Building a Freelance Brand with Problem-Solving Psychology

April 26, 2017 Ben Shanbrom

Leather couch

When I started my freelance career three years ago, the biggest difficulties I encountered were branding myself, attracting clients, and pricing myself to prospects. Nothing in my education or prior work experience had prepared me for these subtle little landmines. It was only by reflecting on my seat-of-the-pants successes and failures that I began to understand what I was getting wrong (and occasionally getting right).

For the most part, I was acting as if clients were machines that existed outside of the realm of regular people. I thought somehow I could just win them over by using enough buzz lingo and dropping the right self-aggrandizing statements. But all that while, I didn’t even try to understand how they made their decisions or how I was really helping them.

Using problem-solving psychology was a breakthrough for me. When you take an analytical approach to your branding and outreach, your purpose and value become obvious to others and, importantly, to yourself. You stand out to potential clients, manage your projects effectively, and have the ammunition to get the compensation you’re due.

What is Problem-Solving Psychology?

The title is self-explanatory on some level, but most freelancers still seem to miss it. So let’s start with a definition.

In the marketing world, problem-solving psychology is understanding a client demographic’s unique issues and using these insights to better inform one’s marketing, branding, and sales strategies.

While it’s rarely the approach freelancers adopt from the start, problem-solving psychology is the difference between dumb luck and reliable success—it’s the secret sauce that makes your work and products shine in the company of a lot of middling competitors.

Let’s talk about why.

The Problem with “I’m Awesome (…I Think )” Psychology

Freelancers need to nurture a healthy love of self to survive the ups and downs of 1099 life. Confidence and self-worth are great assets and in some respects can be very attractive to clients. But if these are the only tools in your branding arsenal, you’re in trouble.

“I’m awesome because I’m a design expert.”

“I’m awesome because I’ve written for 25 publications.”

“I’m awesome because I know seven coding languages.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve sent client outreach emails that sound a bit like this, what was your success rate? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t great.

In upholding our outward appearance of cool, collected confidence, many of us adopt what I call the “I’m Awesome” psychology. This approach fundamentally misunderstands how clients, and people in general, actually think when making a buying decision.

The “I’m Awesome” psychology may get you some work (it did for me initially), but it isn’t a long-term recipe for success. While what you’ve done does matter, it isn’t what any prospect cares the most about. Potential clients want to know specifically how you can help them and what your project amounts to as a return on their investment.

People meet over coffee with notebooks and laptops

Getting Into Your Clients’ Headspace

Naturally, the first step to employing problem-solving psychology in your content and lead generation is to develop a clear sense of what your client profile really looks like.

Which industries and client personalities do you most enjoy working with? You need this to be crystal clear before proceeding. I found this clarity for myself by examining the handful of clients I had and pinpointing what I liked most about them. I discovered:

  • I like working primarily with clients who also freelance.
  • They tend to be in their mid-30s to late 40s.
  • They often strive to do something a bit progressive in their respective industries.
  • They’re open-minded and thoughtful.
  • They want to learn.

This exercise allowed me to see what my clients’ overlapping big concerns were: Like start-ups, these clients were most worried about making their unique ventures sustainable or taking their operations to the next level.

This insight gave me the ability to speak to my ideal clients’ deepest needs. Sure, I can share my experience working in a couple of well-respected marketing agencies. But more importantly I can show prospects how my content strategy can help them get the traffic they need to hit their sales goals, about how long it will take, and what kind of ROI they can expect.

This is a lot more compelling than a bunch of “I’m awesome” opening lines.

Some other ways I’ve sharpened my understanding of my clients’ problems:

  • Visiting Quora’s topic boards for my clients’ industries (what are the questions that come up most frequently?)
  • Looking at the popular resources and content other freelancers are offering their clients in these fields
  • Getting a basic understanding of the metrics and statistics that apply to my target clients
  • Asking current, prospective, or even aspirational clients what their biggest problems and goals are

Putting Projects Under the Microscope

While a significant part of problem-solving psychology comes from our own deeper analysis, the other essential part comes from the client’s understanding of their own priorities. Very often they don’t have a good read themselves on where they should be pointing their time and resources.

In a recent article titled “Get More Freelance Consulting Jobs By Saying ‘No’,” WordPress developer and independent consultant Curtis McHale actually recommends giving prospects a little push-back on their proposed projects. Your clients shouldn’t just propose tasks with nebulous intentions—they should have clear, measurable goals for their ROI and objectives that are actually relevant to their success.

“When I encounter projects that end up having no value and convince clients of this, they’re usually surprised,” McHale says. “They’ve often already gotten two or three quotes on the project—quotes they were willing to pay. I was the only one that showed them it was a bad business decision.”

Prospective clients will appreciate your honesty and critical evaluation of their propositions. If it’s clear a client’s proposed idea won’t initially pay off, the project may still be valuable as first steps in larger-scale growth efforts—but that too needs to be defined. Pushing potential clients to think through these wider-reaching goals and outline the necessary additional tasks will pay off in the long term for you as well.

“Next time they have work, you will be the first one and often the only one that they’re going to come to,” McHale adds. “They’ll want you to look at it to make sure that it’s truly valuable to them and their business. When you work together to make sure it’s valuable, they’re happy to pay for the critical perspective you provide.”

Vintage camera with leather case

Reframe Your Brand as the Solution

Your knowledge and consideration of prospects’ goals will make your services look very attractive because they’re immediately tied to value. Rather than offering “great writing services,” you stand out by offering “writing services that build a dedicated following.” Rather than “building high-functioning websites,” you create “tools that drive conversions.”

And beyond looking appealing to prospects, you’ll be able to charge top dollar for your work. This is because your value isn’t just hanging in a void—you’ve built consideration of their ROI into your pricing.

If a client wants 500 new subscriptions as quickly as possible, you can calculate about how much traffic they’ll need from your content to get there (if their time frame for it is reasonable) and how much revenue they’ll derive from those subscriptions. If they can expect $6,000, then $2,000 for your fee isn’t a big deal.

Using problem-solving psychology, you prompt your prospect to apply a value to their problem’s solution in the form of the ROI they want to see from it. (A good rule of thumb is that your rate should yield at least three times ROI). If your client just wants content because “everyone else is doing it,” you should speak up and prevent that disappointment from ever materializing.

You can further strengthen this discerning element of your brand by crafting guides, explainer posts, and lead magnets that help your clients prioritize which projects are most necessary to their success and how they can measure them.

Remember, You Aren’t an Awesome Freelancer—You’re a Valuable Solution

Problem-solving psychology at its core is about being more discerning on both the freelancer and client ends—ultimately allowing both players to reap more value from their work and expenses in the long term.

You’re still promising work, not results, when using problem-solving psychology. But you’re functioning as a consultant rather than a salesman and this makes a big difference. You’re helping your prospects think towards the big picture and are showing them that their success means more to you than easy money. This is how you build a relationship on trust. This is how you create a freelance brand that truly stands out.

Thanks to Nation1099, a resource for freelancers in the gig economy, for guest posting.

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