Maybe you read my How To Get Paid More Without Raising Your Rates post and were left thinking something like…
“So Zach, if you dislike prospecting / sales calls, how do you get the initial lead?
I’m all for turning down low / medium paid contracts, but I think to have the luxury of consistently turning down sub-optimal projects, I need a method of generating leads beyond just throwing huge amounts of money at Google ads and hoping for the best.”
I’m fortunate that I currently get enough leads for my modest income goals through lazy word of mouth alone as a result of having been doing this for so long.
BUT if in the future I wanted to try scaling my agency again, or just wanted to live a more baller lifestyle and buy a Lambo or something, I’d need more leads coming in.
In that scenario, the first thing I’d do is go through the list of ideas below. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I’ll update it as I think of more.
(Note that some of these ideas are not super relevant for *new* freelancers. If that’s you, be sure to skim through for the ones that make the most sense for your current stage of business.)
1 — Implement referral incentivization systems
For this one, the goal is to give past clients a self-interested reason to send you referrals, and work it into your project completion SOP or email newsletter so that people can be sufficiently reminded of the referral program’s existence.
In terms of structure, I don’t personally recommend incentivizing referrals with a financial incentive. (When I’ve taken that approach in the past, the referrals were lower quality.)
Instead, what I’ve found works best is something more like a free “Zach Hour” for each referral a client sends me that becomes a customer.
I tell them they can use the free “Zach Hours” for whatever they want, be it strategy, website updates, design, etc.
2 — Check in with past clients periodically
This could work well in combo with the point above.
A simple email like,
“Hey Clientname, was just thinking of you today and wanted to check how things are going with the site – all good? Any challenges, frustrations, or things you need help with?”– You
If they reply with an “all good over here,” that’s perhaps a good time to let ’em know that you’ve got some schedule availability if they know anyone who needs help, and that you also have this new 1-hour-credit-for-referrals thing, etc. etc.
If they reply with something that’s bothering them, it’s a good opportunity to help them out and perhaps, depending on context, let them know that they could get work like this for free from referrals with your new referral program.
👍 Bonus points: [semi-]automate these check-ins with automated reminders to yourself or with a fancy CRM / email automation software.
3 — Provide ongoing value to clients & stay at the top of their mind
Even though I personally really didn’t like offering an ongoing maintenance service to clients, this idea holds the advantage of it:
If you’re consistently helping your client with their website, you’ll be at the top of their mind to send referrals to when they eventually meet someone who needs website help.
I’ve historically been too lazy to create an email newsletter for my freelancing biz, but it’s always been on my list as something to implement if I ever wanted to try to scale to a bigger agency again.
It can be challenging to think of ideas for a client newsletter, but the goal is to have some way to reach out regularly, provide valuable info, and remind them that you exist.
4 — Create a WP Plugin that you install on all clients’ sites to subtly remind them of your existence
I recently turned over a client to a different agency to handle their redesign because I was too busy to take on their new project.
I noticed when signing in to that client’s site later that the new agency had added some notices around the WP dashboard:
I thought this was super clever.
It adds value for the client because it makes it clear how to get help when they need it, and it also keeps the agency’s name and branding top-of-mind.
If you’re a WP dev, these are the hooks to research to implement it.
Note: I’ve been thinking of creating some downloadable sample code for quickly bootstrapping one of these for yourself; feel free to contact me and tell me if you want it — if enough people are interested, I’ll put it together and add it to the blog or send it to the email list. 🙂
5 — Create thought leadership content within your niche
This is one that the blogging world has opened my eyes to but that I’ve never implemented in my freelance business.
As you probably know, in the blogging world, guest posting is quite common.
The idea goes: if there’s a bigger blog than mine, I can write a valuable post for their site, and there’s a little “about this author” box at the bottom of the post with a link back to my site.
The bigger blog wins because they get good content; I win because some of their readers find their way back to my site from it.
If you can create thought leadership content within a niche you serve, you stand to get great-quality leads, because by the time someone reads your guest post and visits your website, they already trust you (at least a little) and see you as an expert.
One of the niches I serve is financial advisors.
(It was never an intentional decision; I just got some lucky referrals and ended up working with some leaders in the space, and consequently received a lot of referrals and kinda became the “advisor website guy.”)
If I wanted to really lean into this niche and double down on it, what I would do is find some sites that advisors are reading and aim to submit guest posts to them that would appeal to advisors who’d be good clients for me.
Examples of guest posts I might write…
- “5 questions to ask a web designer before you hire them for your advisor site”
- “7 critical things advisors often forget on their websites”
- “Vital steps for your website to be compliant as an advisor”
An example of a blog I might try to guest post on: my agency designed and built the Nerd’s Eye View site ~7 years ago, and even back then the site was one of the de-facto authorities for advisors. Writing articles for his site about hiring a designer/dev would have added a lot of credibility for me and brought in some good leads.
If you’re having trouble thinking of authority sites in your niche, try doing some google searches for queries that your potential clients might be doing (not even related to the services you offer).
So in the advisor example, some sample google search queries to find authority sites could be…
- “How to start my own financial advisor business” (Fun fact: the Nerd’s Eye View site is on the first page for this one)
- “How to go independent as a financial advisor” (And this one)
- “How much to charge my financial advisor clients” (And this one, lol)
If you can really step into the shoes of someone in your niche, you’ll eventually notice that you keep seeing the same sites pop up across different queries. This will lead you to who the big players are.
6 — With paid ads, remember the lifetime value of a client
Many years ago, when I was still a freelancing newb, I ran some Google ads for my freelancing business.
I didn’t really have any strategy; I just sent people who clicked the ad straight to my homepage.
I think I spent like $500 and got one client.
(I believe I only charged them $700 or so for their website.)
At the time, I chalked it up as a failure and considered the money more or less wasted.
But in hindsight, it actually still had a very good ROI.
That guy wasn’t an especially amazing client or anything, but over the following decade I believe he hired me for one other project, and sent me a referral who, IIRC, then sent me a referral of his own.
The “referral lineage” didn’t proliferate beyond that, but that’s still several thousand dollars from the initial $500 spent.
So when evaluating the ROI of paid ads that you run, be sure to keep the lifetime value of a client in mind; not just the immediate value of the first project.
(And for more ideas and inspiration on this topic, see “How To Get a Life-Changing ‘Lucky Referral’“)
7 — Paid ads → Thought leadership content → Email funnel
This is another one that I haven’t tried for my freelancing business but have always had in my back pocket for if I wanted to try scaling my agency in the future.
The flow here is sending paid traffic to a valuable blog post, and from there, getting them on your email newsletter.
This strategy plays nicely with Facebook/Instagram ads, because they reward ads that have good engagement with a low CPM.
You could also experiment with ads that send people directly to an opt-in page, but my hunch from other FB ad experiments I’ve run, and the advertising experience of friends, is that the ads to content will get better CPMs. (But they of course have a lower conversion rate too, so you’d need to test both.)
- Running paid ads to a post or landing page with content along the lines of “How to choose a web designer”
- With a CTA to get them to opt-in for a helpful content upgrade like a checklist or something
- Which then puts them into a lead nurturing sequence where you help them even more and deliver more value (and also let ’em know you’re available to help with their site)
In my opinion, if you’re sending Google ads directly to your portfolio page, you’re leaving money on the table, as there hasn’t yet been sufficient trust built with the traffic yet for these people to be comfortable getting in touch with you to hire you.
I suspect you’d be better off sending them to an opt-in page to get them on your email list, where you can build a relationship over time. (But be sure to test, don’t just blindly implement!)
By providing valuable info and establishing yourself as an educational authority over time, you’ll naturally build trust through repeated exposure and positive associations.
When I got my $500 client from google ads, I was just linking them directly to my portfolio page. A more complex funnel would be fun to try sometime.
8 — Never forget the potential value of an unforeseen “lucky referral.”
This idea is arguably the most important in the list, but also the most frustrating to hear when you want more business right now.
In fact, it’s so important that I fleshed it out into a standalone post where I reverse-engineer a couple of the life-changing lucky referrals that I’ve gotten over the years, so that you can replicate the environment that created them.
The TLDR general idea is that you want to do your very best work for every client you work with, and also strategically target the right kinds of clients to gradually move towards working with.
Lucky referrals can come from literally anywhere, so each client you do an astounding job for is an opportunity for one of these lucky six-figure referrals down the line.
9 — Build relationships with agencies who offer parallel services
I’ve been running my web design business since 2009 and I still haven’t successfully found an SEO agency I trust enough to send my clients to. (I don’t personally do SEO.)
This is a missed opportunity for the legitimate SEO agencies out there that do good work, as clients are regularly asking me for SEO help and I don’t have anywhere to point them.
Obviously I’m not a big fish in the space; even at my agency’s peak I was only ever working with maximum of ~40 clients a year (and these days it’s just a few per year), so parallel agencies (e.g. SEO agencies) might not think to seek me out or even easily be able to find me.
…But hidden in that limitation is also the opportunity.
As a smaller fish, I’m not getting hit up regularly to set up strategic partnerships, which means I’m not as likely to be responding with something like, “Hey, thanks for reaching out, but I’ve already got an SEO guy that I send my clients to.”
If you can form solid relationships and partnerships with parallel service providers, especially smaller niche ones that send you a consistent trickle of business, this will compound and grow over time as you build more relationships, and serve as a nice diversified lead source for you.
If you have “big fish” you can think of that you want to go after, by all means do it, but I think smaller and niche is wise too, and often overlooked.
When building these relationships, the things you want to remember to do are…
A. Prove that you do good work from the get-go
When someone refers a client to you, they’re staking their reputation on your ability to do a good job, because if you suck, it reflects poorly on them.
So while I can really only speak for myself, I would think that for any reputable agency, indisputably high-quality work is probably the most important factor for “winning them over.”
B. Remember that they don’t care about you; they care about growing their own business
With your outreach, aim to make it frictionless for them to act in a self-interested way while also helping you.
The classic example here is sending them a financial kickback for referrals they send.
Always remember when reaching out that they’ve got a million priorities and fires to put out, and you – a random stranger from the internet – are at the bottom of the list.
Aim to be value forward and offer some service to them that legitimately helps their business if you can, to help position yourself as someone who’s here to give value, not take it.
And if there’s an opportunity for you to first build a relationship with the agency founder (twitter, in-person events, etc.), that’s going to be especially helpful, because it moves you out of “internet stranger” status and more into friend/acquaintance.
C. Stay at the top of THEIR minds
When you’re just getting started with these guys, you’re still only a smidge above stranger, and they may or may not remember you when a referral actually comes along.
Try to think of value-forward ways you can stay at the top of their minds with periodic outreach.
The best example of this would be sending referrals of your own their way.
Other examples could be sharing things you legitimately think they’d find helpful or interesting (this can backfire if they actually see it as you blowing up their inbox with random crap) or lending a hand where you can. (For example, maybe you notice their site has some CSS glitch on responsive; you could send them a snippet to fix it.)
D. Keep them updated with the “end result” of their referrals
If someone sends you referrals and they’re concerned about their own reputation (per point A), they’re going to want to know what ended up happening with those referrals.
Reaching out to thank them and show them the end result of what you made + the testimonial the customer left for you is a nice way to subtly remind them that they’re making a good decision when they send work to you.
As a bonus, per point C, this is also a nice way to stay at the top of their minds.
For several years now, I’ve been sending my overflow work to my old developer from back when I was running my agency.
But of all the referrals I’ve sent, she’s never sent me an update on how the projects went, testimonials that were left, etc. and over time it’s started to feel like I’m sending my referrals into a void of uncertainty. And per the old adage…
“A confused mind always says no.”— IDK who first said this, but someone did. Defo. Fer sher.
This has made me gradually feel a little less comfortable sending work her way, because I really just don’t have much of a pulse on the quality of work that she’s putting out these days.
Remember, this isn’t something where you just reach out to an agency once and they send you leads forever; it’s an ongoing relationship that you need to nurture consistently.
10 — Build relationships with SaaSs that allow customization but don’t offer it in-house
Entire multi-million-dollar-a-year agencies have been built on this one concept.
The classic example I can give is Shopify. There are many agencies whose “whole thing” is building and customizing Shopify stores.
Back in the day, I knew of an agency in a neighboring town that employed like 30 people and was always super busy doing *only* BigCommerce stores.
How, you ask, were they ballin’ so hard?
They were listed as the top-recommended “customization partner” on the BigCommerce website.
Translation: they just got constant leads coming in their door with zero marketing.
If you can find a SaaS in a niche that’s just starting the partner program (vs. a big one like BigCommerce or Shopify) and become one of their primary trusted partners, you stand to benefit hugely.
Of course, the risk here is that if you become an “all eggs in one basket” provider for customizing a specific SaaS, it means that your entire livelihood is at the whims of someone else’s business, which can be high risk depending on the situation, so keep that in mind.
The way to hedge against your lead source evaporating overnight is likely to build your own traffic sources beyond just being listed as an agency partner. If you can, for example, profitably generate customers via paid ads, it means that even if you one day get taken off the first page of the SaaS’s preferred agency partners, you won’t have all of your business just instantly disappear.
A couple other risks are that the SaaS may one day decide they don’t want to allow customizations, or that they want to offer them in-house, which would significantly reduce the market for third-party customizations.
Any strong business is diversified, so the smartest way forward if this idea interests you would probably be to try to build the SaaS-serving part of your agency in such a way that it’s either just one arm of your agency, or that the solution you’re providing is modular and would work with multiple SaaSs.
(For example, if you offer some feature layered on top of ecommerce stores for members of XYZ niche, and you can implement this feature into custom builds for stores on either Shopify, WooCommerce, or BigCommerce, suddenly your entire livelihood is no longer bound to one specific platform.)
11 — Always get testimonials
If you’re not getting testimonials from > 80% of the clients you work with, you’re missing an opportunity.
A good testimonial really “seals the deal” on a strong portfolio piece when someone’s browsing your site.
I’ve outlined my process (and rationale behind the wording) on how I successfully get testimonials from every client I work with in this short blog post, but the TLDR is to use the loose template below:
“Hey Clientname, if you had a good experience working with me, would you be willing to send me ~two sentences about your experience that I can use as a testimonial? And if you have critical feedback on how I could have done better, I’d love to hear that too.”^ My script for requesting testimonials
If you struggle to get testimonials reliably, this template may be a game-changer for you because it so significantly lowers the “difficulty bar” for the client to write up.
I used to really struggle to get testimonials consistently, and at this point I can’t remember the last project I did where I didn’t successfully get a testimonial.
👟 Action Steps
Hopefully some of these ideas have sparked some interest or excitement in you.
The main action step here is to pick one and start implementing it by building a habit around working on it!
The easiest habits to implement are the ones that are small, manageable, and happen every day at the same time, or following a consistent trigger (i.e. “after I do X, I do Y”).
(For me, the most psychologically-challenging tasks are best tackled first thing in the work day before I check ANY notifications for my business. This ensures I bring my best creative energy to them and that they don’t get pushed in favor of more urgent work.)
If you’re just getting started building a habit for working on your business instead of just in it, perhaps something as little as 15 minutes, every day M-F, right at the beginning of your work day, is a good place to start.
And once working on your first strategy from this list is a natural part of your routine, expand that deep work block to be longer and implement more strategies if you feel it’s necessary.
(But keep in mind that it’s probably better to *thoroughly* pursue one idea in this list than to shallowly pursue several, or hop between them so rapidly that you don’t have time to really “find your sea legs” with any.)
If you’re targeting something like agency partnerships or SaaS partnerships, that consistent habit might look like carving out time on your schedule consistently for researching, contacting, relationship building, and, if necessary, learning more about how to build cold relationships in the first place.
None of these ideas are magic bullets that will create overnight success. But if you keep consistently putting the time in, incorporating just one of these ideas successfully in your business could pay off big down the line.
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