As a freelancer, your work is defined by more than one-time projects. It’s a business and a rewarding career. And to create a sustainable business, you must develop new and current assignments into long-term opportunities by learning how to build client relationships.

How can you prove your long-term value to your clients? Our fractional experts weigh in with their advice and personal experience in turning new projects into lasting partnerships.

Expand your services

When you buy a new car, you may be offered premium versions of existing features, such as a more powerful engine or better mileage efficiency. Or, you may be offered separate but related add-on products, such as insurance to protect your investment. Both should provide a more satisfying outcome for the buyer, increase the dealership’s profit and, in the long run, entice the client to buy their future vehicles.

Upselling and cross-selling should work similarly as a freelancer. You may offer an enhanced version of a service that provides more value, such as full-charge bookkeeping services in place of basic bookkeeping or payroll. Or, you may suggest a secondary service. A freelancer who has social media experience in addition to long-form content creation may propose to help run a social media account alongside the company’s blog. Whether you choose to broaden your engagement through an upsell or a cross-sell, your services must meet a real need and add value for your client.

Not all clients are ideal long-term partnerships

Not every client will need your services on a recurring basis, and not every client will be open to services beyond the requested scope. Part of learning how to build client relationships is knowing which clients are appropriate for long-term engagements.

It’s essential to understand your clients deeply. Paro fractional full-charge bookkeeper, Erik K., states, “Everything is built upon having a good relationship with the client. You’re not going to talk solely about the project you’re working on or handling for your client on a recurring basis. You also talk about other parts of the business. That is when you discover their other points of pain and what solutions and recommendations you may have for them.”

Erik points out that many of his clients are small businesses and nonprofits. In his experience, some businesses have lacked efficient accounting functions. He says he must determine early on if a client is open to implementing improved functions before he decides to continue building the partnership. “If they’re not [willing to improve processes], then the work is not going to be worth it, because it’s never going to be more efficient than it already is, which is how you make your money freelancing. You have to be able to spend less time than it is worth.”

Identifying ideal long-term clients requires that you see value in your clients as well. Find clients who are open and willing to trust your expertise and grow with you.

Prove yourself against alternatives

Proving your value against another professional, such as an in-house employee or other freelancers, will strengthen your client’s trust in you as their go-to teammate.

Erik explains, “If a freelancer works at the pace of an employee, they’re not providing value for the client other than tax savings. That’s one thing you can use to say, ‘Hey, I could do this better, or at least cheaper.’” Erik explains that he also leverages his tech skills to demonstrate that he can complete the work faster than full-time employees or, potentially, other freelancers.

Paro fractional CPA, Robert G., echoes this sentiment. In addition to traditional accounting services, he also offers accounting advisory services to provide additional value to his clients. “The role of the traditional accountant has gone by the wayside. Today, [accountants] have much more developed skill sets, and the successful ones must also be critical, strategic thinkers who are more proactive and less reactive.” By offering skill sets that differentiate him in the market, Robert increases the value of his partnerships.

Be a strong listener and time it right

The solutions you offer your clients are only part of your value. Meaningful relationships also develop from empathy, deep understanding and practiced soft skills, which shift the relationship from a transaction to a partnership. Qualitative listening, patience, thoughtful timing and taking initiative all lend to a stronger client relationship.

Robert says it is essential not to put the cart before the horse in the early days of a new engagement or when speaking with a client. “Usually, I’ll sit and just listen. I won’t ask many questions, but I will take very good notes. I try to understand what the client says they need and whether it matches with what I am hearing.”

Robert often uses a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis to determine which clients will benefit from more problem solving down the line:

“Once, I took on a new client who had no accounting department and just a payroll person. The new owner mentioned that she would like to grow the business from a $1 million enterprise to $5 million. Figures aside, the thing that stood out was the word ‘growth.’ So I noted her goal, but I explained that we first need to get her to a point where invoices get paid, staff gets paid and we’re closing in a timely manner. Then, in time, we can revisit that $5 million growth goal with the upsell of forecasting and budgeting. So the engagement organically evolves from building up their accounting function to one of strategic planning.”

Robert points out that creating additional opportunities with a client should be an organic process—and you don’t need to address other pain points or push additional services immediately. Listen for opportunities as you learn more about your client, but put your client’s best interests first.

How to build client relationships with greater transparency

Knowing when to approach a client with additional solutions is a delicate dance. New opportunities result from open and frank discussions. Be honest about a client’s perception of what they need versus your knowledge of what they actually need.

Robert says, “If a client says, ‘We need a controller,’ and I’m billing out around $100 per hour, but I know deep down that they really need a good, solid bookkeeper for business at $35 per hour, I am going to advise the client that this is where they need to start. Then, we build things out from there. That’s where relationships and trust develop. It is when the opportunities start coming to you, rather than you searching for them.”

Erik adds that honesty goes a long way in building those relationships, even if you aren’t a client or target’s cheapest option. “The fact that you come off as honest and sincere in what you propose immediately gives you a leg up on everyone else.”

Build long-term opportunities with qualified clients

At Paro, we don’t just aim to provide staffing for client projects. We go a step beyond, serving as a growth platform. Once we match our fractional and remote professionals with qualified clients, we continue to provide tools and guidance to foster longer, meaningful relationships. If you’re looking to grow a sustainable business on your own terms, join our network of elite finance and accounting experts.