This happens a lot.

You finally make contact with a juicy buyer:  a heavy-using dream client who buys loads of what you do, and has a fat budget for freelancers.

You have a pleasant conversation or two. They like your work. Your vibes are aligned. You’re feeling happy.

Then . . . then, they say, “Thanks. We’ll call you when something comes up.”

Been there, heard that, 114 times.

You either think “Hooray, they’ll be calling me this Thursday” . . .  or “Damn, they are blowing me off.”

Actually, it’s neither.

What you’re hearing is inertia. “We’re happy with the freelancers we’re working with. No reason to take a chance on an unknown right now.”

It’s always safer for clients to bring in the guy they know, the designer they used last week.

So when they say “We’ll call you,” it means your task is to wait cheerfully and patiently on the bench with hands folded.

Until one of their regular freelancers screws up.

Maybe one of their designers will blow a deadline or turn a high-profile job into an utter turd. Maybe one will make the client look like an ass in front of her boss. (Man, that was me. Thrice.) Or maybe their skew-haired copywriter is hauled off for thirty days of court-ordered rehab.

Only then do you get your shot at glory.

The hard part is, you may have to wait cheerfully for a week, for sixty-one days, or damn near forever. And chances are, if it’s a truly desirable client, you will be sitting in the lobby with six other eager beavers.

So how to play this while you’re waiting?

First move: Go make contact with another must-have, frequent flyer client in the meantime.

Now back to work on the first one.

Don’t do what the others do

Clients tell me most of us freelancers are hopeless bumblers at ‘keeping in touch’.

We irritate. We nag and interrupt. We call when we have nothing to say. And we talk about ourselves entirely too much. Or, even worse, we melt into a blob of faceless nobodies who all sound the same.

(Listen to Dave Trott, Creative Director at CST The Gate, ranting about how clumsily he is pursued by most freelancers.)

The first rookie mistake, which I once raised to high art, is pestering the hell out of them every six days.

“Hey. We spoke last week about perhaps doing some freelance work. Just wanted to check in and see what you have coming up.”

No. God, no.

That will not speed up the process. It will only train them to nuke your emails and to recognize your number on the caller ID. They will grow weary of blowing you off. You will become a nuisance with no work.

(Fortunately, that perky freelancer to the left of you on the bench, the one who keeps wanting to chat, she will most likely do this.)

Worse, if you are too urgent in your pestering, it will scream “Please, please, I’m really really crazy in need of work right now.”  Which will quickly unfurl the red flags and yellow police tape. It does not inspire confidence.

(The guy down at the end of the bench, the one chewing his nails, he will do this. We will let him.)

Second newbie mistake, which I made for about a year, is to do nothing. I didn’t stoop to grovel, harass, or beg. I was cool. After all, they had seen my remarkably smooth and insightful copy. They would seek me out.

Mostly they didn’t. They got busy with, you know, life and doing their jobs and worrying about their own problems.

After three months of remaining cool and aloof, I would get curious and deign to follow up.

“Walt whotheyd say.  “I’m sorry, who are you again?”

The good part for you:  that freelancer over there, him with his eyes closed and his earphones in, this is exactly what he will do. So he will be gone soon, too.

What about sending the client updates on jobs you’ve done, projects just completed?

I never had a client who cared a lick about the work I was doing for other clients. The girl you are asking out tonight is not interested in who you dated last week. Unless it was someone famous.

How about a newsletter? Less than exciting. It has to be a killer piece — something your prospects would die to read anyway — otherwise it’s a notch above spam. It also says, “I automatically sent this same thing to a bunch of other people who I am also chasing for work.”  

We can do better than ‘paste and send.’ We are only courting a half-dozen people or so. Perhaps ten. This is not mass marketing.

Here is what to do.

(Be forewarned. This approach is a bitch. Which is precisely why it works, and why other freelancers won’t do it. Or can’t. All of which is good for you.)

Oh, and see the huge caveat down at the bottom there.

Make it about them

You want make yourself more familiar. Not just some newbody at the end of an email.

You want step out of that ‘unknown and untested’ category. You want to reinforce that you’re a good match, that you’re looking forward to working with them. That you like them. You’re a pro. That you get them.

The trick is to make every contact welcome, and looked forward to. Make each contact a pleasant micro-event in itself. (That’s the hard part.)

Which means entertaining them somehow or giving them something. Or perhaps talking about them, or making the email about them, or talking about them, or maybe talking about their work, or talking about them. Or best of all talking about them.

Maybe you send along an email with a link:

“Happened to see this article on XXX, and instantly thought about you, especially since they are trying what you have been doing. But I thinking they’re missing part of it . . . .

Or another:

“Not that you asked, but I just posted a piece on my blog that you might find interesting, especially since you were so adamant about. . . [    ]   Well, at least it’s free.”

Maybe you set your alarm and wake up at 12:43 am to leave a voice mail on their number. (You know, so they don’t unexpectedly answer.)

“I just saw that they quoted you on the XYZ blog. No punches pulled at all. Kudos for that.  And I got a double chuckle out that part about ‘anti-social media.’  I just may steal that. Anyway, good quote.”

All month long, the boys in the back of your mind are at work, with eyes and ears open for something about THEM, or their stuff, or their needs that you can talk about. Sort of like setting up a Google Alert for the name of the agency, or the company, or the product.

Your antenna is up and scanning. You’re thinking back to everything you know about the client. What she said in her email, her phone call, her blog.

Maybe you see their product in use at your local coffee shop. Or you spy a competitor’s piece of shit rusting in an alleyway. Or you see a billboard, posters, or ads neatly juxtaposed with. . .  From you, they get an iPhone photo and text:

“Whoa. Is there a headline in this? Or at least a tee-shirt, maybe?”

You are also keeping an eye on their website, blog or newsfeed. For new accounts they won, new products released, new sections of the site. One hour a week is all you need.

“Congrats on winning the LDDN account. Some day, I want to hear how you EVER got the client to approve a headline with the word ‘Weasel’ in it. I’m guessing that’s a first?”

The beauty here is in forcing you to think about why you like this client. Why you want to work with them. How and where your sensitivities are in synch, why you’re not just one of the bunch out in the lobby.

“Quick confession. I was stuck for an idea while working for a client in an altogether different business. I happened to remember that tone you used in the XXXX piece. The content jelled instantly. Client loved it.

“Thanks for the inspiration. I owe you one.”

Ideally, you get a casual email exchange going with the client. You become a colleague, someone they know. You leap past all the crap.

What if you want to send samples of recent work?

The rule of thumb: Only portfolio-grade stuff. And only one image, one identity, one screenshot, one link, one clip at a time. And nothing that requires explanations or setup or a big story.

If you’re selling copy, as I am, don’t send pdfs of some article. At best, a screenshot of the home page, the promo piece. Or a link to something. Make it intelligible at a glance, which is all you get. They will not read other clients’ body copy. (I like what copywriter Laura Silverman does with just headlines.)

And always, always, add a personal note to your email, your postcard.

“Ready when you are, C.B.”

The huge caveat

I can attest that this approach does work.

I have been on the receiving end at least four times, even though I knew and had used it myself. When done well and thoughtfully, it is the most natural thing in the world.

A fellow freelancer used to deride this as ‘marketing by sucking up.’ Until, of course, he realized that this was exactly how he had hired his last intern, and two graphics freelancers.

The key: This is only useful if you are sincere and specific.

“I just love your product. I love your site. Your work is amazing.  I’m a big fan of your agency.”

That’s generic spam. Sounds phony, is phony. That’s sucking up.

If you think of this as a technique, you will kill it.

It’s more of a mindset.  A way of thinking about your relationship with clients.

What’s interesting to them? Who would they want to work with?