When you’re starting out as a freelancer, the hardest part is landing your first client. A common objection you’ll hear is that you don’t have any past client references or work samples.
You can’t blame a client for being concerned about this. No matter how confident are that you can do the work you are offering, a client is smart to be cautious taking chances on a beginner. They don’t want to spend all of that money on your services and risk that you won’t be able to actually do quality work.
Luckily, there is an easy strategy that can help you land your first few clients. Offer your services for free for a limited time with the stipulation that they will turn into a paid client if they are satisfied with what they see.
Offering free work goes against most of our instincts. It’s generally a pretty solid rule that if you’re any good at what you do, you should never do work for free. However, if you don’t yet have any clients and are struggling to find one because they don’t trust a brand new consultant, this is the exception to that rule.
If you’re confident you can do the work, and you’re offering free work to an already interested yet hesitant client, offering some free services on a probationary, trial basis is an offer that is hard for most clients to turn down. It overcomes their lingering hesitation and becomes mostly risk-free.
While there is a risk that you can end up doing free work and still not land the client afterwards, there are quite a few upsides when first starting out. In the best circumstances, you will prove your immense value and land the client. Even if you don’t land the client, you now have a little more experience, you have some examples of your work you can show to future prospects, and you will get important feedback on your strengths and weaknesses as a freelancer.
When and How to Offer Free Work
This part can’t be stressed enough: an offer for free work is a down sell. This means that you only offer free work on a trial basis after you have attempted to get paid work and their reason for rejection was your work experience. You shouldn’t be offering free work as your opening statement to leads.
Only offer free work to clients that have already shown a lot of interest, but are just concerned about losing money on someone who is brand new. To be clear, this free work offer should be after you’ve already talked with them and tried to sell them on your paid services. You really want to try to convince them to pay you for your work before jumping to a free work offer.
If you offer free work too quickly to a client, it comes off like you don’t actually value what you are doing. The offer for free work needs to seem like it is an idea you just had as the perfect win/win solution between the two of you. This will allow you to still maintain the perception that you value your own work.
Your free work offer needs to have clearly defined rules. You need to lay out what work you will be doing, for how long, and at what future date you and the client will discuss a paid deal. If they seem incredibly interested in hiring you but are just a little hesitant, try to offer a little bit of discounted work before you offer free work. It’s important to be intuitive and try to understand what the client is thinking and what their main concerns are so you know what the best offer to make is.
When offering the free work, it should be clear between you and the client what your price will be after the trial offer. If they are unwilling to pay what your normal price will be, it’s important to know this upfront. There is no point offering free work to a client if they can’t afford your price after the free period. There needs to be a verbal agreement before any free work is started that a client will pay a specific amount on a specific date if they are happy with the work that you do.
If your service includes any additional costs of business, make sure the client is at least covering these costs. For instance, if you are running a paid advertising campaign for a client, you can offer your services for free for a month, but they, of course, still need to be covering the actual advertising costs to the platform. This way you both have skin in the game. It’s okay to offer your time for free to help land a client, but it’s not okay to offer to cover any major expenses at all. If they aren’t willing to cover something like advertising fees, it’s a red flag that you’re going to be taken advantage of and you should move on to another prospective client.
Types of Services That Work Best With This Method
While an offer for free work can lead to paid work with many different services, some will have better luck than others.
If you’re doing any kind of ongoing monthly consulting or done-for-you services, offering one month free to a prospective client should be sufficient. This will give enough time for you to exceed their expectations, and if they are happy working with you, it will be easy to get a monthly retainer from them moving forward.
If the work you are offering is a one time project, then offer to do a part of the work upfront for free to see if they like what you do. An example would be if you do website design. Offer to build the main page of the website and if they are happy with what they see and like working with you, they can pay your full web design fee to build out the rest of the website.
Don’t do an entire project for free and expect to get paid after. If you’re doing smaller projects, like logo design or content creation, don’t offer to make the entire thing for free. This is an easy way to get taken advantage of. Instead, offer to do the preliminary work first. If it’s a logo, offer to do a series of quicker sketch mock-ups and if they like what they are seeing, they can hire you to design the logo. If you’re creating some kind of content like a blog post, offer to do part of it for free, similar to the web design example above.
Which Clients To Offer Free Work
So that you don’t get taken advantage of and do countless hours of free work with clients that have no intention of ever paying you, it’s important to target the right types of clients.
An ideal client to offer free work to is one that is thriving and has plenty of money to hire a consultant or freelancer. They have likely hired out contract work in the past, and have no problem paying what people are worth.
Another sign of a good client is one that is both clearly interested in what you do and they have a strong need for it. If what you do would genuinely help them, there is a better chance that your free offer is going to lead to paid work. For instance, if they have no website, or a really bad one, your offer to design the main page on a trial basis is more likely to lead to a paying client. However, if they already have a great website, you might be wasting your time offering free work to them. Unless you can build something much better than what they already have, they might see little value in paying for you to finish the work.
Which Clients To Avoid Free Work Offers
Unfortunately, there are several types of clients that you should avoid offering any free work to at all as they are just going to take advantage of your time. Luckily, there are plenty of red flags, so it is easier to spot these kinds of situations.
Avoid any client that asks for free work. You should be making the offer, not them. If you’re talking to a client and they ask you to do some free work before you, it’s a sign that they do this a lot. Look for certain trigger phrases. If they mention how this will be great for you to get some experience, get some exposure, or give you some pieces for your portfolio, you should run. If you approached them and you are the one making the free work offer after they are already showing interest, that’s fine. If they are approaching you asking for free work, with big promises of tons of paid work later, it’s most certainly a deception and you should focus your efforts elsewhere.
Avoid really small businesses, or businesses that show signs of financial instability. You want to actually get paid for your work after the free work trial. If their main concern is the price, or that they don’t have the funds right now but that they will later, this is a sign they will never be able to afford you, or will try to low ball you with a smaller payment for your services. Make sure you’re targeting clients that have the funds to actually pay for services.
Avoid any clients that try to talk you into a profit sharing scenario. Of course, profit sharing on top of your fee is great. If you’ve started a marketing agency, it’s not uncommon to charge your regular fee plus a percentage of sales that you make them. However, avoid any kind of deal that is exclusively profit sharing on the back end. If a client asks you to exclusively share back end profits, there are too many variables and factors that aren’t under your control that will allow them to take advantage of you. You likely can’t track how much they are making, so you’d have to trust their word on how big your cut is.
When to Stop Offering Free Work
Using free work to prove your value to a client should not be an ongoing strategy to land clients. This is specifically if you are trying to get your first two or three clients.
Once you have a few prospects you’ve turned into paying clients with a free work trial, you need to stop offering free work. The main reason to offer free work is because you are new and don’t have any client testimonials or examples of past work to show.
Once you have your first two or three paid clients, you should have all of the social proof you need to land more clients in the future.
Efficient Use of Free Work
It goes without saying that you should try to completely over-deliver when doing free work for a prospect. You want to far exceed their expectations so that you can guarantee that they will hire you after the free period is over.
You should still be saving the free work you are doing as examples to show future clients, even if that free work didn’t directly lead to a paid job. Of course, if you did a bad job and that’s why you didn’t land the client, then it’s probably not something you should show off in your portfolio. If the work is good and the client didn’t hire you for other reasons, definitely use the work in your examples.
If they still seemed happy with the work, don’t be afraid to ask people for positive testimonials even if they didn’t hire you.