Make selling your freelance services easier by using long term contracts

Most developers I know don’t enjoy marketing and selling. Some tolerate it but the vast majority of them hate selling and talking about themselves.

I’m not going to try to defend marketing and selling here, maybe I’ll write about that later. Rather, I’d like to talk about a way to avoid selling or at least limit the amount of selling you need to do.

But first, let me define what I mean by marketing and selling.

Marketing, more than a medium

To me, marketing is the process of communicating to a group of people what your business offers. This group of people (a marketplace) has things in common with each other. Large groups of people with only weak things in common are the “mass market”, which is what larger business target. As freelancers, we should ignore mass markets and instead focus on a smaller group.

The second part of marketing is the communication. This is how you’re reaching the group of people, and it usually called the “medium”. This is where things like blogging, social media, or giving conference talks fall into. They are all mediums that you’re using to communicate to the group.

The third part of marketing is what your business offers. This is what you are delivering to your client. Part of it is the web design, the new software, or the ebook you’ve ghostwritten. But your offer is much, much more than just that. A common marketing phrase is to sell the benefits, not the features. A new web design is a feature. A website that increase sells is a benefit.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of freelancers (and businesses in general) hyper-focused on the communication medium. “Social is in”, “Email lists are in”, “Hangout Like Tweet Pin is hot”. In the internet product areas, there is a lot more focus on picking the right group to market to (which niche). But across the board, the actual business offers is weak.

Sales, more than a meeting

Now to contrast marketing to sales. Sales is the process of communicating to an individual what your business offers.

(By individual I mean a single person but if you want to tilt your head sideways and squint at that, it can also mean a corporation or board of directors).

The only distinction I make between marketing and sales is who is targeted. With marketing it is a group of people, while sales is an individual.

If you hate selling…

Back to freelancers and selling.

If you hate selling, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Start marketing more and have that do your selling for you,
  2. Set your business up so it requires less selling,
  3. Stick with it and just try to stomach selling, or
  4. Quit

Quitting freelancing (#4) is always an option but if you love everything about freelancing except for selling, that seems a bit drastic to me.

I’ve tried to just deal with selling in the past (#3). Or as my mom says “suck it up and deal with it”. It wasn’t a very enjoyable time and it was difficult to find a sales system that fit me and my business. I expect most freelancers who don’t like selling are stuck in this mode.

A few years ago I started to look seriously at my business systems and decided to use marketing to do my selling. While this worked, continuing a high level of marketing can be tiring and time consuming. Which is why most freelancers, including myself, go through feast and famine times.

Then I “discovered” (read: tripped over) that the reasons I was having to sell so often was because that’s how I set my business up. Since my business creates high-end web software, that meant my projects were large. Not as large as other software projects, but significant enough that a client pays very close attention to them and everything that happened before the contract was signed. So my sales process had grown to accommodate a lengthy period where my client would go over everything before-hand to make sure it was perfect.

This meant that while I wasn’t enjoying selling and wasn’t that good at it, my business required it. Whoops.

Self reflection

Once I noticed this, I took a look back at my past projects and clients. I found that the projects that produced the most revenue and that felt “the best” to me were always recurring projects or with a long-term client. This makes sense if you think about it. Keeping a client for four or five years means that you’d be earning revenue from them for that entire time versus a short-term client where you might only get a few months of revenue.

Now for the kicker…

Selling $1,000 vs $100,000

The amount of sales effort you put into closing a contract is relatively constant. A project with a $100 budget takes about as much effort as a $1,000 or even a $10,000 project. There will be a bit more effort, but not 10x or 100x times the effort. I’ve closed a $100,000 project that took about as much effort as a $12,000 project.

Larger projects can be scary for freelancers. They tend to require more people, more effort, and delivering more value to the client. Delivering value should be easy, if you’re a successful freelancer you’re already doing it. Putting in more effort and people can be a problem though, especially if you’re like me and don’t want to hire employees or subcontract work out.

So what can you do?

Spread the selling out

Instead of chasing larger contracts where only the scale is larger, focus on contracts where the length is larger. They are more difficult to find because you’ll be looking for only a subset of contracts, but you’ll need very few to make it worth the effort.

When you have a long-term contract or two, you can really focus on your clients and their needs. This lets you deliver much more value and become a trusted advisor to them.

For solo freelancers, long-term contracts are even more beneficial. You might only need two or three contracts to completely fill your availability. I know because for a few years I only worked with two clients at a time and recently I’ve reduced that down to only one client.

Compatibility

Since long-term contracts, well, last for a long time you won’t always be scratching for projects. This means you can switch your focus with sales from “closing the deal” to “checking for compatibility”. Since you’ll be working with a client for a year or longer, it makes sense to spend your time upfront to make sure you’ll both good together.

Repeat business without selling

After a while after you’ve started a long-term contract, you’ll probably start thinking about renewing the contract. For me this process has always been easy, usually a five minute phone conversation or a few emails back and forth. Since you’ve built up a relationship with your client, there is very little selling necessary at this point.

My selling in all of 2012

In the past year (2012) I only had three “sales” events.

  1. One in January where I renewed a few client’s contracts,
  2. One in October when I booked a new client, and
  3. One in December when I renewed the new client into a longer contract.

Total time selling in a year, including contract negotiation: 4.75 hours.

The Close

If you enjoy creating and delivering your freelance service but you don’t enjoy selling them, don’t feel like you have to quit freelancing. Take a look at how your services are setup and how you’re positioning yourself in the market. You’re probably having to do so much selling because your business processes you’ve created require selling.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. Processes and services are changeable. Long-term contracts have been how I’ve personally reduced the amount of selling I’ve had to do over the years. I think they are a great way to build stability and enjoyment into your freelance business while really delivering value to your clients.

Eric Davis

P.S. I just got the manuscript for The Freelancer’s Guide to Long-Term Contracts back from my editor this week. There are a few minor things I’m going to tweak in it but so far it’s on target. I’ve got a little video experiment I’m going to be trying soon. Stay tuned…