As a freelancer, I’ve spent three years (so far) learning how to deal with lots of different clients. I hope that these tips will help you get the most out of the relationship. If you work with freelancers, you might find this article useful, too.
This is the top tip, and comes into many of the other sections. Be clear about what you do, how much it costs, and when you can do it. Communicate the way in which you work to your client up front. Keep on top of the project and let them know how it’s going. Tell them what to expect, then fulfil that expectation and communicate that you have done so.
2. Manage expectations
It’s always best, in my opinion, to promise low and deliver high. I always add a little time when I’m offering a deadline, and almost always exceed expectations that way. If you are going to miss a deadline, let the client know – this only usually happens when it’s the client who sets the deadline. I’ve only missed one deadline, by half an hour – but there was good reason for it, and I let my client know in advance.
If you’re undertaking a project for someone and they’ve not used a freelancer before, explain the process and what they can expect from it. If you need to tell clients about your terms and conditions, send those along with your initial quotation. If an urgent job will cost more, tell the client in advance.
If you can’t offer the service you would want to offer, a “no” said honestly and in good faith is better than a “yes” that isn’t meant. Your client will respect you more for it.
3. Keep to deadlines
If you promise to return a piece of work to a client by a particular date and time, do your utmost to do this. Work all night if you have set an unrealistic deadline (and learn from that!). When I started freelancing, I found that freelancers have a very bad reputation around this issue. Ignoring deadlines makes you look arrogant at best, incompetent at worst. It’s not hard to plan ahead, and it’s not hard to say no (eventually).
This also applies to invoicing. If I’ve arranged to invoice the client directly after finishing the work, I do so. If they are on a monthly invoice in arrears, they are sent their invoice at the end of the month. If this is a bit much, it’s something you can easily automate or outsource.
4. Treat your client as a human being
Even if your client is a huge faceless entity, you will be dealing with a person at that client. Remember that they’re a human being, with other concerns than you and the project you’re both working on. They may be trapped between you and their own boss or client (I work for several freelance journalists and translation agencies, for example) and may have other pressures. If they’re a student or a new member of staff, they may be unsure as to how to work with you!
5. Inform your client about your availability
If you’ve got a holiday booked, you don’t work on weekends, or you stop at 9pm at latest, let your clients know. When I book a holiday, I send an email to my main regular clients a few months before, remind the biggest ones a month before, put a note in my signature then set up an auto reply on my email. Out of courtesy, I do communicate with them by email when I’m away, but only to remind them I am away!
6. Have backup
For my major clients, I have colleagues who do the same line of work as me and can pick up work if I’m unwell or on holiday, or very busy with a pre-booked job. I also have a list of people I can refer clients on to if I can’t book them in myself.
7. Respect your clients
Professionally and personally. You’re the expert in what you do, but they’re the expert in what they do. Treat them as you would expect them to treat you. Be as robust as you need to be, but always be courteous.
If you feel the need to let off steam about a tricky client or project, please do it privately! I have a private group of fellow editors who I can ask questions and share good and bad days – and sometimes people do make us a bit cross, but just don’t broadcast this in public. It’s not very professional, and it can reflect on you very badly.
You may have specific points with this according to the industry you’re in. I personally avoid pointing out horrible grammar and spelling mistakes on signs and menus in public. Amusing as I find these, a lot of my clients are using English as a second or third language, have issues with their English skills, or are just not very confident, and the last thing I would want to do would be to be seen to be mocking less-than-perfect English.
8. Work with your client’s working methods
You have to be flexible if you’re going to be good at freelancing for different clients. They all have different requirements and ways of working, and my reaction to this can go from noting which transcription clients need a time stamp every 5 minutes and which need it every 10 minutes, to communicating via email, the phone or a face-to-face meeting, whatever the client prefers.
I do impose my own working methods on them to an extent, for example encouraging them to use comments and Track Changes to comment on texts I’ve produced for them. But if they choose not to do that, I’ll work with how they want to work.
9. Share the joy
I have a list of people who do what I do who I will recommend to any clients I can’t fit in. I don’t consider them as competitors – yes, we’re in the same line of business, but everyone gets work they can’t do for whatever reason, and I’d rather have a known person I can send them to, knowing they are likely to do a decent job. This saves clients (particularly students) from getting ripped off, and I think it presents a professional attitude to the prospective client, too.
10. Say thank you
I try to say thank you whenever a client pays me. I also thank them for being particularly good clients – the student who doesn’t automatically “accept all changes” but asks me questions about their English, the writer who’s produced an interesting book … and if a client has a product or service I think is particularly good, I’ll pop a link on my links page here and tell people about their book, service or product. It doesn’t cost anything to say thank you, after all, and it gives your client a great final impression of you!
I hope you’ve found these top ten tips for working as a freelancer helpful. If one has struck you as particularly useful, or you have others to suggest, please comment. And you might be interested in my top ten tips for clients working with freelancers!
Why not have a look at my other tips for freelancers, small businesses, etc. – roam around the right-hand sidebar or click on the links!
September 19, 2012 at 8:20 am
Great post again. Agree with pretty much all of what you say, amazing how many freelance workers don’t do even the most basic things you mention though. Honesty is the most important for me, not being afraid to say when a deadline is too tight or a job is outside your comfort zone, but they are hard to do in the early days when you are chasing every bit of work you can get.
Liz at Libro
September 19, 2012 at 8:39 am
Thanks, Ian – glad to know another freelancer agrees with me! And it is hard to do – we all make each mistake once, I think (I hope!).
September 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm
I think a lot of these recommendations work both ways. Sometimes it feels like clients (especially students!) don’t recognise that they are dealing with a human being and don’t show respect, aren’t polite and don’t say thank you, even when a lot of effort has been put in.
Liz at Libro
September 19, 2012 at 4:41 pm
Yes indeed – that’s why it’s part of a pair with the one on working with freelancers https://libroediting.com/2012/09/12/top-ten-tips-for-working-with-freelancers/ – it was easy to do everything in parallel when writing them!
June 11, 2015 at 9:21 am