I’ve been freelancing for more than a decade. For the past 7 years, writing has been my main source of income, and Upwork one of the key resources I use for connecting with clients. I’ve held a good Upwork rating (90% or higher) for years and a ‘top-rated’ badge since they were a thing. I was awarded ‘Top-Rated Plus’ early on in 2020 — before I even knew it was possible.

Whatever people may say about Upwork, I’ve found it to be an excellent platform for finding quality clients. It’s helped me build my freelancing business. Their commission rates are competitive, setting up a profile is fairly straightforward, and their resources are useful for both new and experienced freelancers. Below are some of the steps I took to stand out from the other 12 million or so Upwork freelancers and achieve a ‘Top-Rated Plus’ status.

Whether you’re meeting a new client via Upwork, or any other means, your history matters. You don’t need to have a long list of big projects or top brands that you’ve worked with. You do need to be able to show what you can do. That means creating a portfolio. Upwork has a portfolio section that’s not too different from LinkedIn.

It’s not bad, but I don’t rely on this alone. In fact, I don’t really use this much at all. I update it infrequently — maybe once a year or so.

Instead, I have a dedicated online portfolio that I keep up to date. My Contently portfolio is free, simple to use and, most importantly, regularly updated. It showcases most of the blogging work I’ve done for clients over the years. Everything that’s not covered by an NDA and fits into a blog or article category goes there.

If you’re an artist, graphic designer or freelancer of some other kind, it may be worth checking out some of the other free online portfolio sites such as Carbon Made. I’ve also heard good things about Crevado.

If you’re starting out, an online portfolio can be a great place to put the best work you’ve done while learning your craft. Creating work just to get a portfolio started is another good idea. Helping a charitable organisation and including that work can also help. Whatever you choose, showing what you can do is much better than just talking big.

On top of my online portfolio, I include a link to my Medium profile in my pitches. If it’s a job for website content writing, I’ll include a few links to some of the most recent websites I’ve created content for or maybe ones that are in the same vertical as the client I’m pitching to.

There is no point being shy about previous work. Past work helps you win future work. If it makes sense to use it, you should.

There are a few things that affect your rating on Upwork. One of them is your response rate. The faster you respond to pitch invites, the better it is for the client looking to get their project done. That means it’s good for your rating too.

You don’t have to submit a pitch for every invitation. If the jobs not for you, or you don’t have time for it, just decline the invite.

When you do submit a pitch, remember you’re pitching to a person. Be friendly, professional and personable. Give reasons why you think you’re the right choice for their project. Don’t ramble, but do show some personality. Try answering the obvious questions they’ll have about you — experience and examples of your work are a good start. Including any questions you have about the job also helps.

When you do win a project, maintain contact with your client. Stick to agreed deadlines or beat them. If something unavoidable comes up that stops you meeting requirements, let your client know as soon as possible.

Don’t ever leave people hanging or just go AWOL. Not only is it rude and unprofessional, but it’ll also win you a really poor rating.

Communication greases the wheels of any project. If you don’t understand something, ask. Asking because you don’t know or need clarification on some point is never stupid. Staying quiet and delivering something that the client doesn’t want because you were afraid to ask is.

So keep the lines of communication open and try to respond to pitch requests within 24 hours or less. It helps you complete projects well and it keeps the invites coming in.

Pretty much anyone can decide to start selling their skills online. It’s the quality of your skills that counts. Like a set of chefs knives, the best skills are strong and sharp.

So, keep your skills relevant.

I do this by taking at least one online course each year that is related to what I do — writing. It could be a content marketing course with HubSpot, a brush up on blog writing skills with Udemy, or some other course that’s piqued my interest and will strengthen an area of my writing skills.

Online learning is great because you can fit it around your day.

For me, certification isn’t the driving motive for online learning. It’s the chance to either strengthen an area of skill, sharpen my expertise from a new angle, or keep up to date with the changes in my area of work — online writing. It’s a pretty broad area and lots changes each year.

As well as learning online, some of the projects I take on let me pick up new information and hone skills. Both are valuable. Both should be mentioned when chatting with clients about your proposal and what you can bring to their project.

This is more than simple communication with your client. Customer Service is as much about listening as it is about responding to your customer. Listen carefully to what your client wants. Ask questions to really understand what they are trying to tell you.

This can seem obvious — you need to understand details to do the job right, whether that’s creating a blog, developing a website, or designing a logo. But if you don’t listen well, you’ll miss other important clues that can help you connect and communicate with your client better.

I’ve had customers tell me they want crispy content. Or luxurious words. They think they’re being really descriptive — in a way they are — but what’s ‘crispy’ or ‘luxurious’ to me might be ‘brittle’, ‘crumbly’, or ‘extravagant’ to them. Without asking questions, it’s impossible to get a good feel for what clients mean when they describe their needs.

Also, how someone speaks to you is a good indication of how they would like you to communicate with them. Some clients are short and straight to the point, others are more inclined to be a little verbose. Take note and mirror their communication style within the bounds of what is comfortable for you.

Great customer service includes anticipating what your client may need and offering or delivering it. This could be something as simple as an ‘all access’ link to the work you’ve done so their entire team can open the files you’ve sent, or giving suggestions to make the project better.

Mostly, customer service is about going out of your way to be helpful. I’m not suggesting that you spend lots of additional time providing stuff that you weren’t asked for. I am advising you to deliver above expectations. Depending on your area of freelancing and the nature of the project will determine what ‘above expectations’ is.

Using Upwork to find new clients and expand your freelancing career is an excellent way to grow your business. Their sliding commission structure is a great additional incentive to work on recurring projects with clients. If you want to do that, you need to show your value upfront to win the work. Then keep lines of communication open to help your work run as smoothly as possible. Regularly update your skills to keep them fresh and, finally, give the kind of customer service that makes people want to work with you again. You may be a lone freelancer, but it’s your business. How you treat your customers matters.