Nicole, Sarah. (Many others.)

Q:  When I come across a client that I might like to work for, how do I approach them when they don’t know me and I don’t know them?

How do I make that first “cold” contact, without a referral, without an inside track? What works? And what doesn’t?

A:  What works is to go about this freely and easily. Keep it simple. And do it often.

That’s because approaching clients ‘cold’ is always a hit-or-miss proposition. Compared to working referrals or fielding inquiries from your web site, it’s a low percentage game.

The problem is, from out here in the parking lot, you can’t tell what the client’s real issues are. You don’t know what they like, what they need, what projects they’re planning, what they’re looking for. (If anything.) You don’t know anything about their quirks, pet peeves, or mantras.

Which means you aren’t sure what to say, how to interest them. You can only guess.

And you don’t come pre-endorsed, pre-vouched-for, or pre-approved. You have to start from scratch.

It’s much like walking up to someone attractive at a club or a party. You don’t know if you’ll get ignored or shot down, or find the love of your life. Or something in between.

But still, you can make this work. When you see a plump and juicy client off in the distance, it does make sense to jump off the rock and give chase. Especially when you need to widen your network and change the scenery. Or when you’re hungry for a different class of work.

Here’s what I have found:

1. Don’t go in with both guns blazing. You are not trying to land an assignment today. You’re not trying to say everything. (They won’t hear it anyway.) You have no idea what you’re shooting at yet. Or even if there is anything to shoot at.

You are only trying to strike up a conversation. You want to see if there is some interest, some fit, some possible need for what you do. Maybe you can entice them to look at your work, your ideas, your CV. Or to ask you a question or two.

Then work from there. Or, pack up and move on.

2. Timing and luck will count. Clients can be maddeningly deaf to your overtures unless they have a project on the to-do list that morning, or are actively looking for talent. This week they may ignore you. Next month they might invite you in.

So if you don’t hear anything from them (which is likely) try again every few weeks with a slightly different approach.

Until they call. Or until they say “no thanks.”

3. You have to do this often, with every prospect you’re attracted to. And be free and easy about this. Don’t turn every contact into a ‘do or die’ mission, as if it is your only shot. It isn’t.

The best attitude: “Let’s poke around and see what we can uncover. Let’s try this and see what happens.”

On the African savannah, even a lioness at the top of her game only scores a zebra in one try out of five.

By email or paper mail

Email works well for this, of course. What’s even more effective is a genuine paper letter mailed with a stamp and everything, especially when you address the envelope by hand. It is so retro and so unusual no client can resist opening it. And you become much more of a live person.

(Oddly enough, phone calls work surprisingly well, too. More about that in a minute.)

Write as one person to another, human to human. That always gets more response than being overly clever and slick.

Mr Field:

By any chance, are you trying to find a really good freelance writer?

I have kept a close eye on Exeter’s web site for some time now, and have always appreciated how you manage to make such complex technology so clear and understandable. Very refreshing to see.

Your section on the X2200 is especially good; I have actually sent it along to clients — in different businesses entirely — as an example of how they should be talking about their products. It always helps to nudge them in the right direction. (Thanks for that.)

You obviously have access to good writing talent already. But if you ever need to expand your roster, I’d sure like to raise my hand. We see eye to eye, I think.

Just for reference, you can see some of my recent work here.

If you feel it would be helpful to chat, I’m available at (000) 000-0000 most days.  And by email anytime.



My designer friend Elena would spend one or two evenings a week looking for things, people, products, websites, articles and companies she liked. She would then email them.  “That way, I always have something to say.”

Jason Leigh:

I’m writing as a long-time fan of your ice cream, and a tireless evangelist for the brand.  (I have enticed several friends, along with my entire family, away from the Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen-whatever camps. They won’t go back.)

But as a freelance designer (which is my other passion) I was curious about your current web site.

Not that it’s any of my business — other than being a fan — but if you are planning on re-doing it sometime soon, I’d be happy to offer some ideas.

It seems to me that some of your best stuff, the things that endear fans to a small company like yours, is sort of hidden right now.  And why not make your site look and feel more like your packaging?  Which is utterly unlike anything on the market anywhere.  And why not tell more stories like you have on the side of the carton?

I don’t want to overstep here. I’m just a die-hard fan. But if you’d like to talk further about this, please email me, or call.

I’ll keep eating your ice cream either way, of course. Especially the peach.


Does that sound like too much effort?  She often went simpler, too. Never even asked about work.


I happened to see the new branding and packaging for  A. T. Lawless and got instantly envious. I poked around and learned that it was your agency’s work.

One of those designs that make you say, “I wish I had done that.”

Anyway, it’s ingenious.




What if you don’t really like the company or the client per se. What if the only attraction is that they seem to have a lot of work, even skunk work?

Mr. Tompkins:

I notice that Simmons-Greene publishes much of its marketing literature and web content in German for the European markets.

I’m guessing that getting those translations done is among least exciting things on your to-do list, no?

For a language nerd like me, though, English-to-German translation — especially business-oriented material like yours — is endlessly fascinating. (Consider, what is the equivalent of ‘jumping the curve’ in German?)

If you’re happy with your translation process now, that’s fine.

But if you’d like to explore ways to simplify things, and perhaps create more effective content for your German markets, I’d be glad to share some ideas with you.

You can reach me at (000) 000-0000.




The phone works, too

I know. The idea of phoning a potential client out of the blue sounds scary. Even hard-core sales people hate the idea of ‘cold-calling.’

But if you do it right it’s surprisingly efficient, fast, and also quite painless all around.  I stole this from another freelancer who used it on me.  It’s disarming, non-intrusive. Nobody gets angry.

Obviously it works only when you have a phone number for your prospect. And only in businesses where people actually answer their phones. Fewer and fewer people do.

First, don’t make the call sitting down. Stand and stroll leisurely around your office. Your voice will sound uncannily better when you’re standing. And you will need to think on your feet.

YOU:  “Hi.  This is Nathan Allen calling.

By any chance . . . are you trying to find a really good freelance writer?”

(illustrator, designer, ruby programmer, photographer . . .)

THEM:  (pause)  “Well, not really. No.”

YOU:  “Okay. You don’t use freelancers, then?”

THEM:  “Hardly ever.”

YOU:  “I see. Okay. Thanks.  Bye.”

What works here is getting right to the question. Because it’s so simple, so direct and non-threatening I find people will almost always answer truthfully. They have a simple way out. They don’t have their ‘sales guard’ up.  You’ve saved yourself and them a lot of time.

YOU:  “Hi.  This is Nina Fleming calling.

By any chance . . . are you trying to find a really good freelance designer?”

THEM:  (pause)  “Well, actually, yes. Did someone send you to me?”

YOU:  “No. I’ve known of your company for a while. I was just curious. Could you tell me what sort of work you were looking to do?”

THEM:  “Well, mostly some web work for some new services, some branding . . .

YOU:  “I see . . . interesting.”

THEM:  “Is that what you do?”

YOU:  “Sure. All day long.  I’d be happy to show you some recent work if you’d like. . . When will you be launching the new services? . . .”

As always, the more they talk, the better.

YOU:  “Hi.  This is Nina Fleming calling.

By any chance . . . are you trying to find a really good French-English translator?

THEM:  (chuckle)  “Is that what you are?”

YOU:  “Actually yes.”

THEM:  “Well, we work with a number of regular translators already.”

YOU:  “Okay.  That’s fine, then.  Just so I’ll know . . . what do you especially like about them?”

THEM:  “Like?  I don’t know. They do what we need, they’re reasonable. We’re happy.”

YOU:  “I see. Well, thanks. Glad to meet you.  Bye.”

Sometimes, there isn’t an ‘in.’  And you’ve learned that in just four minutes. So you chalk it up, and move on. Try again next month.

No matter how good you are, how skillful your tactics, it is always hit or miss.

So go at it free and easy. See what happens. Try a bunch of things.

And meanwhile work the hell out of your referrals.

Or get yourself famous so people call you.