How to compete with big agencies as a freelancer

There are established agencies in your town. They get business probably every day of the week. They earn hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per year. And then there’s you. The lone freelancer. Maybe you’re just starting out. Maybe you’re just getting your bearings.

Or maybe you’re well-established, but you’re still in these other agencies’ shadow (possibly without even realizing it).

What do you do? You start following these 3 tips as fast as you possibly can…

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#1: Let NOTHING (n-o-t-h-i-n-g) slip through the cracks.

If you think freelancing or running a creative agency has a lot of competition, try Googling “PSD to HTML.” Our creative agency’s new “design to code” service, Reliable, has an insane amount of competition out there.

But by following this tip alone, we’ve been able to pick up a good number of clients from bigger, more established competitors – and keep them.

Let me explain…

As agencies grow, they often experience “growing pains.” They get more requests for proposals than they can handle. They get more emails and phone calls for support than they can handle. They get more projects than they can handle.

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What does this mean? Clients slip through the cracks.

Deadlines are nowhere near met. Customer satisfaction is hit or miss. Whether or not their work is even good is hit or miss too.

This is great news for you. 

Because this creates dissatisfaction.

People requesting proposals give up after not getting a response for weeks and look for help elsewhere. Unsatisfied customers get fed up with poor service and look for an alternative solution.

That’s where you come in.

There’s a very good chance that prospects who come your way are running away from someone else.

Don’t let them slip through the cracks.

Especially if you’re just starting out, answer every email or call they send your way IMMEDIATELY. Even if it’s 3 in the morning (if you’re awake, that is).

I can’t tell you how many projects we’ve won just by responding fast. Often we reply to the first email, go back and forth answering questions, and get our prospects a proposal before the other PSD to code companies have even noticed the email in their inboxes.

Go above and beyond in every way:

  • in educating new prospects about how you work and how you can help them,
  • in providing customer service to current clients, and
  • in the quality of work that you do.

Just by answering emails quickly and fulfilling your promises for ETAs and quality – you’ll get business over these agencies left and right.

Excel where they fall short. Go w-a-y above and beyond and let NOTHING slip through the cracks.

#2: Refine your brand and sales messages to the T.

As agencies grow big, they often get lazy with their branding – or just don’t have the time to keep up with it. They don’t update their website for years. They don’t pivot and update their services based on new demands.

As a freelancer, you probably have more time to spend on these things. Use it.

Explore who you are as a designer and what makes you so unique, and practice putting it into writing.

Then erase what you wrote and try again. And again. And again.

Keep honing your message until it’s as refined and sharp as a needlepoint. 

But don’t stop just at your brand message. Do this for all of your services, too. Figure out how you perform them uniquely and communicate it in writing. Hold nothing back.

As the big agencies’ messages get weaker and irrelevant with time, let yours grow stronger and sharper so that more of the people who come your way become your clients.

#3: Have personality.

I recently helped a client out over Facebook messages.

At the end of it, he was so happy he sent over a goofy emoticon (have you seen all the crazy ones Facebook has now?). I sent one right back. Then, for a couple minutes, that’s all we did.

I was cracking up on my end, and I could feel the vibes through the interwebs that he was too.

As agencies grow and experience the above growing pains (and refuse to resolve them), they often hire people who don’t perform customer service at the level that they should.

In fact, interactions with these reps are dull, boring, unhelpful, and lifeless.

Inject energy and personality into all of your interactions with clients. Make it your GOAL to make them smile or laugh in every interaction.

In reading a blog post recently on customer service, I saw an interview with the founder of a magazine who said that their goal in every customer service interaction was to make their clients feel like they just got a hug.

(I wish I could remember the name of the company so I could link to it – I’ll try to find it again and post a link in the comments.)

Set a goal like this one. Make your clients feel something special every time. Don’t be stiff as a board. Be yourself. This makes people feel deeply appreciated and recognized. Which is huge, because…

Guess how often people feel this way after interacting with businesses?

Almost never.

Just by doing this, you’ll glean customers from the big peeps in town, and grow and flourish.

The common thread.

As you can see, everything in this post is about picking up the slack where the big agencies drop it. It’s about being attentive to more detail than they can afford to. It’s about placing care where they simply don’t.

You might not have the budget to go toe to toe with them in advertising, but that doesn’t mean you can’t crush them when it comes to service, customer experience, and quality.

And that, my friend, is how you can compete.

Do you have something to add to this? Or a question about your specific situation?

Post it in the comments. I’d love to hear what you have to say / help out in anyway I can.

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  1. Great article, very true. It is amazing that excellent service can still make you stand out in a saturated industry.

  2. Thanks David! I remember this line from another one of your posts and it’s a great reminder: “Make it your GOAL to make them smile or laugh in every interaction.” I can sometimes forget to be “myself” with my clients and would love for them to leave every interaction with me “feeling like they got a hug while laughing” 😉

    1. Haha…I just realized that my husband/business partner forwarded me this post (he does sometimes when there is a really good one) and I thought it was just posted. So when I say “I remember this from another post”, I really mean that I already read this post and am reading it again and remember that line. Confused? I just realized that I had already read it when I saw my comment immediately after my comment.

  3. Coming late to reading this post. My favorite line was “Make it your GOAL to make them smile or laugh in every interaction.”

    I just wrote it on a piece of paper and stood it up on my computer keyboard.

    One thing I might add that prompted an idea for me was to reach out to those big agencies and see if you can establish a relationship. Maybe they could pass along their “smaller” clients to you? I know that we are constantly turning clients away that might be too “small” for us. I would imagine those big agencies would at least like to pass along a potential referral to someone they know rather than not being able to help at all.

  4. Excellent points! My goal has always been to make each client feel like they are my only client. These tips are also great to keep in mind as my business grows. Companies who can maintain these attributes when they get big are serious competitors in the marketplace!

    One question regarding your point on fast response times. Where do you draw the line between being always available and setting expectations? For example, I stopped answering emails and phone calls after business hours and on the weekend because I found that clients began to assume I was working 24-7 and EXPECTED me to be available at 3am on Sunday to make their edits. I don’t feel that this practice has made me less competitive because I’m always responsive and I don’t let emails and voicemails sit for days without responding.

    Just curious what you and other readers think about this topic.

    1. Robyn,

      I’m with you on setting client boundaries on work time. Sometimes I’ll answer emails add odd times because I tend to work later hours than a “normal” business day. However, I explain to my clients that I’m not available after business hours or on the weekends unless by special arrangement, which incurs a rush fee. Except on these occasions, which I’m getting paid well for, I’m able to enjoy my non-working hours as I wish.

      Thanks for bringing this up!


  5. Love your post! I completely agree, clients get blown away by fast response times, quality and efficient service right on the button as well as a show of personality in writing emails and the way you come across on the phone – passionate and positive! It really has an effect!

  6. Your article caught my attention because as a freelancer I can definitely relate to it.
    Clients always come first and as designers we are here to simplify and help.
    Take a look at my website!

  7. Great advice here. I make it a point to respond to any contact as quickly as possible and cannot tell you how often the person inquiring comes right out and say “thanks for getting back to me so quickly’. I believe it sends a message that you’re on top of your game, genuinely interested and that you value them. I have even had cases where an immediate project did not come to pass but they ultimately used me or sent someone else my way specifically due to the fact that they felt valued.

  8. Really nice post David. A great read like always.

    Some things That have always pricen true for me. Nice to hear someone else lay them out so clearly.

    Reminds me if the thingd to focus on too. It’s easy to get away from that. Thank you.

    It’s good you clarify “if you’re awake” because you certainly don’t want to encourage responding to emails while sleeping. Haha.

    Thnks much


  9. I always thank people who like my designs on etsy. just by resending the link with a special thank you message, letting them know I appreciate them & maybe can work with them with the design they liked.

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