If I’ve learned anything from living in the freelance world, it’s that your career is made or broken based on the strength of your client relationships. Clients who love you will refer you, and as someone whose business sends 0 cold pitches, does 0 outreach and has 0 current availability, I can tell you that we are 100% booked because we care for clients.
This isn't a brag and it isn’t easy. For me personally, it has meant showing up when I don’t want to, staying up half the night to keep my word delivering on time and going above and beyond, even when there is no quantifiable, material, in-the-moment gain.
Despite that run on sentence, I am a reasonably successful professional copywriter, and I credit this in every way to how I care for clients.
Whether you’re just starting a freelancer business on Upwork or you’ve been in the grind for a decade, here’s some friendly advice and tips that have worked for me.
1. Do What You Say You’re Going to Do
Don’t tune out. I’m serious. This is actually a huge problem in the freelance world, and it comes down to 1) integrity and 2) skills. First, freelancers often don’t take themselves seriously, and this is a mistake. You think that you flit in and out of client’s lives and what you do is kind of ephemeral and lacks meaning. But you’re wrong.
Or at least, if you want to make a career out of this, you are. What you do is important. Clients need the website, the email, the graphic. They’re counting on you to deliver it. And, and here’s a kicker, even if they aren’t — even if they’re the flakiest, most absent client in the world — if you do what you say you’re going to do, you will be successful.
A word of advice: sometimes, you struggle to do what you say you’re going to do because you scoped the project wrong. You misunderstood the brief, you under or over estimated time frames, etc. You will get better at scoping projects as you grow in your career, and you cannot blame a client for a mistake that is squarely on you. That’s when you figure it out, you hustle, you lose sleep, and you learn. You’ll get it better next time, but this time: do what you said you were going to do.
2. Set Client Expectations
Here’s the thing: no nice, normal human cares if you have to go pick up your daughter from school or you’re taking a week in October off. But they will care if you don’t tell them. One of the disadvantages of freelancers who’ve only ever freelanced (and not held a “real job” in the corporate world) is they don’t know the norms. It’s normal to take time off. It’s not normal to not tell anyone.
Project update: “We have finished X, Y, and I’m awaiting Z before I get the final draft to you. We’re on schedule!”
Change of plans: “Based on our research, it’s better if we shift to X and Y - here’s my calendar so we can quickly review this.”
Don’t assume that clients who don’t hound you for information aren’t interested in what’s happening. Proactively offer updates and over-communicate status. This will add value to what you do, enhance visibility and build trust.
3. Be Generous With Your Knowledge
Plenty of people disagree with me on this, but I’m a fan of, if I know something/learn something/have an idea, I just tell a client. Non billable. Just tell them. Even if it adds more work for me. We have a shared goal with our clients. If they’re successful, so are we. Look for opportunities to support growth for them, even if it’s not directly in your lane.
For pete’s sake, people who are stingy with this are really ridiculous. You completely misunderstand human nature, and what you withhold probably isn’t earth-shattering anyway. Be part of the team. It makes you more than a freelancer, which gives you job security.
4. Treat Clients Like People
One of the weirdest things about launching Hire a Writer and becoming a “boss” was instantly, no one cared about me as a human. Turn stuff in late? Joy will take care of it (meanwhile, don’t get to have dinner with my kids). To be clear, they’re human, not evil. I definitely employ nice, empathetic, good-hearted people. But when you’re the boss, there’s a gap.
It’s okay to have that distance if you’re running your own team (probably healthy), but remember that clients are just humans. Even the CMOs of giant organizations are just people with pets and kids and hobbies. Be personable. Get to know them. Share jokes. Talk about the weather. Find out their birthday and send them flowers. Talk about your life.
You’d be surprised how hungry they might be for this kind of personal connection, and how it builds a rapport that supports your long-term relationship with them. They aren’t going to be as quick to drop a freelancer they know and care about, as they would one who’s essentially a nameless faceless entity.
5. Bring THEM Opportunities and Ideas
I’m going to say that this is one of my biggest strengths: once I lock in with a client, everywhere I go I see ideas for things they could use. And I send them in Slack, texts, emails anytime of the day or night. I do this naturally because I’m a voraciously curious person, but you should condition yourself to do it too, regardless of your tendencies.
Be on the lookout for opportunities:
“You could be on this podcast, maybe we should figure out how.”
“You could guest on this blog.”
“Here’s an interesting article.”
“This is a cool ad idea.”
Share screenshots. If you’ve never done this kind of value-add practice, I recommend making it a discipline at first. At least once every other week, or even once a month, send a client something that’s just an idea. It shows that you’re bought in, that you care about their company, and that they’re on your mind.
6. Always Do the Right Thing
I had a client who got into a little legal scrape over an image used on their blog. I don’t think they’ll ever read this so it’s ok if I use it as an example. ;) Point being: I had a friendly unofficial chat with an intellectual property lawyer (Max Goss - he’s the bomb) and it was pretty clear my team had very little liability. We had gotten the image off of the client’s Google Drive and were told we could use it. IOW: not our fault. However, we did post it. And it was clear after a few exchanges that the client absolutely thought it was our fault. What’s more, the client was very stressed about the money it would take to resolve the situation.
So. I had a choice. But really I didn’t. Because I will always do the right thing. It’s already decided.
Even if it costs me and even if it’s not my fault. It’s just a personal code of ethics (I hope you have one too). So I paid to settle the case.
Did I have to? Absolutely not. Could I have let it go and probably been completely in the clear? Sure. But the client was worried and I had the money. We actually lost the client, probably in part over it, but we walked away with a completely clear conscience, knowing we did everything in our power to do good and not evil to our client.
And that’s the thing: the right thing is not always the easy thing and it’s not always the profitable thing. Plenty of business owners will disagree with that decision and other decisions I’ve made (paying severance to an underperforming employee, etc.). And there are probably other people in the world who think I’ve done the wrong thing and blame me (I’ve fired a few people in my day).
Here’s the point: do the right thing. Do the thing you know is right in your heart of hearts.
7. Be Grateful
Last one. Remember: This work is a gift. To be a freelancer comes with a ton of benefits, and most of us wouldn’t choose any other life. We get some real freedoms, and we should always be grateful. Everytime a client gives us a brand new super difficult task, we’re getting PAID To learn something new. Everytime we get criticism, we’re getting PAID to see our weaknesses and make a plan to grow.
This life is a gift, and every client — whether we love them or hate them — is part of our journey.
They’re often taking a risk on us. Make sure it’s worth it, and that you establish yourself as reliable, joyful, hard-working, grateful and honest. Do that, and you are already in a slim minority of freelancers, surely on your way to a rewarding and profitable career.