There are many ways to win new clients as a freelancer, but you’re more than likely to come up against a new business pitch process as one of them at some point in your freelance life.
You’re name is added to a shortlist of freelancers or small agencies that a client wants to see about a new project or campaign. Then you’ll be expected to respond to a specific brief and outline how you’d approach the client’s project.
This often ends in a presentation to the client, which in a competitive situation is a nerve-wracking experience.
It’s a big opportunity to win new clients, but the competitiveness of the pitches means you’ll need to put lots of time in to crafting the perfect pitch – with that time being unpaid of you lose the pitch process.
I’ve been on both sides of the table, giving the pitch and listening to agencies present to me. Here’s what I’ve learnt, as an agency consultant, as a freelancer and as a client, on how to win new business pitches.
In this article:
Qualify the lead
Before you spend any time preparing for the pitch process, spend time looking through the client’s brief and researching their business to make sure that it’s a good fit for you as a freelancer.
Is the project rate too low for you? Do you have capacity to take on the project? Do you have the skills and knowledge to tackle the issues you face? Does your research raise any red flags or concerns about the client or from others who have worked for them?
If the project isn’t a fit or you don’t feel like you would want to work on the project, then better to cut it off at the start and politely decline taking part in the pitch process, and not ploughing time into the pitch and wasting the client’s time as well.
Win the pitch before you walk in the room
Personally, I prefer having won the pitch before I even have to give a presentation to a client.
By being the only freelancer in the running for project.
If you’ve been a good freelancer and delivered high-quality work, on time and on budget, then the client should turn to you immediately as their trusted freelancer in that area, and not looking anywhere else.
Of course they may invite other freelancers or agencies to pitch to get a range of ideas and see what else is out there, but if you’ve delivered excellent work and offered outstanding consultancy, then you should minimise that happening.
When this happens, rather than handing the project out to tender, you’ll be the first – and only – freelancer on the list.
A lot of our new business come from existing client referrals to other parts of their business or new projects from their team. That means we don’t have to spend time researching the client and writing a large deck for the pitch.
We know the client. We know their business. We know how we can deliver value from the project.
If that’s the same for you and your existing clients are referring you new projects, then you’re doing something right.
If not, try to consistently deliver value to your client and work out how you can improve you’re offering to them.
See also: How to build long-term client relationships as a freelancer
The pitch is about them, not you
If you do have to pitch, make sure your pitch deck is about the client and how you’re going to help them, not all about your agency and the cool offices you work in.
The client wants to know how you’re going to tackle their brief and add value to their business. That means minimising the slides about yourself.
If you want, send across a credentials document ahead of the pitch outlining everything you want to get across about you as a freelancer and the case studies and examples of projects you’ve completed before.
Frame this as a way of your new business prospect getting to know you without wasting time in the pitch shows that you’re thinking about them and valuing their time already.
Then, when you walk in the room, they know who you are and what you’re about, so you can get straight down to talking about how you’re going to help them.
Listen, ask questions and build a relationship with the client
The new business pitch process is just the start of a new relationship between you and the client. After all, you’re going to work together for what might be a long time, so you need to make sure you have a good working relationship.
Avidan, a marketing consulting firm, asked consultants for their opinions on what it takes to win new business pitches. 96 percent of the sample pointed to “chemistry” as the key reason for winning.
So how do you build chemistry?
One of the keys to building empathy is to get the client talking about the challenges they are facing – and listen. You create empathy with the client by listening and show how you understand the issues they are turning to you to solve.
Back this up by asking questions that delve more into these issues. Interacting through asking questions is much more engaging than being presented to as a passive audience and ensures the client doesn’t feel they’re being shown a presentation that you roll out time and again.
Lastly, show passion for the client, their business or their industry in general. Passion is contagious and shows that you want the work.
(As an aside, the same Avidan survey found 61 percent say that winning agencies have a “confident, articulate team”, 39 percent believe that “demonstrating passion for the client’s business” helps winning and that “a seamless link between strategy and creative” is crucial)
Cover the basics
Whatever you do in the pitch, make sure you cover the basics.
Before you even step in the room, make sure you’ve followed their RFP (request for proposal) process, read the client’s brief closely and ensuring that you’ve covered all of their major points in the presentation.
If you miss out a key area of the brief, it is a red flag to the client that you haven’t read the brief properly, don’t pay attention to detail or even have a weakness in that area.
While you won’t be disqualified for "breaking the rules," it can the difference to a final decision on who to award the project to.
If they’ve set out some key questions in the brief, answer them in the pitch. If it helps, use their question as the headline of a slide, then put how you’d approach the answer as the main content of the slide. This way, you’re guaranteed to cover everything they asked of you in the brief.
You don’t have to spend long covering the basics, but setting these foundations in place and giving the client the confidence that you can do the job means they’ll be more likely to trust you with the project.
You’ll be amazed at how many people or agencies miss out on some of the basics asked of them in the brief. Don’t make the same mistake.
Standardise the deck
I’m not a perfectionist, but I do like to see a nice clean deck that is consistent all the way through.
That means using the same font, text size and colours throughout.
Don’t use different fonts – stick to whatever you normally use fall back to Arial if you’re unsure And never use Comic Sans.
As for text size, you need to make your writing clear to read from the back of a large room. That means at least point 20, otherwise people aren’t going to be able to read the magic words you gave on-screen.
You shouldn’t be relying on too much text in your pitch deck anyway, but if you have to make sure that people can read it no matter where they’re sitting in the room.
Standardising colours should be a default. Black text on a white background is the most legible, so is a good default to use.
I’m not saying that you need to be good at design or hire a designer to sharpen up your pitch deck. You just need to make sure that the decks are consistent and legible enough that it doesn’t distract from the words you’re saying or the points you’re trying to get across.
Even the default theme on the software you use to create presentations is probably going to be good enough for most of your clients. Use it, and sue it wisely.
If you’re pitch deck looks sloppy with mismatched font, styles and colours, how are they going to trust you to take the same care of your work when you’re representing them?
Add some creativity
Once you’ve covered the basics, now you can add some flair to your pitch.
What little extras can you come up with that will make you – and the client – stand out from the competition?
Adding creative ideas to the pitch shows that you’ve been thinking above and beyond for how their project or campaign can really fly.
You don’t have to have completely thought through these creative ideas, but make sure at some basic level you can talk through how the idea might work if they ask you.
A word of warning: You are presenting creative ideas, but make sure these are presented clearly and compellingly. There is a lot of cringe worthy terminology out there, most of which doesn’t make sense and will put the client off.
Stop using jargon. Be seen as straight forward and sincere, not full of nonsensical rhetoric.
Follow up promptly
Once the meeting is over, follow-up promptly after the meeting with an email thanking the client for their time.
This is also a chance to add in any things you missed out in the pitch or didn’t get time to cover. Don’t go overboard – it’s still better to keep the follow-up email short and sweet.
You should also create a "leave behind" – a version of your pitch deck that they can take away to look at in more detail or use to jog their memory of what you proposed.
If you’re pitch deck relied heavily on images, you can make this more text heavy. They’ll be reviewing this leave behind without the benefit of having you in the room to explain the context.
I’m sure there are many more tips and tricks to win new business pitches as a freelancer. Let us know in the comments if there are any further strategies you bring to the pitch process.
If you’re client side, would love to hear your stories and examples about what makes successful pitches stand out among the others.
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