So far, I have been hired by clients at least 393 times. The client said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

And, conversely, I have not been hired maybe 1,000 times. Or even more. (Who would keep count of that, anyway?)

The odd thing is, I have no idea why I get hired, and why I don’t.

In my head, I tell myself stories like “They saw that I had such great experience in XYZ.” Or, “They were impressed by my keen insights into the nuances of enterprise marketing.”

Is that true? Probably not. But it feels good to think so.

When I don’t get the assignment, I think, “I was too edgy and contrary for them. They wanted the same old stuff.” Or, “They just didn’t get it.” Or, “They were just poking around, not serious.”

That’s probably not true, either. They are just stories I make up to get myself through the day.

A while back I started asking clients about this.

“Why did you hire that photographer?” 

“What attracted you to that designer?” 

“Why that editor?”

I was surprised to hear that they can’t say, exactly. They can’t articulate it.

Sometimes they give vague answers that sound good. “We liked his style. We needed a programmer who was good with XXX in ZZZ environments. She had experience with heavy duty financial translations. He came recommended.” Their reasons always sound suspiciously like the stories I make up, too.

But mostly, they can’t say, exactly.

Because their decisions are largely subconscious, intuitive, purely from the gut. Sometimes emotional. Maybe even irrational in some way. Instantaneous.

When talking to a freelancer, they somehow see a kindred spirit. They feel a connection. They hear someone talking from the same page. The vibes align.

Something clicks in their heads, “I can work with this guy.” Or, “My boss would be okay with her.”

They think, “She gets it.” They feel instant comfort, confidence. Which may or may not be based on anything concrete.

They simply decide, and that’s it.

I find it interesting that clients can be quite articulate about why they didn’t hire certain freelancers.

“He was too pushy. She just irritated me. He took too long to call me back. He sounded like an arrogant prick. She made me feel stupid. He didn’t seem to hear me. She turned into a pest. All he talked about was how he worked and how he charged. He asked about my budget, first thing.”

A friend notes that the dynamics are much like that of dating: There is a spark. Or there isn’t. You can’t always explain it. Sometimes, there is instant repulsion. You can’t explain it.

I know. It all sounds so nebulous, so capricious, unpredictable and unfair. And it is.

Freelancers who work in the more technical, more credential-based trades hate this whole notion. They harrumph, “What about my qualifications, my experience, my expertise, and professionalism? So this is a popularity contest now?”

From what I’ve seen, your enviable credentials and hard-won qualifications may get you a phone call. But they don’t necessarily get you the job, or a long-term relationship.

Clients decide at gut level first. They only use the goodies in your CV to justify their choice afterward. Emotion first, facts later.

If that marketing director doesn’t connect with me on some level, the fact that I have impeccably handled 2,861 projects doesn’t matter a whit. And she won’t care that someone elsethinks me clever, either.

Freelancers who are naturally outgoing and social think this is just fine, of course. They automatically think everyone likes them anyway.

So what to we do?

What we can do is tilt the odds in our favor.

Act like someone the client might want to do business with. Someone they could easily work with day to day.

Yeah, even if we’re not blessed with a magnetic personality and the gift of universal attraction.

1. Listen more, talk less

Your first contact with the client should be mostly them talking, and you being endlessly interested. They will instinctively like you better. “Oh really? Go on,” you say.

This is partly a defensive move. The less you babble, the less likely you are to bore the client or to say something stupid and accidentally get yourself crossed off the list.

But listening deeply also makes you seem smarter, more engaged. You are fascinated. The client feels like the center of the universe for a few minutes. (This also works on first dates.)

“Interesting,” you say. “Tell me more about what you’re thinking here.”

2. Limit your ‘story’ to two sentences. Two.

When a client says, “So, tell me about your services” or “What sort of web design do you do?” or “Tell me about your background”, you answer in 25 words or less. Never more. No one is listening beyond that. You are allowed two sentences. Then direct the conversation back to the client.

“I started by ghostwriting term papers for friends in college, as unethical as that was. Now, I ghost-write speeches, articles, and web content for technology companies, all perfectly legal of course.” 

“You give me French, I give you English, and vice versa. I’m quite comfortable with technical and scientific work, which I do pretty much all day long. Now, tell me. . . .

You’re not trying to be evasive, just respectful of their patience. If they ask, answer openly. But no long speeches. You hate long pitches too. Talk plenty about what they get, sparingly about yourself.

I blew this just two days ago. When the call came in, the caller ID made me think it was a telemarketer. I answered coldly.

Ooops. A potential client. I tried to recover by gushing and fawning and talking WAY too much. I could hear the client’s eyes glazing over but couldn’t make myself shut up. Luckily, I redeemed myself with this one:

3. Be generous with your ideas, advice, suggestions

Clients seem to love it when you give them all sorts of free help. And they hate to hear, “Well, hire me and I’ll tell you.” They detest that.

If it’s a big project, offer to translate the first few paragraphs to suggest your approach and style. Or do it two different ways.

If you know of links or sites or books or resources that would help them. Send them along.

If they’re thinking about a promotional program or a new web project or some iPad app, rattle off some thoughts. Yes, they will know it’s all preliminary. But it shows you’re on their side. It shows how you think, who you are.

The more ideas you give away, the more clients like you, and the more work you win. Yes, even tell them how to change the header height in CSS. (If you lose a job because of this, it wasn’t a job anyway.)

When I blew it on the phone with the client above, I promised to get back to them with a fee, and some thoughts on promoting their new service line.

They got a four-page email outlining everything I was thinking, what I’d explore first, what probably wouldn’t work. Things they should try even if they didn’t hire me. It took maybe thirty minutes. In truth, it was not rocket surgery. But it was about them. It was freely given. I got hired.

And even if I didn’t get the gig that time, I would win some karma points to redeem for a referral, or some later work. Or, I’d like to think so anyway.

4. Tame your enthusiasm

This is counter-intuitive, I know. But being overly excited about a project seems to turn clients off. Maybe because it sounds like you’re faking it. Or that you are desperate for work. Any work at all.

Man, the more jazzed about a project I become, and the more I jabber on, the less clients seem to be interested. They suspect ulterior motives perhaps. Or maybe it’s just the reverse contrariness of the universe.

The best line to walk: You’re interested. You’re intrigued. You see how to do this. You’d be happy to work on it. You like the client. But, if it doesn’t happen for some reason, that’s okay, too. That is somehow more appealing to clients.

I once worked with a guy who was masterful at restrained enthusiasm. He had a knack for holding back when talking about a potential project. He acted as if he were just itching to say ‘We are dying to do this. This will be brilliant‘, but kept it under wraps.

The effect was much like pressing your thumb over the end of a garden hose, rather than letting it gush. Pent-up energy. Clients always caught that vibe.

5. Do what you say you will do. Bigger and sooner.

I utterly missed the importance of this for a long time. Dumb.

For clients, hiring you is always a leap of faith. You are an unknown. There is always the possibility that you will screw up, or not deliver, or send them something they hate.

You need to allay the fears, build the trust. Starting from day one.

Provide a phone number. You’d be surprised at how many freelancers don’t. Clients are wary of phantom freelancers who exist only in email. And if you can, always answer the damn phone.

When you say you’ll email them an estimate and ‘some thoughts’ in the morning, do it. Send it at 6 am. And send a fat page of thoughts. Overdo it.

Then, two hours later, say “I’ve been thinking”. . . and add a couple more ideas.

When you promise to call them back in ten minutes, call them back in eight minutes.

If the job isn’t right for you, offer to send them names of other freelancers. Then send them six. Complete with a sentence or two of explanation.

Little by little, do what you promise to do. Plus a little extra.

They will trust you more.