How to Manage and Keep Freelance Clients
Communication, communication, communication. In fact, if I had just 5 seconds to live and I was to reveal to you the secret to managing clients as a freelancer, it would simply be: Learn how to communicate properly.
…OK, I’m still here, so let’s unpack this a little more.
If you have good communication skills – and your clients have them too – you will have little to no trouble in your career as a freelancer.
This includes being straightforward when deciding the terms and pricing of a contract. What exactly do your rates include? What don’t they include? What can the client expect as a deliverable and what is the timeframe?
These are your freelancer communication best practices. On the client-side, they need to articulate explicitly what the task is and what they expect from you. Some of the biggest challenges I’ve had was when I received vague or general guidance, and then getting the following comment back from a client: “This is not at all what we had in mind, we are way of off the mark here!”
The most dreaded words any freelancer wants to hear! It takes a lot of self-control not to respond, “Well, if you had given better instructions we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
As a freelancer, it’s your job to manage your clients in a way so you know exactly what the deliverables are, even if the client doesn’t know yet.
Freelancer must keep clients informed
Be sure to keep in touch with your clients throughout the contract. Ask them to clarify anything that you don’t fully understand.
This includes providing clients with regular updates regarding your progress. Letting them know if you won’t be able to meet a deadline, and providing drafts to ensure you’re on the right path.
Remember, in most cases no matter how much you disagree with a client, you should never lash out in the moment. There are elegant and constructive ways of disagreeing, and you should master these soft skills.
“John, I’m sorry the product isn’t what you had in mind. Let’s get ourselves back on track. Let me know what you like, don’t like, and exactly what you’d like to see in a finished product.”
This is much better than, “John, you were very vague in your original guidance so this product is a reflection of that.”
There’s always a little give and take in freelancing, you know?
The golden rule of freelancing
Now is a good time to discuss the golden rule of freelancing. Whenever you’re discussing terms with a client, deciding on a deadline, or something similar, it is best for you to under-promise and over-deliver.
Under no circumstances should you make extraordinary claims about your ability to finish a large amount of work in a short time, just to get the job. No matter how well that job may pay, you’re unlikely to make a good impression if you can’t fulfill your end of the bargain.
If the deadline is tight, make sure to tell the client this. Maybe they want to hire two freelancers? Maybe you know someone who could help? Or, I’ve done this in the past, sub-contract work to other freelancers that you pay yourself.
If you set yourself reasonable goals and tell your clients, for example, that you’ll be done a day later than you actually expect, you’ll not only have extra time to finish your work in case an unexpected problem arises, but you’ll also impress them if you are indeed done earlier.
Better safe than sorry.
Also, remember that the clients you are working with aren’t usually experts. That’s why they’ve hired you! You’re the professional, you’re the one who knows how things work in the industry, so don’t get mad at them if they don’t always understand everything.
It’s your duty to explain to them why something is a certain way.
And finally, I can’t stress this enough: don’t forget to over-deliver. Over the course of a year, a client likely collaborates with many freelancers. Some of them they’ll remember. Others they won’t. Out of those who’ve made an impression on them, they’ll pick some to collaborate with in the future.
And if there’s one thing that I’m absolutely certain about, it’s that no one goes back to the slackers. It’s the ones who’ve put in extra effort that are truly memorable and a pleasure to work with.
Freelance client relations 101
Here’s a little freelancing secret: It’s easier (and cheaper) to maintain your current clients than to find new ones.
Let that sink in for a moment, and maybe write it down somewhere: It’s way easier to keep your existing clients, than to find, onboard, and manage new ones.
If you’ve come this far, think about the struggle of landing your first client. In fact, let’s break it down here:
- You had to join a freelancing platform
- Create a kickass profile and upload a flattering picture
- Bid on projects and write proposals
- Client research
- Participate in interviews; even fail a couple of times before landing a gig
All of these activities take time. In freelancing, time is your most precious resource because it’s not renewable.
Why should you manage your freelance clients?
Apart from the time it takes to land new clients, having a great relationship with your clients has other benefits:
- Projects run much more smoothly and are less stressful for you.
- Satisfied freelance clients will refer you to their peers, saving you the hassle of finding clients from scratch.
- Clients bring more work your way. Remember, it’s just as hard to find good freelancers as it is good clients. So, clients don’t want to have to hire another freelancer.
- It’s easier to repair your working relationships when things go south (and they do!) if you have an established good relationship.
- Your client also provides great reference checks that help shore up your reputation with new clients.
The most important point here is that happy clients will refer you to new clients, and when new business comes your way on auto-pilot, you’re saving a lot of prospecting time. Second, almost all the clients I’ve engaged with whom I had a great relationship with attempt to expand my responsibilities.
That is, more often than now, the clients I have a great relationship with will want to work with me more, and assign me new jobs and roles.
The art of managing freelance clients
Maintaining a great relationship with your client is easy. It boils down to one key element; communication, communication, communication!
Think about it this way; having a client is like being in a relationship. At the end of the day, it’s the small gestures that matter. And if you know anything about relationships, most die because communication was poor.
So how do you build a great relationship with your client?
How to manage your freelance client relationships
So how do you build a great relationship with your client? Start by choosing the right clients. Let’s face it, it’ll never work out with some clients. And that’s alright. Find a client whose agenda and work style matches your own. You’ll thank me later.
Keep in regular contact. Provide your clients with status updates and progress reports on the projects you are working on. Keep them in the loop and ask for their input. It makes them feel like they are a priority.
Some clients don’t like the constant updates, only when a project is complete. But others like daily updates. You need to figure out the ideal communication pattern of your client, and adhere to that.
Here are a few other communication tactics to consider with freelance clients.
Set clear boundaries. This is best done when you are just starting out with a new client. If you don’t work on weekends for example, let them know well in advance. Inform them of the times you can be reached and provide the correct contact information. There is nothing as frustrating for a client as failing to reach you when they need you.
Be human. Your clients are people too with distinct personalities. Learn as much as you can about them. It’s okay to be friendly. Learn about their story, their struggles, and aspirations. Apart from deepening the relationship, it’s also help you serve their business needs better. Building a rapport at the beginning of the relationship is critical to a successful freelancer-client relationship.
Provide access to your network. You have a network of fellow freelancers and friends that can include designers, programmers, writers, social media ninjas, etc. A client may need something done but won’t have the time to outsource it on their own. Connect them with your contacts to solve their problem. Don’t do this expecting anything in return. But believe you me, it will open other avenues for you.
For instance, I’ve had clients ask me if I know other writers. As a writer, at first glance this can seem like competition. But after providing the names of a few good writing colleagues, the client then asked if I could manage those writers and take on a larger role as editor. You never know where things will lead with you freelance clients!
Finally, go the extra mile. To quote Zig Ziglar, “There are no traffic jams on the extra mile”. Go above and beyond in your work with clients. Remember, it’s best if you under-promise and over-deliver.
When freelance client relations go sour
This can often happen due to poor communication. Or sometimes, people are just jerks! There are two ways you can handle such a situation.
- Cut the client loose
- Re-evaluate situation and resolve issue.
If you choose the latter, approach the client with respect, but also remain firm. Apologize if the mistake was on your part, or if there was a misunderstanding. Focus on solutions and a way forward instead of dwelling on past problems.
What if a client doesn’t pay?
Alas, this happens in the world of freelancing. You’ll work on a project, deliver it to a client and then they’ll do a Houdini on you.
They disappear with your money. There are steps you can take to prevent this from happening.
- Bill your clients on time and communicate payment deadlines.
- Stay on platforms like Upwork and require payment upfront which Upwork will hold in escrow until the work is completed.
- Make clients sign a contract before starting any work with them. Agree on the deliverables and milestones.
- Withhold some deliverables until the final payment is made.
Wrapping it up
The key to running an effective freelancer business is to communicate often and clearly. This will save you a lot of pain in the long run. And when everything else fails, don’t be afraid to walk away from clients who are a drain on your time and resources.
Before you do that though, give it your all. If there’s one thing that I’m absolutely certain about, it’s that no one goes back to the slackers. It’s the freelancers who’ve put in the extra effort that are truly memorable and a pleasure to work with.
Be one of those.