As a freelance writer, you depend on your clients for your existence. No clients, no career. But there’s a number of ways to take care of your clients that can mean the difference between having a nice roster of high-paying clients versus perpetually hunting clients from the depths after they go belly-up.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some ways that you can maintain your client base that’s as easy as remembering to feed the goldfish.
‘New Client, First Assignment’ Rule
Ok, so you’ve managed to snag a client through your persuasive salesmanship and the client has assigned you the first project. Congrats!
If you ask me, the best thing you can do next is knock out the easiest assignment and send it to the client as soon as possible. If it’s an article with little research involved, I try to aim for a 24-hour window to send off a finished assignment.
The goal is to establish yourself as a qualified writer capable of being trusted as soon as possible. Once you’ve secured the trust and displayed your capabilities, you can move on to juicier assignments and larger amounts of work. Failing to nail the first assignment may have the client looking elsewhere for freelancers with a quicker turnaround and a better quality output.
If there’s one thing to adhere to, it’s your client’s deadlines. However, if you’re going to miss a deadline for whatever reason, try to communicate this to the client as far ahead of time as possible. This is just Freelancing 101.
But let me clarify a fact of the business: unless the deadlines are firmly tied to direct money-making opportunities on a timetable, just remember that deadlines are arbitrary. And therefore, they’re also flexible.
Clients underestimate the time involved just as often as freelancers brag about their output turnaround; what matters is that the assignment gets done, but it’s up to you to make sure that you’re both on the same page. I’ve found that if I’ve renegotiated a 2nd deadline, that then becomes the final deadline. Miss that and you may as well say goodbye to the client. Just like the last ‘new client, first assignment’ rule, you’re going for trust.
Treat Them REALLY Well
How you treat your clients tends to reflect how successful and busy you are as a freelancer.
Kelly James-Enger, author of The Six-Figure Freelancer, says that freelancers should treat their clients not only with the Golden Rule (“treat people the way you want to be treated”), but that you should go above that and lavish them with the Platinum Rule: Exceed their expectations and go the extra mile. This is also discussed extensively in The Online Writers’ Companion, from FWU’s own PJ Aitken.
If you can offer something to the client that makes their life easier, do so. If you can suggest other ways their business can improve, do so (but be nice). If you can give them a social media mention, go for it. The ways are endless, but go further than just chasing after a paycheck.
What your goal should be is to make yourself irreplaceable, becoming a larger part of their business and thus being worth more. Everyone loves a bonus, and this gives you more leverage when negotiating rate increases. Plus, it’s just good karma.
It helps to find out the communication style of your clients and speak their language, so to speak. Some clients are micromanagers that want daily communication and day-by-day updates on your progress. Others are laconic types that give out vague assignments and expect fully-formed ideas that have read their mind. It’s up to you to mirror their needs and provide what they’re looking for.
However, don’t get taken advantage of. It’s wise to communicate often, but don’t give an opportunity for them to breathe down your neck and micromanage you. Vice versa, if you create an assignment that’s not up to par because of the client’s vague directions, ask until you get the information you need. It’s up to you to “train” your client—not all of them are experienced in efficient delegation and some come across as downright rude. Fix it and let them know that you’re not just words on a screen.
Another tip I find is that sometimes I have to not answer an email immediately or respond to a Skype message as a way of asserting my authority. Remember that each time that you spend communicating with a client, you’re not working—nor are you getting paid. Unless they have some pressing concern or new assignment offers, they can wait. The only exception to this rule is not to “ghost” your client. Disappearing off the face of the earth makes clients worry and lose trust in your output, even if your work is top-notch and submitted right on the deadline.
What’s the Priority-Level of this Client?
Not all clients are created equal. Some clients can be a treat to work with, while others seem to squeeze as much lifeforce as they can per interaction. Factoring deadlines in with “pain-in-the-neck” factor is how I determine the “priority-level” of the client. High-priority clients get the fullest amount of my attention and services; low-priority clients are ones that I consider placeholders until something better comes my way. Money isn’t always the determining factor.
If this sounds overly harsh, just think of it the other way: if you had hired a freelancer that was giving you a hard time or was slow to provide consistent work, would you think twice to find a replacement?
I didn’t think so. It comes down to how replaceable the client really is.
Dovetail Your Assignments
Try to always stay busy with clients. Finding new clients is basically uncompensated work and that’s a waste of your resources. On the other hand, just at it’s more work to keep searching for more clients, it is equally painful for clients to find capable freelancers.
I find that if I’m not regularly receiving assignments, the client begins to look like a dead-end. However, there are a few strategies that I use to keep working coming in, dovetailing new assignments with a minimal amount of downtime:
- Try to sell your other writing-related skills, like web design or copyediting, to your pre-existing clients.
- Suggest strategies that your client’s competition is using to edge them out. They may accept your offer to pull ahead with more assignments.
- If you’ve been working consistently for a client, regularly ask for more work on a set day. For most of my clients, I choose to send a message on a Sunday just to remind them that on Monday, I’m ready to crank out more work for them.
- Related to the previous point, when reminding clients, I try to emphasize that I do have other clients and a set workload; if they’re slow to respond, I may have to go shift my priorities towards “active” clients. The kicker of this point is that you can bluff, too—sometimes clients don’t want to lose a freelancer and may throw you a bone.
If a client’s project is coming to a close, remember to ask them to consider you for any additional work in the future. That’s a good way of initiating an opportunity to follow up. I usually wait four to six weeks before contacting a client again. If they say “no,” then I choose to write them off. If they say “maybe,” I consider that a good sign and ask when would be a good time to contact them in the future. And if they say “yes,” well, you know what to do…
Also, ask if they know any other people that are looking for similar work. This is win-win because the client gets to look like a hero connecting a good freelancer with a needing client, gaining favor with both. Plus, LinkedIn connection brownie points.
Cut ‘Em Loose
There’s plenty of fish in this Freelancer Sea.
Remember the free part of freelancing. I’ve had several clients that have dragged their feet to pay me on time (or within a reasonable period), expect more results for less pay, or were just simply clients that I took upon when work was slow for lower-rates. Whatever the reason, there comes a time when I have to deliberately cut a client loose. It’s never a fun process, but I make sure that I don’t burn bridges. It can feel great to really stick it to ‘em on the way out, but you never know when you might need that same client in the future.
Hiding the Help
If you’ve outsourced some of your work, make sure not to give away the contact info of who helped you complete the assignment. It may seem like an unethical thing to do, but I’ve had clients try to cut me out of the deal and go straight to the source.
The way I justify this is this: what compensation do I receive for being an intermediary? If I’m not offered anything to bring the two parties together, then why should I go out of my way to do so? Even working as a middleman has its advantages for both parties, as you already know what your client wants and what your freelancer is capable of producing—that’s the price of your contribution. I’ve elaborated on what the client’s initial instructions were and “translated” that to my subcontractor. That is the value I have as a middleman.
The other part to “hiding the help” is that if your subcontractor is working on materials that contain your client’s information, they probably have the ability to cut you out of the equation, but probably haven’t. Why? Because you may be able to source the subcontractor with more work in the future and this would be a definite dealbreaker. Still, if you’re worried, one method is to just omit the relevant contact information and insert it into the document later.
Meeting Your Clients in Person
I hate to draw parallels between online dating with freelancing online, but if you’ve met your clients online, why not meet them in person?
If you ask me, the written word and Skype interviews tend to leave out crucial parts of the client-to-freelancer modus operandi. Words are easily misconstrued, and Skype interviews tend to have the weird latency lag that makes conversation seem like “I go, then you go, then I go, then you go.”
Seeing your client’s business in person opens up opportunities that you may not have considered. For instance, I met up with one of my local clients that I sourced off of Craigslist. From my initial impression, I thought that I was working directly for this company; in reality, I was being subcontracted through a temp agency. What a surprise when I realized that I was being farmed out! Were my rates too low? How much were local companies willing to pay so I could offer a competitive rate?
I took note.
That aside, the simple fact of exchanging words in person strengthens the rapport. It’s like dating—each date ratchets up the involvement and you’ll soon find yourself in a nice client-to-freelancer romance, if you will. Like it’s been mentioned throughout this article, trust is its own type of currency when it comes to freelancing.
Plus, if you’re wondering, having lunch with your client is tax-deductible.
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Okay, you’re going to kill me: if you’ve thought this was a “how-to” guide, you’re a little wrong. This is my how-to guide that fits my freelancing personality. As much as I strive to be a factotum of freelancer knowledge, I wager that your approach may yield better results. Your results may vary.