Over the past two years of being a consultant*, I’ve seen it all. I’ve cringed during uncomfortable conference calls when counterparts waged a financial war over 30 minutes of billable work, and I shook my head when another freelancer told my client, in no uncertain terms, that they weren’t big enough to be a priority. I’ve had to bear witness to freelancers loading a gun and shooting off every limb until there’s nothing left. Freelancing isn’t for everyone–some prefer the structure and rhythms of a traditional office environment, and that’s totally fine–but for those who have made the leap it’s important to know that there are nuances in handling client relationships and managing yourself. I’ve read through Copyblogger’s exhaustive list of all the mistakes one could possibly make as a freelancer (all 53 of them), but I keep seeing the same excruciating five over and over again.
TIP ONE: GET RIGHT WITH YOUR LOVE. Nothing says you’re not my priority than telling a client you can’t manage their request because you have other deliverables…for other clients. I’ve seen scenarios where a freelancer would tell a client they couldn’t answer their question (which was actually a simple one) until the following week. I’ve seen countless instances where people would be too transparent with their workload (I’m so slammed with other client work, can I get back to you on this? is a constant refrain). Let me let you in on a little secret: your client doesn’t care about your other clients, obligations, or workload–they only care about what’s in front of them. Clients care about their own problems, and they hired you for solutions.
And I get it. You need to juggle multiple clients because of the uncertainty of deal flow. You need to save for the drought. Sometimes your clients ask stupid questions (and they do, often) and you just don’t have time to answer them. Sometimes you read through your emails think, are you kidding me with this? However, let me be clear about something:
The fact that you can’t manage your workflow is your fault, your problem. Right now, I’ve three very active clients and they barely know that one another exists. And that’s how it should be. Want to know how I got to this place? Simple:
a. Be clear about your work arrangement, hours allocation and response time for “fires” in your contract. I go through the pain and bloodletting during the contract process. Contracts are critical because you’re not only negotiating the deliverable, IP, warrants, and all that other nonsense, but you’re also stipulating how you will work with the client and their expectations on your time. You’ll go through so many rounds on the contract that your client will have your availability committed to memory. In all my agreements, I define the hours or days allocated to a project, how we’ll mutually manage overages, and I even have clauses about how I’ll manage fires and normal response times on off-hours, and how I can be reached in an emergency. I hired a lawyer to manage my vendor agreement, and usually use a lawyer for 1-2 hours if I’m working off a client’s standard MSA/vendor template so I can ensure my language is covered, however, there are amazing affordable resources like Upcounsel, where lawyers can help you in one-off agreement negotiations.
b. Maintain your agreement (because there is the reality of the slippery slope) but be open to flexibility: Be thoughtful and strategic about managing client requests during off-hours. Is this an urgent request and can it be completed quickly? Is this just a one-off question that won’t take more than five minutes of your time? Then manage it. Your client will be grateful. If the request is substantial, be open with your client and remind them of your terms but suggest a midway point if the request is urgent, i.e. I’m sensitive to the request, and although I’m not available at the moment (I never say why because they know and don’t want to be reminded!!!), how about I come back to a solution at [insert later point in time]? Or, offer an alternative resource internally, or someone you trust who can supplement the work. Notice how I’ve address urgent inquiries. Use your best judgment in determining what’s truly urgent. If the situation is not urgent, kindly remind your client of your terms.
c. Manage your time: The hardest part of being a freelancer is establishing your own structure amidst a day without guardrails and routine. Establish a routine. Use productivity tools that are best for you–click here and here and here and yes, here, for some excellent resources. And, more importantly, be honest about what you can manage, because while I understand the need to squirrel away cash, at one point you will face diminishing returns and your performance will suffer, which will affect your performance and future referrals. Personally, I can only take on one “big client” in a 3-6 month time frame, and then I can take on other clients where the workload is no more than 10-15 hours a week. I usually have 1 big client and 2 smaller projects cooking at once and that tends to work for me. Yesterday, I read this interesting post where a freelance web designer takes on projects sequentially. Not right for me, but figure out what works for you and the services you’re offering.
TIP TWO: RIGHT-SIZE YOUR APPROACH. Because consulting is not a one-size-fits-all approach. A few years ago I bemoaned a client to a dear friend and peer. I prattled on about how my start-up client wasn’t doing things the right way, they skimped on the essentials of branding and marketing, to which my friend responded that I was doing the equivalent of fitting a square peg in a round hole. She continued and said that startups don’t have the time, luxury or money to do everything according to plan, that I had to rethink my approach and focus on the essentials for the client. I had to deliver what my client truly needed at that point in time, as opposed to what they should have.
That advice has lingered with me since, and now I’m able to shape my services to all sorts of client sizes and budgets. What I would deliver to a billion dollar electronics giant would be markedly different than my deliverable to a start-up clothing brand. Usually, the latter is leaner, tighter and execution-heavy. Yes, there’s strategy in both but the strategy for an established brand or business is demonstrably different than the needs of a burgeoning brand, whose positioning and value proposition may change over the course of refining their product or service.
What you think your client should do might not really sync with what they need, and you have to be prepared to be a consulting chameleon. Assess your client’s objectives, evaluate their resources and budget, and deliver what works best for them now, even if it’s a phased approach. I LOVE a phased approach because it gives me the flexibility to add and refine over time while offering the client a more risk-averse approach (and they can see your BIG THINKING!). All too often I see startup founders shake their head when reviewing a proposal, with a that’s nice, but that’s not really feasible when I’m still trying to get my product in shape.
In short, be flexible, be malleable. Realize when you’re fitting square pegs into round holes.
TIP THREE: DON’T GET SURGICAL ABOUT EVERY BILLABLE HOUR. No one believes in getting paid on time more than I do. If you expect me to deliver at a specified time, I expect to be compensated for my work at a specified time. However, we live in the real world not an imaginary one, and sometimes in this world people in accounts payable go on vacation, people forget to submit your invoice for processing or the direct deposit might take forever and a day to set up properly. Give your client the benefit of the doubt and don’t roll in acting like a collection agency if your check is under 5 days late. Client service was invented for a reason, people.
While I establish late fees in my contract (usually when payment is over 30 days), I also specify and negotiate payment terms in my agreements. Few companies pay N30 and even fewer pay on receipt. Most companies pay N45 and I’ve even seen N60. Luckily, most of my clients pay N30, and I have a few different gigs happening at once so the cash flow feels continuous (although I admittedly have to get better at budgeting–WIP!!!).
I usually wait five days after the payment due date before I send notes of inquiry because I try to exercise the belief that most people have good intentions and want to pay for the work you’ve delivered. And while I’ll send out the troops for clients who are clearly being egregious with late payments, don’t issue the brigade if the payment is a few days late and exercise compassion for when clients have good reasons for delays.
Also, while it’s important to track your project hours, don’t get crazy over every billable hour. I’ve actually seen emails where freelancers nickel and dime over a 1/2 hour. I’ve read emails where a consultant underdelivered on a project because they didn’t have enough time in the hour allocation. Umm…that’s your fault. As a consultant, it’s critical that you price right, profile right, and allow for flexibility in the contract when the deliverable changes or you encounter scope creep. Delivering subpar work and telling your client you’re doing so will ensure that you will never work for them, or anyone they know, again.
In general, you’ve noticed the constant, quiet refrain of flexibility. While I have iron-clad agreements and I’m pretty direct when it comes to how, when, where I work, I allow for a degree of flexibility for the times when I know being flexibility is an investment in the relationship and future business. Be smart. Don’t think in the billable moment.
TIP FOUR: DON’T ALWAYS BE PITCHING. There’s a time and a place for a sale and it’s not every waking moment. This isn’t Glengarry Glen Ross–know when and how to sell. Education is always an implicit, soft sell. Balance that with upsells once you’ve identified a real need, have established a relationship, and have problem yourself a valuable, trusted resource. Overt sells can be grating and show just how focused you are on money. Yes, we all want to make money and secure successive deals and cash flow, but exercise grace. Be subtle about how you sell.
I’ve created education guides (e.g. social media best practices, worksheets for branding exercises, etc) that I use as investment products and soft-sells. Once I’ve established my value with a client, I’ll often send guides that are relevant for their needs/business, with no explicit sell. I’ve done mini education sessions (or the clients have used these guides for internal education), and I’ve almost always secured MORE business because of it.
Be strategic about the sale and offer additional services when you’ve established trust and value, and have some back-pocket tools that you can offer than can bring you closer to a sale.
TIP FIVE: HAVE A PLAN FOR RECIPROCATING/COMPENSATING FOR LEADS. Can I tell you how many people have received project leads or jobs because of my network? Can I tell you how many people have thanked me or issued a % compensation for their completed project as a result of my introduction or lead. Believe me when I say the former is greater than the latter. I continue to be shocked by the fact that people feel entitled to connections or leads. Every single time I get a lead, I thank the person who made the introduction, because although the project might not come to fruition I have someone new and valuable in my network. If the project comes to fruition, I offer a % referral fee on final payment. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do even if people refuse it.
At the very least be humble and thankful for any lead, even if it’s beneath you, not appropriate, not in budget, etc. I’ve experienced ingratitude that’s prevented me from sharing leads or referrals, moving forward. Every referral speaks to my brand and my integrity and I won’t risk either over an ungrateful/entitled referral.
*Bit of Advice: I accept LinkedIn invitations from people with whom I’ve worked previously and prospective clients. If we don’t know one another, please make an effort to pen an introduction to your connection request. Otherwise, it feels like the equivalent of you walking into my home, uninvited.