I’m a little addicted to those reality television shows where a group of people with a particular skillset compete to prove who is the best. I’m particularly enthralled by any challenge where a creative professional has to deal with a client — they’re the most likely to end horribly. That’s because most creatives err on the side of giving their clients everything they want. But that rarely results in the best possible wedding cake or dress or alien makeup.
The response from judges on such episodes might as well be on a loop, no matter what profession is being showcased: “You’re the expert! You have to tell the client what she needs!” That’s the advice that always comes from creative professionals at the top of their game — the people who have turned a skill into a brand name.
To build a lucrative freelancing career, it isn’t enough to have the best skills out there, despite what these reality television shows may indicate. But you do absolutely have to be an expert: you need to be the person that advises your client so that they get the result they want, not the project they asked for.
You Are an Expert
It takes a lot to be willing to tell a client that he’s not going to get the results he wants from a particular project; after all, you only get paid when you complete projects.
One of the problems many newer freelancers face is a lack of confidence: you know everything you don’t know in your chosen profession and that’s incredibly intimidating. But even if you’ve only just started taking on clients, you know more than your clients — otherwise they wouldn’t hire you. It’s important to remember that you do have a level of expertise beyond your clients and you’re working to learn more all the time.
It takes a lot to be willing to tell a client that he’s not going to get the results he wants from a particular project; after all, you only get paid when you complete projects. But it’s just another element of having confidence in your own abilities.
Expertise is a spectrum. You’re not going to wake up one day and know that you’re suddenly an expert and that everyone will recognize you as such. It’s a situation where most people will take you at your word if you say you’re an expert. That can make it more intimidating, but as long as you do the work to back up your expert position — learning, trying new things, forming opinions and discussing them — you can build your confidence in your own expert status.
The Expert / Niche Connection
Being an expert looks a lot like having a niche: you have to focus on something a lot more specific than ‘graphic design’ or ‘writing’. Your clients look for people who are experts in their industry, in the technologies they use and in helping them sell whatever they’re offering. By incorporating that information into your branding, as well as working to establish your expertise in a few other ways, you are effectively telling a select group of people that you are the perfect freelancer for them and that anyone else out there would be better off with someone else.
That can sound like a bad thing — purposefully limiting your audience means that there are less people out there who might give you money. But it balances out, because clients are willing to pay for results. If you can show a proven track record of getting results that are relevant to your target market, you can charge higher rates and cut down on the time it takes you to convince a prospective client to come on board.
Invest time in deciding exactly who you want to work with and what types of projects you want to focus on. From there, it gets easier to figure out what knowledge will really help your clients.
- Are there specific technologies that aren’t necessarily a part of your work but that you should still be familiar with?
- Are there legal or regulatory constraints that you need to be able to meet in your work — and that a run of the mill freelancer might not know about?
- Are there any differences between the ways big companies and small businesses operate in the industry?
- Is there jargon for the industry that people in the know use?
An expert freelancer lives and breathes her industry. Without in-depth knowledge of what your clients need, you might as well be a jack of all trades. With it, though, you can determine when the best time to approach new clients may be, how to make sure that their projects run smoothly, even how to make use of new technologies for your clients before anyone else even thinks to do so.
You’ll also have a far easier time branding yourself when you’re only selling to one market. Just by knowing the jargon a niche uses, you can optimize your website for the terms that industry will search for, rather than just broadly sprinkling in the terms that go along with your broader skill set. You can write marketing materials that specifically address their needs and count on a better quality of word of mouth — your expertise may very well become a choice bit of industry gossip!
But you can also take your expertise beyond a well-targeted website.
An Expert on the Outside
In order to land plenty of well-paying clients, you want your name or brand in front of them on a regular basis.
In order to land plenty of well-paying clients, you want your name or brand in front of them on a regular basis. That’s a bit easier for an expert than for a freelancer. After all, journalists want to include quotes from experts in their articles, conferences want to have experts speak and radio hosts even want to interview experts. Of course, some topics get more press than others, but every industry has its own conferences and its own trade publications. It’s just a matter of making yourself available as a resource.
One of the first steps has to be joining the general community talking about the industry. While you should still spend time on learning and discussing more about freelancing in general and your specialty in particular, you need to be spending as much time as you can in the forums discussing the industry you focus on. That can include:
- Curating news about the industry on social media
- Writing a blog or recording a podcast about the industry
- Commenting on forums and other sites about the industry
- Attending industry events from conferences to cocktail hours, even if you sometimes need to travel to do so
- Connecting with individuals in the industry both online and off
It can be a time-consuming process: you won’t be an industry insider overnight. But with some focused work, along with picking up projects in your area of expertise, you can build connections who consider you an expert surprisingly quickly.
From there, it’s a question of capitalizing on your connections. Just as you make yourself available to clients as a freelancer, you make yourself available as a resource. If you can establish yourself as someone who knows the ins and out of the industry, there are opportunities you can get access to.
You can write articles of your own for trade publications. You can submit talks to conferences. Heck, if you want to, you can write a book about the industry you work in. It’s worth remembering that not only do these efforts put your brand in front of more prospective clients — they can also earn you money in their own right. Most people aren’t going to get rich writing industry-oriented books, but you may very well be able to cover the time you spend actually putting together a book, which is a lot more than you can say for most marketing projects.
What Your Expertise Means
To someone who hasn’t quite figured out attaching a file to an email, even adding to a website through a content management system can seem like black magic. To that person, a good web designer, who can tell him what he should bother with in terms of building and maintaining a website, is an expert.
It doesn’t take anything fancy to establish your expertise. Your clients expect you to provide expert advice when they come to you; if they knew how to do the things you find basic, they wouldn’t need a freelancer. Even at what you may think of as rudimentary levels in your field, you’re still ahead of where your clients may be.
But there is a level of responsibility that goes along with being an expert. Your clients will trust you to give them the most up-to-date advice that will really get them the best possible results. That’s the trade off for charging higher prices. To be an effective expert, you need to make a point of keeping up with the trends in your industry, learning new technologies and generally doing everything you can to stay ahead of the curve. It requires a level of work beyond what just landing projects as a freelancer may take. But it’s worth it.