The coveted sale often serves as an end goal for many freelancers. But, in the process of focusing on a sale, we may be neglecting the importance of a lead–and more importantly, how to convert a lead into an actual sale. Although every potential client will not become a client, there are some strategies that freelancers can use to better position themselves for success.

Recognize a lead when you see one

Traditionally, we may think of a lead as being an overt or explicit expression of interest in our services, including a referral from a client. This type of lead is still viable, but there some leads that are not as obvious.

A subtle comment by an acquaintance, an ISO (in search of) on social media, or a passing conversation amongst friends/colleagues can be opportunities to explain what you do and to promote your work.

These are the types of leads that are easy to miss or ignore. However, think of them as implicit leads or as untapped opportunities. Because someone has not explicitly expressed interest in your services, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t still an opportunity to follow-up in an appropriate manner.

For example, a stranger on FB posted that he was finishing up the last chapter of a book. I sent him a congratulatory inbox message. I also told him about our editing services and sent him a link to our website. I asked him to consider us for his future copy-editing needs. The message was sincere and concise.

I saw planting this seed as creating a bridge. I also saw it as a lead even though that probably was not the intent of his post. By sending the inbox, I was establishing a relationship (see number 2 below). I knew that the worst-case scenario was a “no.” Instead, he did check out the website and he eventually became a client.

The key is not to be overly aggressive or pushy, but to sincerely establish an opportunity to stay connected. Some people will be receptive and others will not. Focus on the people who are receptive. On numerous occasions, including the aforementioned one, I have seen leads generated from casual connections (coupled with appropriate follow-up) convert to sales.

Nurture the relationship

No matter how great you are or how great your service/products are, that pales in comparison to the importance of establishing healthy relationships with potential clients. When responding to a lead, something as simple as: “How are you?” or “I hope all is well” can set the tone for future interactions.

The best way to think about this is to think about your role as a consumer. When you are seeking out a vendor, business, or even fellow freelancer, what makes you contact/support one person over another?

It is not always about the product. Often our decisions start and end with our relationship with the person with whom we are doing business: Do I feel valued? Am I treated with respect? Do I trust this person? When the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, we are able to make connections, business or otherwise.

Because most leads may not know us personally or they may only be peripherally familiar with our work, the initial interaction is an opportunity to build a relationship. What we do beyond that will foster the relationship.

This is of particular importance for multiple-step projects, long-term projects, and multiple project contracts. In other words, that one "yes" can be a launching pad for several more.

Respond in a timely manner

At one point, I relied too heavily on my company’s FB page. Potential clients would inbox me and I would respond 2 to 3 days later. In at least one instance, someone was gracious enough to tell me that my lack of timeliness in responding led to her seeking someone else. I didn’t think 2 to 3 days was a long span of time, but from her vantage point, it was. I speculate that she thought that my lack of timeliness and urgency was a reflection of how I would have handled her project—lesson learned.

Ostensibly, social media has conditioned some potential clients to expect to have 24/7 access, so some people desire immediacy in how we respond to their requests (e.g. for a quote, for a consultation, for answers to clarifying questions).

Sometimes, those expectations are unrealistic. Therefore, I recommend that if you have a website that you redirect people to it and that you implement a 24-hour reply rule, which simply means that someone will respond to all web-based inquiries within 24 hours.

If you don’t have a website, include verbiage about your response process on your business social media pages, your email automatic response, or on your flyers and blog posts: “All inquiries will be addressed…” Some freelancers even opt for personal assistants or virtual assistants to help them manage potential leads.

The key is that you recognize the importance of someone else’s time and the value of an inquiry. They took the time to reach out to you for a reason. When a potential client feels as if they are important and that you value their time, there is a greater likelihood that, all things considered, you will close the deal.

Remember, your follow-up is a reflection of your follow-through.

Lessons learned

To be honest, when I first started, I was not very good at converting leads to sales. In fact, even today, sales/marketing are the most difficult aspects of freelancing and business ownership. My company is still too small to justify outsourcing, so I learned about sales because I had to.

Initially, I erroneously thought that if people were interested, they would hire me. This was a relatively passive approach that led to few conversions and much frustration.

As my life as a freelancer has evolved, so too has my attitude about sales. Now, I better understand that people are often shopping around. They are seeking the best fit, the right person, or the right product.

Even if you are not gifted in sales, who knows what you do better than you do? So, the next time you get a lead, implicit or explicit, remember that you can effectively close the deal.