If you do any kind of creative work, like writing, design, programming, web development or marketing, you probably work with a model where sales conversations go something like this:
Client: “I need this solution to this problem, and I am willing to pay x amount of dollars for this to be finished over x period of time.”
You: “Sure, sounds great.” or “I could do that, but I would need X time, and the budget would probably need to be around X.” or even “No, I don’t do X.”
The problem is that the client often doesn’t know what they are talking about.
What they think is a solution to a certain problem might not even nudge their project in the right direction, or worse, they might not even understand the actual problem at hand in the first place.
Which is bad news, because if you’re not actually solving real business problems, then you end up not being an investment, but an expense.
So once the client notices the lack of tangible business results from their idea that you only executed, you are sent on your merry way.
Often left with a less than stellar review, and a bad taste in your mouth.
I have gone through this in the past, more times than I want to admit, in three different industries.
When I first started as a freelance writer, I basically completed drafts for people who had decided they had better things to do than actually write them out themselves.
They didn’t think of what I was doing as a business solution of value, but rather an exchange where they saved some of their personal time in exchange for my doing the task.
(And what they were willing to pay reflected as much.)
The thing that always surprised me with these types of clients, is that even though they are only hiring you to “save their own time”, they spend a lot of it nitpicking your work based on their own preference, usually nothing universal or important.
When I created my first website for someone else, again, I wasn’t solving a real problem, I was just creating a website for someone who thought they needed a website because “other people/businesses have websites”.
The worst part about this is not even the tiny amount that they were paying me, it’s that they based every design decision purely based on their own taste, leaving me with boatloads of minor adjustments, and final results I don’t even want on my portfolio. (Light brown text on dark brown background color, anyone?)
When I transitioned into digital marketing as a whole, I started off doing odd jobs based on the client’s ideas/opinion, and they were as painful and unrewarding as they were poorly paid.
But not anymore.
I managed to move on to bigger and better things, by solving bigger problems better.
As a freelance writer, the jump in pay came when I actually started to solve real business problems for real businesses.
From $10–20 a piece, to $40, $75 and then $100+ a piece.
I niched down to focus on WordPress, and I focused on writing content that would either increase the number of visitors to the website, increase the credibility of the site by producing a high-quality, work-intensive guide, or affiliate profits in terms of in-depth comparisons & listicles of paid tools and themes.
The people that hired me all had problems, but that problem was not content.
Without exception, they got more than enough unsolicited guest posts to fill their blogs each week, had they wanted to.
Their problem was finding someone who could deliver the right ideas, and the right content, consistently, week after week.
Content that would deliver on key metrics that they actually measure.
As a freelance writer, I completely stumbled along and found my way to these better jobs.
Simply by trying to be better than my competition.. and through dumb luck.
But as a freelance digital marketing consultant, I had to be a lot more deliberate.
I had to learn to get to the bottom of things, and not just take client pitches at face value.
Let’s take a look at two examples of something a prospective client might tell you in the beginning of the hiring process:
“Our logo is quite outdated, so I need a re-design, I am willing to pay 500$ and I need it done in 4 weeks, preferably less.” — Client 1
“We need to add a randomization function to the advertising plugin of our CMS, our budget is $3000 dollars and ideal timeframe is 2 months.” — Client 2
What do these two statements have in common?
They are requesting solutions to things that may or not be real business problems.
They have (either in-house or by themselves) researched and deduced, read about, or imagined that these two things are problems and that the solutions they are asking for are the solutions.
But what are the real problems?
If client 1’s logo is not just a bit outdated, but so much so that it repels prospective clients, that the fact that it’s on his sales letters, website & social media is directly negatively impacting his business, then this is a real, tangible, imminent business problem.
One that solving will lead to tangible business results in the short term.
If there’s no negative feedback, and the logo is fine for all intents and purposes, although maybe not the most innovative or eye-catching, then client 1 is likely trying to solve another problem by changing the logo.
Maybe his conversion rates are low with younger users, maybe they still only get clients by word of mouth in their local area, and their web presence hasn’t lead to anything.
Client 2’s question is a bit more likely to be based on direct customer feedback, and representing a real tangible problem that is worth solving, but there is still value in finding out what else is going on with their business.
You need to take the time to ask questions, and actually understand where the client’s business is struggling, and more importantly, where you can help them the most.
I don’t have set questions that I ask, but I try to cover:
Even if they come to me asking for something very specific, I want to know if it will even be worth doing (for them) in the first place.
This mindset and approach has helped me go from getting tiny gigs that pay $50 dollars (and require 3–4 hours of work including the pitching and negotiating), to getting recurring freelance clients that pay me $100s of dollars/month.
A client approached me about setting up a remarketing campaign in Google AdWords.
Sure, setting up a remarketing campaign is something within my skill set, but a remarketing campaign is rarely a problem and solution in and of itself.. (except for certain ecommerce stores) so I asked questions about his business and his campaign, and he ended up telling me what his real problem was.
His problem wasn’t a lack of a remarketing campaign.
His problem was that the CPA for his current Google Ads campaign was too high.
His limited understanding of Google Ads led him to believe that it was mainly a remarketing problem, but the real solution was in setting up proper conversion tracking & cutting out non-converting ad groups & keywords.
(Although remarketing played a role, it was a minor one, and not one that would have been likely to lead to a happy or long term client.)
Another client came to me and wanted a performance review of his campaign, cleaning up money-sucking keywords, areas, ages, etc.
I did this, and it lead to some improvement (about 23% decrease in CPA with some volume decrease).
But by far the biggest improvement came from changing the offer in the ads & on the landing page. (89% decrease in CPA and 115.1% increase in CTR, 53% increase in CVR to be exact).
And what started as potentially a one-off performance review, became my first long-term recurring client.
Sometimes you are dealing with someone who has orders from a boss, and then it really is a case of “X is a solution to X”, and you might not be able to offer anything else.
Take these clients on, only if you need the money in the short term.
If you are working directly with founders, CMOs, CFOs or small business owners, having real conversations with them about the state of their business and marketing efforts and taking the time to look at the data & their competition, can set you on path to solve some of their biggest problems, and get compensated for doing so.
Once you have solved these problems, you can then put that on your resume, which is a lot more convincing to land more clients who have similar, big, expensive problems.
This is one path towards a better freelance, or even agency career. (Since finding problems and suggesting solutions naturally leads to more billable hours/projects, it is a key part of account management & is the foundation of success for those who are slightly sales averse & struggle to bring on new accounts on their own.)
If you can take care of this, the money will take care of itself. (As long as you start demanding what you are worth.)
*** I can’t take full credit for this idea, Blair Enns really helped to crystallize this thought in my head. In his talk called “Win Without Pitching” (like his book of the same name) he gives the example of a mechanic who “fixed the wrong problem”, which was more expensive than the actual problem, based on the prescription of the amateur; Blair himself in this case. He makes it perfectly clear that this was the expert’s fault & not Blair’s, after all what does he really know about cars, and why should the mechanic take his word for it?
This example helped me internalize and put into words an issue that I have had with freelancing since day one.