they’re either scared of the competition, don’t think they’re good enough, or don’t know how big-spending clients like to be treated. Here’s everything I’ve learned about finding and landing those ideal clients along with some excellent tips from Walt Kania at The Freelancery:

Who are big clients?

Look for one or all of these characteristics:

1. People whose job it is to hire freelancers like you. The woman who finds and manages the contracts of 10+ illustrators for a national holiday card brand that does 300 cards a year. The Fortune 500 editorial lead who subcontracts all their copywriting work for 400+ clients.

The person who is constantly finding and hiring lots of yous.

Going after this type of point-person not only guarantees that they will a) know the going rates and b) are therefore less likely to stiff you since they manage lots of people in your role; but it also means c) that if they like you, you’ll get lots of repeat business.

2. Clients whose business depends on you. You want to find the client that thinks what you do is important.

Not the gourmet food stand who happens to need a website, but makes most of their business from in-person food fairs; they will balk at your price because they don’t expect the website to bring in income. Plus, once you build their website, they’ll never need one again. Instead, you want to get hired by the agency who builds websites for small business owners or the perpetual entrepreneur.

This solves two common freelance issues. You’re ensuring that the client sees value in what you do, which makes it easier to price on value rather than on cost, and you also happen to be selecting the client who, if you please him/her, will want you for every project they do (because they have high standards).

3. Clients who are desperate to give work away because they’re very busy. Big-spending clients are not always from the biggest companies, but they’re also usually not the mom and pop down the street. If you want a large amount of repeat work, companies with a large number of employees and large amount of profit are probably your best fit -- because they are always busy.

Too busy, in fact, to take care of problems they know they have but don’t have time to a) file a job with HR, b) find the right candidate, c) manage that person when they find them.

This is why bigger clients fill contract jobs based on references and any direct pitches they receive. This is why you can’t wait for a job posting to start pitching to the big guys.

Why big-spending clients?

You want to go after these clients because of money and time. Clients are less likely to try to cut a deal with you, since they’re looking for quality work over cost. You’ll get paid more per hour and you’ll get more money through repeat work.

Going after these types of clients also saves you a lot of marketing time. After a while, you won’t bother marketing to companies that don’t meet your criteria. You’ll be pitching to 2 big clients a week, instead of 5-8 small guys.

Once you have 2-3 of these clients, that’s often enough. Imagine a world where instead of trying to manage, organize (and remember) all your different projects, you can finally focus. Focus on important projects, rather than keeping track of all the little guys. When this happens, you have the time to do your work well. The quality and creativity of your work increases.

What big clients want to hear

The first step to landing larger clients is pitching to them. But the way that you pitch to them -- how you present yourself and what you do -- needs to change, as well as how you work with them when you do land the gig.

1. Research. Big-spending clients will take more time for you to research. You should be spending at least an hour reading through anything you can get your hands on from this company. I think social media feeds and mission statements are especially helpful; you get a handle on how the company likes to perceive of itself.

If it’s a large corporation with multiple locations, try to find out if certain locations specialize in different services. Then find the department that aligns with what you do. Then do some private searching on LinkedIn to find out who works in that department. Recall your past gig experience: who was the person who hired and managed you? Look for someone with that job title.

2. Explain what you do: You aren’t just a project manager, you’re the person who makes their problems go away. Remember, you’re not solving the corporation’s problems, you’re solving the problems of the person you’re pitching to -- Jane or Barbara who is looking at their crowded inbox and their dozens of approaching deadlines. Don’t pitch that you’re going to make the corporation thousands of dollars. You need to speak to her. You need to make her life easier. In large businesses, most employees don’t understand how the business even makes money and doesn’t care if it does.

Don’t muddy the waters by explaining everything that you do. If you’ve done your research right, you should have a target.

3. Understand that they have a boss. Jane or Barbara has a boss breathing down their necks about those approaching deadlines.

4. Understand that they don’t want to train you. They’re desperate for work to be done right now. They want to give you the bare bones and have you be a magician who understands everything without them having to tell you. Tell them you always spend the first few days listening and watching. Say something about how good you are at seeing the big picture, filling in where needed, and instead of trying to talk a lot about what you do, repeat back to them what they need.

5. Tune into their tribe aesthetic and vision. Clients almost always want “new that still sounds like us”. Rarely are you hired to reinvent the wheel. It’s ok to be original and quirky, as long as you’re not off-brand. Again, listen and reflect back; your client will probably have neither the desire nor the power to change the overall style of the organization.

6. Always follow up after an initial cold email. If they don’t respond to your first email, you have nothing to lose: email them again.

7. At the end of the day, the #1 most valuable trait is reliability. They want you to be there when they call. They want you to get stuff in on time or early. They don’t want you to make them look bad to their bosses. Reliability is how you become your clients’ go-to.

8. Don’t be afraid to start small. If after the pitch and interview they hire you for a small project only, they’re interested but want to test you out. Knock their socks off.

Some of these skills are hard to teach. But don’t wait until you have them to start pitching to big clients -- just do it and learn.

Go read freelancers’ testimonies in articles and comments across the internet: they all wish they had started pitching to bigger clients earlier or asked for higher rates a long time ago. They were scared when shouldn’t have been. Don’t make their mistake.

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