Someone actually said they’re interested in working with me.
I’m definitely not prepared for this.
Those first client feels. That moment when everything you’ve worked for starts to pay off—and you’re caught 100% off guard because holy crap, no one said people would ACTUALLY want to work with you!
That first inquiry is a defining moment for many freelancers, and actually a big reason why people don’t get started in the first place. What do you say to them? How do you get paid? It’s a big, hazy barrier that’s keeping you from your sparkly hopes and dreams of running a business.
Personally, figuring out how to handle my first clients was a jumbled mess, but since then I’ve figured out a clear process for giving accurate quotes, setting good expectations, and closing the deal.
Turning inquiries into successful projects is not hard, but it does require a thoughtful process. Below is mine. Enjoy the wisdom that I slaved over through desperate Google searches, some heavy journaling, and talking with other freelancers.
Step 1: Get clear on what they want from you
Before I even consider them as a client, I seek learn everything I can about what they’re looking for. As a copywriter, this means: do they want full website copy, or just brand messaging? Do they need help on just a sales page, or do they need help planning a bigger campaign with email copy as well?
Generally, a client will provide at least a basic idea of this in their email when they reach out. You may even want to modify your contact/interest form to include some questions so you can get the big ones out of the way. You could include questions about their timeline, budget, and what they’re looking for.
Note that you’re probably going to get some bad leads when you first start out: Clients who don’t want to pay what your worth, who want you to do projects outside your specialty, or have no idea what they want. Sometimes, you’ll take those bad leads because you need that income and you need to start building a portfolio. As someone just starting out, this is okay. But if you’re 8 months in and life is crap, it’s time to niche down and reevaluate what you’re charging.
Once you’ve qualified that they’re a promising client, email back to schedule a call. Explain that you’d love to learn more about their project and talk over some of the details.
Then, before that call happens…
Step 2: Calculate a ballpark estimate
Before you get on the call, spend some time with the numbers. You want to be 100% prepared for the pricing conversation.
If you have no idea how you should be pricing your services, check out my introductory guide on how to price your services as a freelancer.
Basically, you’ll want to estimate the number of hours each portion of the potential project will take you, and then calculate a baseline price by multiplying those hours by your hourly rate. Using this baseline, think about the minimum and maximum you might charge for each element.
Next, remember that what they want isn’t always something you can just jump in and do. For example, if you’re a designer and they want a full website redesign, you’re probably going to want to add in a paid discovery session to dive into who they are as a company, their brand voice, and what they really need to communicate. You might also ask around your local freelancing community to see if there’s a copywriter you might work with to write high-quality copy and really get their messaging down pat (cough cough, someone like me).
The idea here is to map out different options that you can discuss with the client, and when they ask how much it might cost, you can give a clear range. That way, you’ll be able to state your prices with confidence: “If you want , it’ll be between $ and $, but I really recommend , and let me tell you why.”
Step 3: Own that call!
You’ve got your pricing estimated. You have a decent idea of what they’re looking for. Take a deep breath.
A quick tip here: Sometimes if I’m feeling uncertain about a call, I’ll go change into more business-y clothing. A blazer truly works wonders for reminding yourself that you’re the professional… especially if you work from home and like to work in your PJ’s all day (What? Who, me? Never!). I’ve also found it helps to stand up, or at least sit up straight. Good posture will make you sound more confident over the phone.
Okay, now you have three goals for this call:
1) Get the full parameters of what they’re looking for. Take really good notes!
2) give them your ballpark estimate based on what they’re looking for. Aren’t you glad you prepared?
3) Communicate to build trust. This topic could be its own article, but here are a few tangible ways you can use your words to start building a connection with the client:
- When they say they need something that you’re familiar with, maybe mention how you worked on a similar project recently. This is not to brag, but to give them assurance that you’re experienced in the kinds of problems they’re facing.
- Express your genuine enthusiasm for their project.
- Address them by name to show that you care.
- Listen to what they’re asking for, and repeat it back so you both know you’re on the same page.
What if they don’t actually know what they want?
If they aren’t sure what they’re looking for, you have a few options.
First, you could just politely and empathetically say that you don’t think you’re a good fit, and let them go. Follow your gut on this one.
Second, you could try billing hourly or suggest a retainer. This is ideal when they have a lot of ongoing work on different projects.
Finally, you could suggest a paid strategy session focused solely on outlining the steps that are going to get them from point A to point B. This is generally the preferred method when they have a clear goal in mind. You help them get their project in order (and learn a ton of helpful information about their business in the process), and then you have a clear outline of work to deliver.
But assuming you give your ballpark estimate and they’re excited to move forward, end the call by letting them know you’ll follow up with a proposal within the next 24 hours.
You’ve got work to do, baby.
Step 4: Craft a proposal
Taking into account everything they’re looking for, write up a proposal, which is basically an outline of what the project is and how you plan to complete the work. Many freelancers and service providers (myself included) put this immediately into contract form. You can get a pretty solid contract to modify and use from And Co and Freelancers Union here. Read it carefully and change what you need to to fit your working style.
Ideally, you’ll want to eventually create a contract that’s reviewed by a lawyer. However, most freelancers wing it early in their career. I’ll also take this moment to cover my butt and remind you that I am not a lawyer, and I’m just here sharing my own experience, so none of this is legal advice and you should really talk to a professional.
Cool, let’s move on.
In the proposal/contract, you’ll include information like the project timeline, payment amounts and due dates, privacy clauses, and who owns the work when it’s complete (usually the client owns it, but you’ll want to retain the ability to share it in your portfolio).
Once you’re finished, send it to the client in an email. I usually ask them to look it over, and I make it clear that I’m happy to answer any questions they have. I also tell them I look forward to hearing from them, and I’ll follow up within a certain time period. That way, if I don’t hear from them, I can follow up without sounding like a desperate lunatic—they had a clear timeline.
At this point, they might ask for some changes to the project proposal, which I may make, or else I’ll explain why it’s important to include. The changes I make are usually small details or timeline adjustments, not pricing changes. It’s important to honor your own prices, and this shouldn’t be a problem if you gave them an accurate ballpark number on your call.
If the client is pushing for a lower price and you still want to keep them, you can lower the price, but make clear that the project scope will have to be reduced with it. Your prices aren’t some arbitrary number—they’re appropriate to your skill level and the value of the project you’re delivering.
Step 5: Make it official
Once they say they’re on board, send them a signed copy of the contract (you have to sign it too, remember!) and an invoice. Most freelancers I know ask for 50% up front and 50% at completion, so you’ll invoice for that first 50%. Remember that this information should already be in your contract, so none of it will come as a surprise to your client.
There are a lot of tools out there that make this signing process easier. At the base level, you can make do with a printer and scanner for signing and accepting payment through PayPal. The next step up would be signing documents with Adobe Acrobat. Then, there are tools like Docusign that make it easy for your clients to sign online. Some accounting software allow you to send documents for signing, and even send invoices that can be paid online.
Once they sign your contract and pay that first deposit, you’re in business! You can begin the work, schedule your first meeting together, begin researching—whatever you stated was the first step in your project, you’re free to begin it. And, of course, deliver on time and maintain good communication throughout.
What if potential clients try to get around your process?
If you are clear about how you work, they’ll accept it as normal. And honestly, breaking THIS process should be a red flag. The process above is pretty standard, and if they’re asking for exceptions, be wary. Never do work outside of contract, and trust yourself when you know you’re going to need that strategy session or extra meeting to do good work. You’re the professional. Present yourself like one.
Is this the only process ever?
Heeeeeck no. While this is a good framework, you can do a lot to modify it to meet your needs. I’m sure I’ll be changing it for myself over time. The beautiful thing about running your own business is you get to set the rules and create the systems. Don’t be afraid to experiment with how you manage payments, what you put in your contract (perhaps with a lawyer’s input), and what information you have on your website!
How does this process measure up to what you’re currently using? Have you found a better way? Share your experience in the comments below!