“How can I land a freelance client with no experience?” — 5 Tactics You Can Steal Right Now (Part 1)

March 10, 2017
Feel greener than this frog when you talk to clients? This post will help. (Image by Jaro León, via Unsplash)

Feel greener than this frog when you talk to clients? This post will help. (Image by Jaro León, via Unsplash)

This is PART 1 of a mini-series about landing your first freelance client with no experience. If you want to check out PART 2, read it here.

Sometimes, I want to create a drinking game based on the kinds of questions I receive in my inbox. You know the type: “If someone says / does X, drink a shot.” But even if I were to do that, there’s one question I would never put in the game — otherwise I’d become a raging alcoholic within a week.

It’s this one:

“I don’t have any freelancing experience, and I don’t have a portfolio. How can I get clients?”

It’s such a common question that I thought it would be fun to write a post with all the ways (that I know of, at least) to land freelance clients with no experience. And here we are!

But before we dig in, let’s get one thing out of the way first…

9 times out of 10, your freelance experience is irrelevant

In 8+ years of freelancing, I have done many, many projects that I was in no way qualified to do:

  • Editing a screenplay for a movie (a bad one), while I have only been freelancing for a few months — and never seen an actual film script before.
  • Writing articles about addiction, photography, nature conservation, financial advice, marketing, macroeconomics, and other obscure topics.
  • Writing copy for sales pages and product pages that sold supplements, courses, services, beauty products, and shit I can’t even remember now.

I’m not saying all this to brag. I’m saying that your previous experience is completely irrelevant, or at least overrated. My point is that, when your clients are asking about your experience, what they are really looking for is proof of competence. As in, your ability to get the job done well.

To demonstrate that, you don’t need to have spent the past 50 years in exile, performing exactly the kind of work your client wants. You don’t even have to have dozens of samples out there “in the wild,” and hundreds more in your portfolio.

You just need to persuade them that you will do your best work. And you can do that using the so-called competence triggers(I didn’t coin the term, but I love the idea behind it).

When you’re talking to a potential client, there are certain things you can say that will be the equivalent of a big fat Bat signal in the sky telling them, “I know what I’m talking about. I don’t just care about making money. I’m also looking out for your interests. I will do my best work for you.”

Na na na na na na na na na na na na… BATMAN! Sorry, couldn’t help myself

Inserting those competence triggers into your emails, project bids, or any other client communication will only take a bit of effort — but it will signal the client that you are a professional, and you care about doing things the right way.

In today’s post, I originally wanted to give you 10 examples of competence triggers that use immediately. But apparently I don’t know how to write short posts — so I had to settle for giving you 5 right now, and 5 more next week.

Let’s dive in!

1. Ask ONE smart question

Asking a smart, relevant question about a freelance project, or your client’s business, is the fastest way to convey that you are the real deal. Seriously. It’s better than heaps of samples — which the client has to look at first. And it’s definitely better than dozens of formal credentials and certificates — which the client won’t bother to verify.

But ask a single smart question, and there it is — staring them in the face when they read your message.

Another reason it’s such a good strategy is that it’s also rare. You’d be surprised at how many freelancers never think to ask any questions about the client’s needs, goals, or challenges related to the project. Instead, they just go into describing what they will do, and why the client should hire them over everybody else.

Seriously, this barely even worked at school

So… what kind of question should you ask? Unfortunately for both of us, I can’t predict the future (or I’d be off to pick stocks right now). The best I can do is give you a few rough guidelines. These types of questions usually work well:

– A question about the customer: who’s the audience for your work, what they care about, what they are struggling with…

– A question about the client’s goal: what would be the best outcome for this project, have they considered trying X, and so on.

– A question about the past or current performance: if they’ve done something like this in the past, what the results were, what they are trying to improve right now, etc.

Once you have figured out the question, you can do this:

Step 1. Ask your question. It doesn’t really matter where in the message you put it.

Step 2. At the very end of your email / project bid / whatever, tell the client this:

“I would love to learn more about the project and your vision for how to [describe the goal they’d like to accomplish]. Would it be OK if I asked you a few more questions? We can hop on a quick call, or I can just send them over — whichever options works for you.”

2. Demonstrate empathy

Hiring freelancers is hard — especially if you’ve never done it before. It’s anxiety-inducing at worst, and mildly frustrating at the very least. As someone who spent the better part of a year hiring writers, designers, SEO people, and coders, I know what I’m talking about.

And the attitude of most freelancers doesn’t help. They give vague answers to important questions (see #6 in this post), push too hard to get hired, and communicate with the eloquence of a cat stuck up a tree.

The next time you com across a client who seems wary and mildly frustrated with their interactions with freelancers, the least you can do is empathize with them. Show them that you understand how freaking hard it can be to trust a stranger with important work, especially if they’ve been burned before. It’s such a subtle, tiny gesture… but it works.

There are tons of ways you can convey empathy when you talk to a client, with varying degrees of “in-your-face-ness” (is this a word? I like it). For example, when I used to bid on Upwork, I had this in my profile:

In hindsight, there are lots of things I would have changed about my profile, but I actually like this part

Here are some other ideas of things you could say in client emails. I have said most of them at one point or another, if not in so many words:

  • “This is a complex project, and I understand that you want to pick the best person to do it…”
  • “The last thing I want is to play guessing games with your money.”
  • “It must be frustrating not to achieve the results you were hoping for with X…”
  • “My #1 goal is to determine if we’re the right fit for each other.”
  • “I get it — you want what’s best for your business. So do I.”

This strategy is great for getting the client to open up and listen to what you have to say. And as such, it works not just for getting hired, but afterwards as well. I use it all the time when I work with someone who is being skeptical, trying to micro-manage me right off the bat, not giving specific enough feedback, or just being a bloody toddler… difficult.

3. Give ONE meaningful compliment

Flattery, when done right, can get you everywhere. People like to hear they are doing a good job, clients included. So if you want to increase your odds of winning a freelance job, make an effort to pay an “observational compliment.”

Don’t just say something dumb and shallow like, “X is a great product!” or “You run a great company!” Those kinds of compliments are lazy, common, and people see through them in about a nanosecond. Instead, do a little bit of homework. Take a look at your client’s website, product or service, or even the project you are discussing — and make a positive observation about it.

Here’s how that might look like:

  • “I took a quick look at your blog, and it seems like you’re already investing in high-quality content. Kudos!”
  • “It’s not easy to sell a high-quality, premium-priced course — you obviously care a lot about producing great results for your students.”
  • “I read your recent email, and I loved how you started it with a personal story. Most companies don’t do that, and their copy falls flat.”

Observational compliments show not only that you can appreciate the client’s hard work, but also that you took some time to learn more about them. And the best part is, they work even if you’re struggling to find something to praise.

For example, maybe you want to compliment the client on some case studies they have on their website… but they aren’t that great. No problem! Just say that you looked at the case studies, and they made a smart decision to make them public, because case studies make for terrific marketing materials. You get the idea. Basically, be this guy:

Chris Traeger would be awesome at tactic #3

4. Give ONE valuable tip they can use

It’s supremely funny to me how freelancers insist they start working on a project before they let a single word of helpful advice escape their lips. Don’t be like that.

Instead, use something called The Strategy of Pre-Eminence.” Let me offer you my own, bastardized summary of it… Treat your potential client the way you would treat a current one — long before money changes hands, or even comes up. That means, among other things, looking out for their interests, and giving them valuable advice right from the start.

It doesn’t have to be huge. For example, a few years ago I was talking to a client about re-writing their About page. My valuable tip was:

“Start the page by talking to the target customer first, and only then transition to describing your company’s mission and story. By structuring the page like that, you will get people to pay closer attention to what you have to say — since you’ll be proving to them why your business is uniquely qualified to solve their problems.”

It’s not rocket science, but it made a great impression on the client and landed me the job. No matter what kind of freelance work you do, you can dispense some pearls of wisdom of your own.

And, just in case you’re worried about this… No, giving the client one expert insight for free won’t cost you their business. Think about it along the lines of learning to cook versus hiring a personal chef. When a client sets out to hire a freelancer, they want someone to do work for them. You are in no danger of them leeching off your knowledge and then going off to do the project themselves.

5. Don’t be boring or forgettable

Likability is the most under-estimated skill of them all. It’s easy to think that it doesn’t matter to clients. After all, they hire you for your professionalism and your skills, right? Well, yes… but those aren’t enough.

There are many, many people out there who are just as good as you are, or better. People who have more experience, more samples, and lower rates. But clients can overlook all that in favor of hiring someone they like, and want to work with. It happens all the time. Sometimes clients keep working with an otherwise mediocre freelancer just because they like them.

(I know it’s happened to me a few times — I’ll tell you all about it when I’m less sober.)

My point is, you’re a freelancer, not a butler. You’re allowed to express yourself. You want to make an emotional connection with a client, so give them a reason to take an interest in you. It could be something you both like (Dr. Who, anyone?). It could be a belief you both hold. It could be an interesting fact about you: for example, here’s a successful blogger who used to be a nude model and doesn’t hide that fact from potential clients.

To be honest, this tactic is more of an art than a science. You can’t teach being likable. But here’s a great first step: if you communicate with clients from beyond an impenetrable wall of formality, drop it and see what happens.

That said, I want you to walk away with something practical here, beyond sage advice like “be yourself.” So here’s one thing I do…

When I send a prospecting email, I will often put something weird and intriguing in the subject line (PG-rated, of course, unless I know the recipient is OK with mature themes). For example, this one time I sent a pitch with the subject line, “I want to pay homage to your beard” — because I knew the Chief Marketing Officer of the company I was pitching had a big bushy beard.

Full disclosure: NOT the actual person I pitched

I got a response within the hour.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

Next Friday, I’m going to post 5 more immediately steal-able tactics that you can use to land freelance clients. I didn’t expect I’d have to split this post in two, but there you have it.

In the meantime, please leave a comment and let me know: which of these 5 tactics did you find most, or least, helpful? I’d love to hear from you!


  • Reply Darla March 10, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Hey, Oleg –

    Love this post! I appreciate all 5 tips. It boils down to being client focused and general etiquette.
    My favorite is to ask a SMART question. This not only shows your interest, but it also gives them an opportunity to open up.

    • Reply Oleg Starko March 11, 2017 at 9:27 am

      Thank you for the comment, Darla! I’ll publish 5 more next week, and you’ll find that you have already tried one of them successfully. 😉

      > This not only shows your interest, but it also gives them an opportunity to open up.

      Yes, exactly! Sometimes there’s a fine line between showing genuine interest and coming across as desperate. This technique lets you stay firmly on the “genuine interest” side. 🙂

  • Reply ash March 10, 2017 at 8:15 pm


    Thanks for some great tips – I liked the empathy one, as I hadn’t really considered this – and maybe I will put it on my very greenew website.

    • Reply Oleg Starko March 11, 2017 at 9:24 am

      Hey Ash,

      Thank you for the comment, I appreciate it! Empathy was a major one for me — I never really stopped to think how the hiring process looks and feels from the client’s perspective. In hindsight, I could have fixed 90% of my problems with pitches / proposals just by putting myself in the client’s shoes and tweaking a few things to make it easy for them.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!


  • Reply Nadine Mandjoli Yaya March 10, 2017 at 10:29 pm

    This is great Oleg!
    I have no question, but compliments on the great value I have been able to leave with.

    Thanks, once again!

    • Reply Oleg Starko March 11, 2017 at 9:21 am

      Thank you for the comment, Nadine! 🙂

  • Reply Meehika Barua March 16, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    Hi Oleg!

    This is a great post . Can’t wait for the next five smart tips! Thank you so much for this!

    Also if you could some time do a post on how to draw up a freelance contact, it would be really helpful.
    I’m sure a lot of freelancers, including me struggle with that.
    And your word to word scripted posts make everything really easy.

    • Reply Meehika Barua March 16, 2017 at 6:00 pm

      Oops , I meant freelance writer contract in the above comment ^

    • Reply Oleg Starko March 21, 2017 at 12:42 pm

      Hey Meehika,

      This is the same response that I’ve given you on the other comment, pasted here again for people to see. 🙂

      “Hey Meehika,

      I appreciate your comment, and thank you for the kind words.

      Since I’m not a lawyer, it would be extremely arrogant and foolish of me to try and draw up a contract that people can use. I can give advice on many things, but not *that*. And another reason I shouldn’t do this is this: contracts are one part of freelancing that I’ve always neglected. In over 8 years, I’ve signed maybe 3 of them in total. Most of the time I just don’t bother.

      Now, I don’t recommend that anyone do the same, and have a similar lackadaisical attitude to contracts. But it does disqualify me from giving advice on the topic. And I’d never advise my readers on things I haven’t actually tested myself.

      Does that make sense?

      Now, if this is an area of interest for people, then I *will* find someone who has experience with contracts, and share *their* advice on the blog. But that will have to wait until a bit later. 🙂 “

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