How to Qualify Clients (and Other Freelancing Lessons I Learned the Hard Way)

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I met Julie at a conference last year – we hit it off while comparing notes about raising toddlers. (She’s got two of her own!)

Julie is an Accounts Receivable specialist and she spoke about how to get laggard clients to actually pay up for your freelancing services. Her talk was great, so I asked Julie if she’d be up for sharing with you guys how to stop chasing clients who don’t pay.

But she outdid herself and offered an even better solution: how to qualify clients so you don’t end up with clients who don’t pay in the first place. Thanks for the fresh perspective, Julie!

I had one of the best years of my life in 2015. Both personally and professionally.

  • I got married.
  • I had a chance to travel.
  • I spoke at the Double Your Freelancing Conference in Norfolk, Virginia.
  • And I turned my little accounts receivable project into a successful business.

I’ve learned so many things over the last year, so that makes me certain that 2016 is going to be even better.

I run an accounts receivable business called Just Tell Julie. I manage invoices for my clients, and I specifically call on past due invoices for freelancers.

What made 2015 such a great year for me and my business?

How was I able to turn a little side business I created into a successful career?

Over the last year, I have drastically changed the way that I look at my business in order to live the life that I want, and still maintain success. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned in 2015 was how to qualify clients and leads.

Not only have I learned from my own mistakes and successes, I’ve learned from my clients.

Here are eight important lessons I learn in 2015 about how to qualify clients.

1. Not All Clients Are a Good Fit

When I first started Just Tell Julie, I was taking on any client who came my way.

I had quit my full-time job, and the idea of not making any money was terrifying. Sure, I had already secured clients well before I actually quit the 9-5 corporate gig I had been working. And, yes, I had found a niche that I enjoyed and was making money doing.

But the fear of failure was always looming. Because of this fear I would agree to work with anyone and everyone who came my way.

They asked for a discount? They got one.

They were a nightmare client? I took them on anyway.

Work was work. If I was working, that meant I was getting paid. That was the first big mistake I made in my business, and the first real lesson I learned this past year regarding my business.

2. Saying “no” Will Help You Keep Your Sanity

The fear of failure is powerful. It can cause us to take on projects we normally wouldn’t want to take on. This past year, I have perfected my ability to qualify my clients before I even consider working with them.

  • I learned quickly the power that saying “no” had on me as a business woman.
  • I was in control of who I wanted to work with.
  • I paid attention to the clients that made me successful.
  • I learned through trial and error who my ideal clients were.

Once I knew who I wanted to work with, I made sure to ask the right questions that would weed out the clients who wouldn’t be able to bring me success or money.

Before I even start working with clients, I ask the important questions. And I say “no” to any client who isn’t a good fit for me and my company.

And I will admit that even I have a hard time with this one from time-to-time. It can be hard to say no when someone wants you to do work for them. Especially if you are just starting out, or you aren’t yet full-time with your business.

The lesson I learned from accepting work that wasn’t good for me, wasn’t profitable, and ended up being a waste of my time was that just because someone is offering you work, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s work you want or should take.

How do you know if you should accept the work you are being offered?

If you see red flags before you even sit down to nail down the specifics of the work, I want you to think twice.

3. Research Your Client

Research your client. Talk to them.

They are the customer, so we often think “We have to win that client. We have to bend over backwards for them.” When really that shouldn’t be our mindset.

Yes, they want to find someone who is a good fit for their project, but you need to be doing the same thing, and thinking about what is right for you and your brand.

I learned this the hard way, so here it is: if you end up taking on a nightmare client who is difficult to work with, it won’t end well.

Two things will happen:

  1. You either won’t want to work on the project, and so you won’t be doing your best work. -or-
  2. You’ll be more likely to end up with disputes since you aren’t seeing eye-to-eye with the client.

4. Communication Is Key to Qualifying Your Leads

Always keeping an open line of communication with your client is key to getting paid on time.

Have upfront conversations with your client about your expectations. Know what you need in order to deliver your best work and make sure you let your client know upfront exactly what that is.

5. If in Doubt, Use a Form to Ask the Hard Questions

An amazing business hack I learned this past year was using Wufoo – an online form builder – to qualify my clients.

First, figure out your ideal client. If you use a contact form on your website have Wufoo send an automatic response asking them your initial questions.

I do accounts receivable work, and I need to make sure I am working with clients who aren’t going to hire me to try and collect on past due invoices that are impossible to get paid. The questions I ask weed out the clients who have major disputes on invoices they need help in collecting, people who haven’t signed contracts with their clients and people with invoices over a year old.

When someone fills out my contact form, they immediately get a response from me introducing myself, telling them about my service and asking them specific questions.

The beauty of using this trick is that your expectations are set up immediately. I personally turn off Wufoo notifications (i.e I don’t get notified every time someone fills one out).

This is great for two reasons:

  1. If the client decides to ghost out on me, I don’t obsess about it because I never even knew about them.
  2. The second reason is if they aren’t a good fit, my time hasn’t been wasted. My expectations are made clear, and they know right away if we aren’t a good fit.

6. Always Get It in Writing

Another key thing I learned this year was GET IT IN WRITING. Once you and your client have a mutual understanding of how the other works and what their expectations are, get a contract signed.

I couldn’t even count how many times I have been approached to help collect on an unpaid invoice, where there was no contract. In my experience no contact makes getting payment incredibly difficult.

And how do we do that?

7. Market Yourself as a Professional

Let’s talk about how you present yourself to those prospective clients.

  • What do your business cards say?
  • Your email signature?
  • Are you a “freelancer” or are you a “business owner?”

Because let me tell you … those are two very different things in most people’s minds.

While as a group we call ourselves freelancers, we need to be careful that it isn’t the ONLY way we are portrayed to potential clients.

Unfortunately when we refer to ourselves as “freelancer” instead of “professional web designer” or “consultant” we often lose credibility. This loss in credibility also results in lower rates. It’s a terrible cycle to be caught in.

You see yourself as a freelancer instead of a professional. You charge lower rates to attract the client. The clients you attract can only pay lower rates, so they are looking for freelancers. You don’t want to lose out on client work so you keep the lower rates.

What can we do to break this cycle?

8. Know Your Value and Charge Accordingly

I’ve learned that knowing your value is the fastest way to break the chain.

Know that you are a professional and make sure your title reflects that.

Charge rates that reflect the value that you bring.

This will attract the types of clients who can afford the rates that you are charging. And when you bring the value that reflects the rates you are charging, clients will be happy to pay the invoices.

I work with invoices from clients all over the country, and the clients who have a hard time getting paid almost unanimously have one thing in common; they don’t charge what they are worth. Know your worth.

Charge rates that reflect that.

I’ve learned so many things over the past year, and I know that these lessons will make 2016 an even more amazing year for my business.

What’s one business lesson you learned last year?

PS: Julie’s joining me for a live Blab on 1/22/16 at 4:30pm CST – mark your calendars and join us.

Julie ElsterJulie Elster is a virtual accounts receivable assistant who helps freelancers get overdue invoices paid. Julie has recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars for freelancers. Her ultimate goal is to make timely payments painless for both freelancers and their clients. You can follow Julie on Twitter @julie_elster.

Photo credits: Liane Metzler via Unsplash