One way to charge more (and work less) as a freelancer is to shift from implementing the client's brief to selling strategy. When you help to set the direction for a project, you're also far less likely to find yourself navigating the awkward gaps in expectations that can arise from missing or outdated strategies.
But how do you transition to selling strategy? What do the deliverables look like? How much should you charge?
My guest today is Austin Church, a brand strategist, business coach, host of the brilliant Freelance Cake podcast and all-round entrepreneur. He shares his experience of shifting from selling implementation to strategy and his tips on how you can do the same.
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Louise Shanahan is a freelance health and medical copywriter. She's on a mission to help others build a freelance business that feels easy and works for them – in weekly snack-sized bites.
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Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack-size guide to being your own boss and building a business that works for you. I'm your host, Louise Shanahan. I'm a freelance health copywriter and on this podcast I take you behind the scenes, so you can borrow from what's worked and what hasn't as you grow your own freelance business. We'll also have some practical tips and tactics from special guests along the way, so you can skip a few steps on your own freelancing journey. So without further ado, let's get started with today's episode. If you enjoy it, hit follow so you don't miss the next one.
Louise: Hello, everyone, Louise here. Today, I'm joined by Austin Church who is going to help us figure out how to work less, charge more and maybe even deliver better results for our clients, by offering strategy as a standalone freelance service. Austin is a brand strategist, business coach, host of the brilliant Freelance Cake podcast and all-round entrepreneur. He's going to share his experience of shifting from implementation to strategy. Hi Austin, how are you? Thank you for joining me.
Austin: Hi, Louise. Thank you for having me. And what an intro, I'll try and live up to it, it was brilliant, thank you.
L: I'm really interested in this idea of how freelancers can think about selling strategy, as well as or instead of the execution side of things. I wonder if you can tell us, why should we be thinking about that, and where is a good place to start?
A: I started selling strategy when I was short on time, and realised that I just did not have enough, I'll call it time inventory, to hit my target income. I think that's a common problem that we have. For me, it got pretty desperate, thinking how am I possibly going to hit this income that I need for my family, with the time I do have. One way I began experimenting with making more money in less time was by selling project road mapping and content road mapping. So both of those are a good place for people to start. If you're not in content, if you're a different type of freelancer, you take some small sliver of a bigger project that you sell on a fairly regular basis. Take the planning phase, or road mapping, or planning or analysis, whatever you have to do to later deliver the bigger project. Shave that off and sell that as a standalone engagement.
L: What might that actually look like for the client? Are you giving them that in the form of a written report or a framework? Or is that something that you would communicate purely verbally over a call?
A: I typically deliver a PDF report. I mean, obviously, it could be different based on whether you're a photographer, designer, copywriter, even software developer, but I think in terms of some kind of actionable plan, some insight that will have value, apart from whether or not they choose to hire me to do the rest of the project to do the implementation. I tend to think the value of that strategy engagement is much higher if they do get some kind of artefact afterwards.
L: And a lot of the time, we might be doing this anyway. We may have already made the evolution from simply taking orders from a client and preparing a piece of work that they've planned and asked for to also doing the research, and often we might be writing that up ourselves or even sharing it with the client. And this is almost the next step, isn't it to turn that into a standalone piece that the client can then run with themselves. Or would you also offer to implement it, how does that part of the process work?
A: Most of us have to do this type of work anyway, to organise our thoughts, organise the pieces of the project so that we can execute on the implementation phase. But what I will often do, after I've delivered the strategy session, as I'm writing up the report, or organising all of the notes into an actionable plan, I'll include a section at the very end, it will have a subheading, like, what's next, or where do we go from here, and that's where I'll put in my proposal. These strategy engagements are wonderful for vetting clients, getting a sense of what it might be like to work with them on a bigger project. And if I then decide, yes, I would like to keep working with this client, I can just slide my proposal straight into the report as the very last section. Then when I deliver the report, I'll let the client know let's have a follow up call, I'll talk you through the report. And then obviously, at the very end of the report, I can talk them through my recommendations.
L: And then you might deliver some of that yourself or maybe work with other freelancers or specialists to do that?
A: That's right. And I do like strategy engagements because we can be impartial, dispassionate, we don't just have to be hammers looking for a nail, we can help the client try to flush out a true and full and holistic solution. And, you know, as you alluded to, you may discover that the client doesn't just need your help, they need help from a whole team, or at least from a handful of other freelancers. And so, after you've outlined the full scope of the solution that they need, you can do the parts that you want to do, and then obviously, you can loop in other specialists to do the parts you don't want to do.
L: This might feel like a bit of a big change for some people. I wonder if you can share some of the lessons that you've learned, maybe the do's and don'ts, as you've made this shift yourself?
A: It's a paradigm shift, right, because so many of us are accustomed to being order takers, we're like short order cooks. Someone makes an order, and then we cook up exactly what they asked for. Now, we aren't just assuming that the client already has perfect clarity on exactly what they need. Instead, we're helping them get clarity, we're helping them evaluate the various paths forward, or solutions, we're helping them choose a path, and then identify the next discrete steps down that path. And that makes us guides and advisors and leaders even. I think that paradigm shift is important to recognise going in, because you're not just a rule follower anymore, or you're not just an order taker, you are that trusted adviser. I think that's a big thing, that that shift in thinking, that shift in paradigm. But beyond that, I really love selling strategy engagements, because they strengthen your positioning. Because you're not just an order taker, it makes sense that you would charge a premium for your expertise. So these engagements set you up really well for pricing, kind of whatever you want to sell after the fact. And then the other thing that I'll say is, you're getting paid, not just for the marketable skills that you may have sold in the past, you're getting paid for your other aptitudes, your ability to connect the dots to surface new insights, to listen well, to ask really thought-provoking questions. You're getting paid to think. And that actually, is really, really valuable. And we have to do it anyway, but we often weren't charging based on what that's truly worth.
L: Yeah, we hear a lot about value-based pricing, and charging your worth. And I've done episodes before where I maybe question some of the language around that. But I wonder, how do freelancers figure out pricing for strategy if they're new to it. Because it does make a lot of sense that they should be charging more, but how do people figure out exactly what price point to put on it.
A: I share a very simple rule of thumb, what is an amount of money you would feel great about making for this amount of work. And it can be low compared to what you think you could charge eventually, or what you think the market will bear. But as long as you feel good about that price, for you know, a 90 minute clarity session or a 60 minute project road mapping session, or a three hour workshop, or whatever it is. Whatever you would feel great about making, charge that for the first one. You could even go to an existing client who you think could benefit from a little strategy work, brainstorming work, a client who you think really needs a thought partner in some area of the business. Pitch them on something like this, offer them what you think is an incredible bargain. Get your first testimonial that way, and then just kind of keep increasing that price by 10% or 15% each time until you feel like you're starting to bump into the ceiling.
L: That's such great advice. Basically, just start out somewhere comfortable and then keep experimenting and adapting and changing it as time goes on.
A: I'm not one of those people who is cavalier and is saying you should never compromise on price, you know, always stick to your guns. I'm like, come on, we all have to compromise sometimes. And as you're rolling out what is a new offer, sometimes our confidence needs a chance to catch up. So give yourself a break, try to create a soft landing for yourself, and start with a price that's a little bit lower, because maybe then the stakes are lower, too.
L: You mentioned confidence there and I think that's a really important piece of this, because it kind of changes the conversation that we want to have with clients from selling a service for something that they have decided needs done, to actually setting the direction for them and for the project. So how do we think about positioning ourselves to attract clients who want strategy, or maybe even sell strategy to clients who've come to us for execution?
A: Two very good questions. The first thing I would say in terms of positioning, is owning it, it's the mindset, it's the paradigm. And it can be as simple as adding that word strategist, or even the word consultant, to your LinkedIn title. If you know that, you've got a good mind, your clients are often asking you to be very rigorous in your thinking and your analysis and your problem solving, whether they're paying for that or not, you just have to own that. And then in terms of positioning, start adding that piece, like I can help you create an actionable plan, I can help you get to the root of the real problem, find the real project, start to add that to your messaging. And then the other side of it, in terms of looking for ways to actually introduce this in conversations. I think there are multiple ways to introduce it. It's obviously easier with a brand-new client who comes to you, and you're pretty clear that they're not clear. You know, I have a high percentage of clients who come to me, and it becomes clear to me that they haven't actually created a well-defined plan yet. And so when I notice during a discovery call, or even during an email, if I'm still confused about what the project is, that's when I will pitch this project road mapping offer, or an initial strategy session. To say, hey, I want to be sure that you're spending your money as effectively as possible with me. So before we launch into this big engagement, why don't we do a smaller engagement, where we come up with a plan. So that's one obvious place that you can sell into this. Another way to do it is to think of it in terms of like quarterly check ins. So if you have some clients who are loyal and send you work fairly consistently, do a quarterly check in and ask four questions. Hey, what's going well? What isn't going well? How do you think we can improve our working relationship? What's on the horizon for you? And that fourth question, will sometimes turn up new projects or opportunities, and they may need a thought partner, they may need some planning, they may need some strategy, and that gives you another opportunity to sell into.
L: Oh, that's very clever, I like those questions. And just generally, if people check in with clients on a regular basis, then who knows what could come up, they may not need something themselves, but you might just remind them that you're there, and they could refer you to somebody else, so that's definitely worth considering. And I like the point about trust. I think clients definitely trust you more if you say to them, what you've asked for is maybe not quite what you need. And I'm not just going to do it, because I could get paid for it, here's actually how we could figure out a better plan and get you better results. So that adds to your credibility as well, doesn't it?
A: 100%, I think we instantly trust people who could have leapt at the opportunity when we offered them money. But if they instead say, let's slow down, because I really want to make sure you get results, it's like oh, thank you.
L: Thank you so much Austin, I really appreciate your insights on this topic. If people would like to find out more about what you're up to, or maybe ask you any questions about what you've been talking about today. Where is the best place for them to find you?
A: I'm on LinkedIn a lot and my profile is Austin L Church. I'm pretty easy to find there and also freelancecake.com, come say hi.
L: That's great. Thank you so much Austin and thanks everybody for listening. I will see you next time. Happy freelancing.
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