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What is the best mix of customers to have?

15 Oct

to do list If you’ve got a mature business that is up and running and busy, then you’ve probably used something like these criteria to choose which clients to work with, and you might have used these ways to turn one-offs into regular customers. But what is the best mix of customers to end up with?

Obviously, in an ideal world, all of your jobs as a freelancer will be fun, interesting and high-paying, for clients who pay up on time. But, well, we’re not in an ideal world. The paying on time thing is non-negotiable for me (although I’m always prepared to listen if a client is having cash flow problems, IF they tell me about them), but I’ve learned to live with the fact that not all of the high-paying jobs are fascinating, and not all of the really fun ones pay well. It’s all about balance, and in this post I’m going to share with you how I balance my mix of customers, which might help you, too.

What are the types of customer?

Whatever industry you’re in, you tend to have a few types of customer:

  • Customers who send you a lot of work regularly (great, although try not to rely on just one or two of these, just in case, and sometimes they can get a bit demanding)
  • Customers who send you a bit of work irregularly (only keep these on if you really can slot them in as and when)
  • Customers who pay high rates (why? they may have set the rates for their industry and they’re in a region with higher costs of living and pay rates for freelancers)
  • Customers who pay lower rates (why? you might have long-standing customers on a historical lower rate or offer discounts, as I do, for special groups of customers such as students, individuals and music journalists)
  • Customers who have fascinating work that’s right up your street and relates to your interests
  • Customers who have dull work which nevertheless you can tackle
  • Customers who always need their work to be done at the last minute
  • Customers who send you stuff that’s at the edge of your comfort zone – or outside it

I’ve put a little space before those two, because they’re the ones who you really do need to minimise.

As I said, in an ideal world, you would have customers with loads of fascinating work who pay high rates. But that’s not always going to happen, so it’s a matter of …

BALANCE

Isn’t it always, though?

Boulders, pebbles, sand

Time management techniques make use of the boulders, pebbles and sand metaphor when talking about how to fit your tasks into your day. The idea is that you slot the big jobs (the boulders) in first, then you can fit pebbles (smaller jobs) in around them, and fill up the gaps with sand (I usually see the sand as being my admin tasks). So, if I have a big transcription that must be done by tomorrow and will take 3 hours, I will plan to do that in the afternoon, with a couple of small editing jobs slotted in around it.

It’s the same with customer types.

It would be great if you loved loved LOVED all of your projects, but some of them are still going to be more interesting than others. To take some aspects of my work as an example (but as I said, this works for all industries) …

  • Localisation is my most lucrative work but it’s often fairly repetitive marketing or web texts. It also often uses specialised software that can be quite tricky to work with.
  • Working with translators is a specialised job and so my rates are higher than for native English editing. The texts I get from my translators and agencies are varied and often interesting.
  • I have a particular transcription client who pays great rates and has interesting tapes to send me – they used to have a conference for me to transcribe for every 2 months and now it’s less regular but still interesting. I now have another regular corporate transcription client.
  • I love transcribing for music journalists. Music is an obsession of mine and I love both hearing all the bits that don’t make it into the articles and seeing how the articles are written up from the tapes I’ve transcribed. But I do charge these clients less than my corporate transcription rates, because they’re usually freelancers like me. These are very, very rarely uninteresting, even if I’m not a big fan of the music style. Even if it’s Justin Bieber.
  • Student work can be interesting but can be very tricky and time-consuming, typically involves quite a lot of emailing back and forth, and I charge a lower rate than for corporate editing. I used to work on Master’s coaching, but found that it was difficult to commit to small bits of work coming at short notice over a long period of time.

Case study: how I balance my customers out

To maintain the analogy of the boulders and pebbles, this is how I manage this customer base:

  • Boulders have to be regulars with the more lucrative end of the work. I have kept down my number of localisation clients – I could do just localisation, but it would be a bit same-y and I would end up relying on very few, large clients, which is something I avoid. So: regular localisation clients, regular translator clients and at the moment a large regular transcription client are the boulders of my client base.
  • Rocks (ha – you’re going to laugh in a minute) are my music journalists (see what I did there?). The work is fun, the clients are lovely, and I get more return on investment than just the money. But I have to be careful not to take on too many of these, because I do not make as much per hour and I am in this job to make a living. I do let the odd rock crash into my personal time, because these clients are often on odd schedules. But I encourage them to book me as far in advance as they can, and they do pay extra for urgent work.
  • Pebblesstudent work and the occasional one-off fiction or non-fiction book referral from a regular customer. I’m afraid I am more likely to take on a referral than somebody out of the blue these days – but I will always refer on anyone who I can’t take on. I already pass on all Master’s students to one of three colleagues who have the time and attention they need. Also in this category come the few clients I still have who send small projects regularly – if you have few enough of these, you can slot them in around the rocks and boulders. I have one client who sends me middle-sized projects but with lovely long deadlines – work I can break into pebbles and pour around the bigger jobs.
  • Sand of administration – my monthly invoicing session is a boulder, and because it’s sand, so each job is small, I can slot a few email replies or jotting down some blog post ideas among all of these.

It’s all about the balance

When it comes down to it, it’s all about balance and return on investment (which doesn’t take a solely monetary form).

I could do just localisation all day every day, and push for more of that work, but it would be a bit repetitive and I could run the risk of only working with a few, large clients, which leaves me a bit exposed.

I could just work with translators and translation agencies, but I’d only really be editing then and I like the variety of my other work.

I could just work with music journalists and have a whale of a time listening to all sorts and picking up on new band to like. But the work can fluctuate madly (in a nod to a certain publication this week, it can oscillate wildly from all to nothing), so it would be unreliable as a steady source of income. And I’d probably get RSI.

I could just work with students and self-publishing novelists but I wouldn’t make enough to live on doing that full time, and again, I’d just be editing all day, every day.

By balancing all of these different customers (and you can do the same, whether you’re a roofer with a mix of full roofs, porches and repair jobs, or a decorator doing whole houses, front doors and window screens, or a graphic designer creating adverts, logos and cartoons), I get variety, balance my income and have fun!

How do you do it?

Whether you’re a fellow editor / transcriber / localiser or you’re in a different industry, I’d love to know how you balance your different types of customer. Do share in the comments

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Find more articles about careers and freelancing in this resource guide. Related articles:

How to decide who to work with.

Turning a one-off customer into a regular.

How to make more money in your freelance business

When should I say no?

 
18 Comments

Posted by on October 15, 2013 in Business, Jobs, Organisation

 

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18 responses to “What is the best mix of customers to have?

  1. Sue Browning

    October 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I love this way of looking at things. It’s similar to how I decide what work to take on, though I’ve never spelled it out so explicitly. I use a Gantt chart to map my boulders, which have known start date and hard deadlines. That way I can see at a glance what I’ve got on for the months ahead and where the spaces for the rocks are. So when an enquiry comes in, I can say at once when I am likely to be able to do it (if I want to, of course). Pebbles can generally get fitted in as and when, unless I’m extremely busy. I tend to do admin at the beginning and end of the day.

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  2. Cathy McPhalen

    October 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    A great post! I recommend welcoming some customers who send work at the edge of the comfort zone – these types of customers often give me interesting new directions in my work. They also keep my brain sharp as I learn new things. That new knowledge/training is frequently surprisingly useful with ‘regular’ clients as well. Keep the challenges coming!

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    • Liz at Libro

      October 15, 2013 at 8:43 pm

      Yes, you are right in many respects, and I wouldn’t have built my successful transcription arm if I hadn’t taken a slight risk on carrying over my audio-typing training to that. But when the chips are down and choices have to be made, I will tend to stick with what I know, and only go out on a limb when I have the luxury of time (which does happen sometimes). I always weigh up the return on investment on such jobs very carefully though, and have withdrawn from some experimental areas when I’ve done that.

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  3. Sarah Kolb-Williams

    October 17, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    What a great post! i first started thinking about clients in terms of tiers like when I read the Freelancer’s Bible awhile ago, and this is a great reminder to spend some time focusing on what I want out of my business and how to get there. Thanks so much! (And thanks, Sue Browning, for the tip — I’m definitely going to check out Gantt!

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    • Liz at Libro

      October 17, 2013 at 1:34 pm

      Glad you’ve found it useful, and yes, I’d be lost without my Gantt chart, simple though it is! It tells me what to do next, in effect, as well as helping me to plan!

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  4. Deven

    January 20, 2014 at 7:25 am

    It’s beautiful piece of article Liz. Dividing customers in such a way is awesome. Yes we do know we work with all kind of customers, but this classification clearly gives you an idea of whom we are working with actually.

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