How to Curate a Dream Client List

When you’re first starting out as a freelancer, everyone you interview with for a job is thrilling. But as you build your business client list, you need to filter out some of your prospects or you’ll end up losing control of your business and freedom.

Since my first days freelancing, I’ve built an agency with clients from all over the world. When they find out I’m traveling near them, they’d drive a couple of hours to take me out to dinner. I’ve even gone on vacation with some.

Your clients don’t have to be your friends, but part of why you got into freelancing is so you can do the work you enjoy, get paid well for it, and work with people you like, right?

Over the years, I’ve learned how to create a client roster filled with great people who provide consistent work, and you can do the same. In this article, you’ll learn how to:

How to determine your dream client list

Determining who makes it onto your dream client list depends on what’s important to you and your business. This begins with understanding how much you’re worth.

One thing I did when I began freelancing is take on poor-paying jobs, sometimes with difficult clients. I did it to build up my reputation, hours, and a bit of money. It’s hard to avoid this route in the beginning because you’ve got bills to pay. And people don’t want to hire people with zero earnings.

Each difficult client taught me what I definitely don’t want, and helped me clarify what I do want. That’s why today, people only make our client roster after they tick all these boxes:

  • They value the work we do
  • They have a budget to pay for it
  • They are growing their business
  • They treat our staff respectfully

1. Create a job criteria list

Establish a job criteria list before you apply for jobs. Writing proposals takes a lot of time, and when you’re applying for several jobs a day, you can waste too much time applying for jobs that may not be a good match.

For example, I had one prospect try to get a marketing plan done by me for free and then only pay me to execute it. So, in this case, should I have sent them a proposal? Let’s put them up against the checklist to find out:

  • Are they valuing the work we do? No
  • Do they have a budget to pay for it? Probably not if they’re trying to get free work
  • Are they growing their business? Don’t know
  • Are they treating us respectfully? No

See how clear that makes it?

2. Know how you’ll grow your business

Your criteria may change as your business grows. For example, now that our agency is established, I want to convert more clients to our retainer services. Knowing that, I also filter prospects out by spend. Here’s what I mean:

There are a lot of people who may only have the resources for a $200 one-time project. That may not work for us because our automation service can cost $10,000 or more. And our retainer packages start at $300 a month.

However, there are prospects who start with a small project and have the resources to hire us for larger projects later. What’s great about having filters is when we’re vetting them, we can ask questions to identify those prospects and add them to our list.

Yes, finding prospects takes a lot of time. And as you get busier, prospecting may not be the best use of your time.

That’s why as soon as we could, we hired someone to scour jobs on Upwork and apply for them on our behalf. She spends about 10 hours a week doing that and we spend about $500 per week purchasing Upwork Connects. But we don’t waste Connects applying for any job. She has a set of jobs to apply for and I give her a set of criteria for each one.

3. Vet them again once your proposal is accepted

Once your proposal has been accepted, vet them again with a few questions before you schedule a call. When I first started as a freelancer on Upwork, I spent 8 hours a day taking prospect calls. Now, I ask a few questions through Upwork Messages. Only once the prospect makes it through our second vetting process, will I schedule a 15-minute call.

There are several ways to vet clients. This is what I look for:

  • What are they trying to achieve? Do they need something done urgently? Are they expecting you to discount your rates? When someone tells me they need something urgently, I increase my rates and if they balk at that, then they’re not the right client for us.
  • Do they communicate clearly and respectfully? I find it quite off-putting when I can’t talk to a prospect properly. If someone says, “you’re just a freelancer,” and isn’t willing to answer questions, or seems to be in too much of a hurry to give details, then it could increase the risk of misunderstandings.
  • What is the budget? I try to estimate a budget before the prospect call. So I’ll read the job description and ask as many questions as I can before I jump on a call with them. After getting the information, I’ll ask what their budget is. If they don’t have one, I narrow it down by saying something like, normally, this will take about five hours of time, which will be around $1,500. Is that what you had in mind? If they only have a budget for $400, then I suggest we don’t bother with a call. I can’t emphasize enough: You must understand the worth of your time and skills.
  • Is there potential for a continued relationship? Have they been successful or are they struggling? Is the business solvent or sustainable? We want long-term relationships and repeat business, so we don’t take on clients who aren’t stable or growing.

4. Build and maintain a strong client relationship once the contract has started

These rules helped us grow the business working with contract clients more loyal than some of the employers I’ve held salaried positions with in the past.

  • Be there for clients. You want to work during the hours that work for you and are convenient for your clients, but go the extra mile. If you work with clients in different time zones, there may be times when you have to hop on a call really early in the morning or really late at night. Be available. Clients appreciate it when you make it easier to work with you.
  • Understand more than just the project scope. If someone says, “Hey Ross, I need an email.” I’d say, “Cool, what email system is it going into? Who’s it coming from? What’s the tone?” Because if you only understand the scope, you’re going to miss the point. A client goes to you because they need something they don’t have currently. If you understand the whole picture beyond the project scope, you can provide suggestions and deliver at a higher level.
  • Be yourself. I talk to my clients like I’d talk to my parents and friends. It doesn’t matter what the person’s title is or what they do for a living. We’re all human and we all want to work with people we like.
  • Be transparent. Say things honestly and be clear and upfront about everything. Make sure clients know what to expect from the beginning. If you charge for every email and call, let them know upfront, so they’re not upset with you when they see those charges on their invoice. If you’re running into a challenge with the project, let them know immediately and work out a solution with them.
  • Over communicate. At project start, be clear about deadlines and deliverables. Confirm when you received emails. Give project status updates. Avoid misunderstandings by regularly being in touch. Clients can’t see you, so they don’t know if you’re doing the work. And let’s be honest, they may be having a hard time trusting you if it’s the first time you’re working together. The more you can reassure them through regular contact, the smoother the project will be.

5. Have a strategy to re-engage with your dream clients once the contract has finished

We speak to new prospects every day. With each one, we have to explain this and explain that, and that’s fine. But you also need to be in a position where you control how you spend your time and how the business grows. Two ways I do this is by continuing relationships after a contract ends. And continuing to market different services.

Continue relationship building

I’m both a freelancer and a client on Upwork. I’ve spent around $100,000 contracting other professionals on the platform, but not one of them has ever contacted me again after a project was completed. A friend of mine has spent around $300,000 on Upwork and he never hears from freelancers ever again after a project ends.

If you don’t reach out to clients to build relationships, then you may be missing out on huge opportunities.

Building a relationship doesn’t have to take a lot of effort. You can increase the lifetime value of each customer just by emailing them once a month. Because you already have relationships with past clients, it’s easier to reactivate them than get business from a new one.

We only send about 15 emails each year and normally get 2-3 replies per email. That’s off of a small list of about 107 clients on the list. Of those two to three replies, someone will buy a service from us.

Here are a few things to think about when setting up an email marketing campaign:

1. Think of timing. We have clients in different time zones, so we use the predictive send feature in ActiveCampaign. Here’s how it works: If you usually open emails at 10 in the morning, this tool will know that and always sends emails at 10 a.m. So, we get in there when the customer is actively reading emails, not when they’re asleep. (If you’re not sure which email software is right for you, here’s a good start: Constant Contact vs. Mailchimp: Which Email Marketing Software Should You Choose?)

Just as important, I wait four weeks after a contract ends before sending clients the first email from our relationship nurturing series. I want them to have time to review all the work that’s been done, so they’re not annoyed they’re getting messages so soon.

2. Target pain points. Our emails target different topics according to real pain points most clients have. For example, every client has a website with plugins that need updating. So the first email we send is about website maintenance, the second one is automation, and the third is customer support. Each topic ties in with a service we offer. And we increase open rates by including the pain point in the subject line.

3. Avoid being salesy. We tell everything as a story and try to connect the email topic to common life experience. The story lets us connect based on those shared experiences and keeps us from looking like all of the other salesy emails in their inbox.

4. Be personal. We talk like a real person speaking to them face-to-face. Nothing is ever a hard sell. So you won’t see language like “sign up today!”. Our calls to action (CTA) are more passive. It’s usually something like:  “Click REPLY and let’s have a chat.”

5. Write your emails well in advance. Since we only send around 15 emails a year. I try to write them all at once so I’m not scrambling late on a Friday to write an email that needs to go out Monday morning. I may edit them slightly throughout the year, but it’s a lot less stressful to have the bulk written ahead of time. If you email more often, like once a week, try to have an editorial calendar of topics planned out and written at least six months in advance.

It pays to send the kind of emails you’d want to receive. Here’s a snapshot of our open rates. They’re pretty incredible.

High Open Rates

The industry average email open rate is around 22%, and we usually exceed that, with some emails having 55% open rates.


This email had a 46% open rate:

Continue marketing different services

Many of our clients come through Upwork. In addition to introducing our other services through email, I also scour Upwork jobs for past clients who post new jobs.

When past clients post a new job, I get pinged on Slack. Nearly all of our past clients are happy with us, so when they hear from me, it doesn’t feel salesy. I just message them saying something like hey, I can help you with this project and here’s how it could work.

You may be wondering why past clients don’t just offer jobs to me if they were happy with our previous work. There are two reasons: They either may not know we can help with that kind of project, which is another reason to email clients regularly about your different services. And they’re looking for a lower-priced alternative.

If they can get quality work done for less, then good for them. But I’ve fixed a few projects for clients who decided to save a few bucks. In the end, it cost them more because they had to pay the original budget freelancer then pay me to fix their work.

6. If necessary, know when (and how) to break up with a client

In my early days as a freelancer, I couldn’t afford to walk away from a paying client. And if I found the client on Upwork, I feared they would leave a bad review, which meant I’d have to start all over again building up my reputation.

Even today, I try to stick out working with bad clients until the contract ends, so that we don’t lose all of the hours we already put in. But there are times when you just have to end the contract because a client is so terrible to work with, or they’re costing you so much money that it’s better to take the loss.

Remember, you’re trying to build a dream client list, not just any list. Clients get kicked off our list when they:

  • Take ages to pay.
  • Put a project to dispute on Upwork.
  • Refuse to pay, so Upwork has to release the money.
  • Change a milestone or deliverable after the project starts and won’t pay for it.
  • Treat any member of my staff disrespectfully.

I haven’t had to fire many clients, but when I did, I found it’s best to be direct and polite. I told them, “Look, we’re not enjoying working with each other. I think it’s time that you find someone else who you may be able to work better with.” You don’t want to work with them again, but you don’t want people to leave angry. Although sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Chalk it up as a learning experience and move on.

Curate a dream client list and you control your business

Curating a dream client list begins with knowing your value, so you can create a set of criteria that make your workday more enjoyable and profitable. After completing a few contracts, you should have a better idea of how your business will expand, such as the services you want to provide. Then you’ll be able to further filter out prospects, so you only have clients that you not only enjoy working with, but that help your business grow.

This article was submitted by and expresses the views and opinions of the independent freelancer listed as the author. They do not constitute the views or opinions of Upwork, and Upwork does not explicitly sponsor or endorse any of the views, opinions, tools or services mentioned in this article, all of which are provided as potential options according to the view of the author. Each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situations.
This article was submitted by and expresses the views and opinions of the author. They do not constitute the views or opinions of Upwork, and Upwork does not explicitly sponsor or endorse any of the views, opinions, tools or services mentioned in this article, all of which are provided as potential options according to the view of the author. Each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situations.
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Ross J.
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Marketing Expert - HubSpot, ActiveCampaign and Memberium Certified
Kenilworth, United Kingdom
Digital Marketing
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