How to convince clients to use freelancers in a recession

This article was originally presented as a talk for The Southern African Freelancers’ Association (SAFREA) in early November 2012.

When times are tough, Rands are few – so it can be hard to keep retainers, sustain relationships with long-term clients and convince new clients to spend money on freelance services. How can we market ourselves through the squeeze, position ourselves in a vacuum, convey our value and get more of those all-important YESes? 

It’s 2012 and we’re in the second dip of the double-dip recession the pessimists warned us about. Everything’s getting more expensive. But clients expect ‘recession discounts’, niggle about our time sheets, or put out-sourcing/marketing/comms spend on hold.

So, what to do and how to survive with your bank balance and dignity intact?


Whatever you do, don’t stop asking for work. Don’t stop allocating time to marketing efforts, even if you have to work that much harder to win jobs. Don’t say, ‘I’ll start sending my newsletter out again when things pick up.’ Send it now. Because you don’t want to lose that momentum and have to remind people you exist when everything looks rosier. They’re more likely, also, to trust the guy who was consistent – who kept maintaining contact – even once everyone else had retreated into their shell.


Other freelancers are going to be scared out of freelancing and into full-time jobs, where they can get them – leaving work for you. Recessions create a vacuum, and if you’re planning to remain self-employed you need to be the freelancer who dives into it. Don’t feel obliged to give random discounts*, but do be the supplier who does more, who goes further, who tries harder, and who throws in an hour or two beyond the call of duty.

* If you decide to give a discount, always give a reason – like volume, NGO, whatever.


I can’t count how many times I’ve had prospective clients say ‘If you do this work for [insert insulting amount here], you’ll get so much exposure…’ or ‘We’ll give you so much more work…’ or ‘You can have a share of whatever profits you help to generate for us.’

That’s bull****. We’re service providers, like plumbers (except poorer), and we deserve to be paid in money, not promises, as soon as the work is done. No matter how desperate you are, remember that the client is paying for your expertise, not your hours. Also, a client who doesn’t see your value isn’t going to want to settle your bill later on.


If you can come across as the freelancer who knows her stuff, who is able (or willing) to learn the client’s stuff, and who can give them what they need first or second time round, you’re more likely to get YESes to your quotes. Here are 10 quick tips for being a pro:

  1. Itemise your quotes, so they can clearly see what they’re getting
  2. Try to educate clients who don’t know a lot about [your area]
  3. Be honest about what you don’t know
  4. Be proud of what you do know
  5. Always ask about the client’s objectives, or the greater strategy
  6. Never agree to start immediately, or to meet the same day
  7. Keep the client posted on the progress of the job, within reason
  8. Return email enquiries within 24 hours if you can
  9. Never blame your tools (internet connection, phone, car, etc.)
  10. Be willing to pay for clients’ coffee if you meet at a coffee shop

If a client says NO, even if you’ve spent an hour with them and two hours on the quote, never send a snarky email back or ask for a reason. Never burn that bridge. Always thank them for the opportunity to quote, invite them to give you a shout when they’re ready and ask if they’d like you to diarise to chase up in however-many months’ time. If you have a newsletter or database, add them to it, so that you’re top of mind later on.

Good luck!