Not all creative freelancers are natural freelance client managers. It can be a hard road going from working on the work to working on the people who want it. However, client management is part of the job, whether we like it or not. And building rapport with clients and adding management to the process can significantly lower your stress while increasing the client’s confidence.

Here are a few tricks for training yourself to be a freelance client manager, even if you’re not that big on peopling!

Include transparent processes

The main reason clients freak out is because they don’t know the answer to something that is bugging them. It’s simplistic, but it’s true.

Observe: Clients freak out because they don’t know if:

·        You can do the job

·        They will get the result they want

·        The money they are spending is worth it

·        Everything is on track

two women are working together on a laptop as part of a freelancer and client relationshipYou can’t allay all those fears because part of it carries into the client’s self-belief and the ideas they’ve discarded in favour of the one they’ve chosen to do with you.

However, you can include transparent processes that help allay their fears and give them insight into the progress you are making together.

Good client management is about reducing the opportunity for a client’s imagination to cook up the worst potential outcomes or introduce indecision or doubt.

You can help slay the imagination dragon by:

·        Making sure you provide a project timeline with milestones you can both cross off

·        Drafting the project into stages to minimise risk that you’re not on the same page

·        Lean in on the tools that help show progress while lowering the amount of email like Trello, Asana, Jira, and Slack

·        Set the expectations right from the start with what you expect from them re: assets, feedback, turnaround and support 

Keep customer service in mind

Great customer service is about anticipation. It’s about seeing someone might need salt or water before they have to ask for it. Or outlining what is about to happen in a clear, concise manner.

Your clients want to know:

·        What happens next

·        What is happening in the big picture

·        How to get hold of you

·        When you will supply customer service

·        What to do in an emergency

But more than that, they have hired you to take some of the stress off their shoulders and the tasks off their plate. That means they also want  you to treat them like a client.

When you hire a freelancer or a contractor, you want to sit back and feel like a project is in safe hands. You can’t do that if you don’t know if the waiter has your order right or if they are coming back.

Customer service delivered by freelance client managers means:

·        Transparency. Incorporating regular check-in meetings (yes, I said the M word – it will save you 47 emails that everyone is reading with their paranoid eyeballs on later) and using accessible online project management tools to track progress

·        Consistency and reliability. Make sure any standard you set with the customer at the beginning of the project is the one you can carry until it’s completed

·        Being honest, even if the news sucks. Don’t try to manage someone else’s emotions by managing the information at hand. It’s a dangerous (and arrogant) thing to do. Allow your client to make their own decision based on the information at hand. It also strengthens relationships by showing you care more about accountability than managing your reputation   

·        Having boundaries. Contrary to popular belief, customers aren’t always right, and they need guidance on what is reasonable behaviour. They also don’t respect a pushover or someone fawning for attention. Client management means knowing where the behaviour fence stands   


Remember, it’s subjective

The amazing designer Paula Scher gives brilliant advice on design and client management. One of her best pieces of advice is reminding all creatives that our work is subjective, and that all you can do is manage a client’s expectations.

Client management is about creating a project you can achieve instead of following flights of fancy. It’s also about ensuring that even if the vision a client has is unachievable for the budget, time and resources available, they will still be pleased with what they receive.

A common attitude is that clients don’t know what they are talking about and are bad people for not following a freelancer’s advice. More often than not, it’s more that you’ve failed to make a case for your approach to the project. The client has been allowed to set an expectation that isn’t in line with the work you are planning to deliver.

That’s more a problem of a freelancer failing to manage a client than a rogue client.

Sure, clients that hire freelancers to play games and hear themselves reflected in all their glory through your work exist. But they don’t exist nearly as much as the clients who didn’t get on board with your ideas.

How do you help a client manage their expectations?

·        Under promise and over deliver. Don’t try to convince a client by trying to throw everything at the work. If anything, it makes it look like you’re covering too many bases because you don’t believe in the project (or yourself

·        Make a case for your approach. You’re only as good as the brief you’ve agreed on. Use proposals instead of quotes to outline the Background, Objective, Execution and Results you envisage from the start of the project right through to completion

·        Learn how to counter objections. You can Listen, Acknowledge, Explore and Respond a client’s ideas without having to agree to them. By exploring the rationale, you can understand each other better  

·        Don’t set a baseline you can’t match. If you take every phone call, receive info via text, and run around after a client like a headless chook, they will expect that level of service until the project is over. If you say yes to every idea and set unbelievably high customer service standards, your client will expect it to continue. Have a plan, and stick to it

Be objective about the work

It’s a glorious thing to make money out of the creativity and you may be absolutely wonderful at what you do. But you are not your work. And tying your self-worth to it means you will constantly get your heart broken.

A separation between you, your creativity, and the creativity you produce for clients is vital. Freelance client managers work best when we’re not making the work about us personally.

Some helpful ways to be objective as a freelancer include:

·        Remind yourself that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem. And the problem is whatever the heck is going on with the project instead of you or the client

·        The objective mantraYou don’t have to like someone to help them – and they don’t have to like you to receive it. Avoid the temptation to tie it to the ego

·        Remembering your client isn’t a schoolteacher you’re trying to impress. If you have issues with self-esteem, Imposter Syndrome or desire to derive too much validation from work, talk about it and challenge it with a trained counsellor or psychologist  

·        Have a personal goal for each project that doesn’t rely on the client (or payment). What do you want to learn? What do you want to explore? How will you challenge yourself? Having goals like these means that even if the project, client or even payment becomes troublesome, you are getting something out of it

·        Listen to your gut. If the alarm bells are ringing, don’t take the client on. Not only because they may disappoint you but also because if they do, you’ll probably give yourself a much harder time because you ignored your instincts

·        Don’t make the client responsible for your emotions. Don’t let things pile until you’re ready to write an essay about how they suck as a client. Nobody wants a bucket of complaints collected from the beginning of time poured over their head. Most people don’t understand the intensity and they won’t respond well. Be adult enough to bring up issues as they arise and assess the relationship as you go before allowing it to become too much and boil over 

Get in there and manage

Freelance client management is a pretty hands-on art. But anyone can make it look and feel like a positive experience.

Be proactive about offering rewards (carrots):

·        Update clients at regular intervals on email, even if you are waiting for something from another freelancer or the client themselves

·        Respond from a position of empathy (not sympathy). You’re a business owner, too, right? You understand how hard it is to get time and money together to redo something or try an idea. Leaning in on empathy means you relate to their doubts and experience without having to make up for the shortfall

·        Act like an equal. If you treat a client with respect and as an equal, they’ll lose the fear and/or stop treating you like they are the boss and you are the pleb. Believe in yourself as a professional providing a service instead of a lackey running after a King or Queen

·        Develop your own style – and stick to it. You want to be consistent and relatable. Setting a consistent baseline based on your personality helps build that  

·        Reduce the knowledge gap. Always do your best to make sure the client isn’t left wondering why they haven’t heard from you, if something worked, or where the work is at

And make use of boundaries and behavioural corrections (sticks):

·        Leverage the timeline. Set a delivery date for the project – but move it back and keep advising the client every time you have to adjust it for late deliveries, absent feedback, etc.

·        Gate the communication. Don’t answer the phone calls after hours or start taking briefs on Facebook messenger. Ignore that content and direct them towards the preferred communication tool 

·        Challenge undesirable habits and behaviours as they happen. You don’t have to be combative or rude. But you need to make sure that figuring each other’s working styles out is small movements instead of enormous demands

·        Ground the flights of fancy. If you think someone is ordering a unicorn when they only have the budget for a horse with an ice-cream cone strapped to their head, tell them. If it matters to them, they may even find the additional budget

·        Avoid their politics. Even if the client wants an ally against the office ogre, you’re transient. That ogre lives there. Don’t put yourself in the position where the internal politics of an organisation become your problem. Stay neutral

·        Put the project first. No-one can argue with you effectively if you put the project at the centre of the experience. If you make a business case for your decisions, you have something to back you, even if the client goes in another direction. And it will make it easier when the client chooses not to listen to you. Plus, it helps ensure you don’t get caught up in your ego too much, too.

Your freelance clients expect you to:

·        Lead the project with confidence

·        Have an opinion that is based on evidence, thoughtfulness and experience

·        Take the load off their plate and give them one less thing to worry about

·        Advocate for the project

·        Listen while also giving them something to think about

·        Introduce a new vibe to the working environment

·        Land on your feet, running

If you can add these elements into your client management style, life becomes so much easier.

Want more help to become a better freelance client manager? Check out the Hug a Freelancer awareness campaign. It’s designed to get you and your client connected fast!

Thank you to our sponsor, Rounded, for supporting this blog post and making it possible. <3 If you’re looking for more advice to make your freelancing sing, check out their whopping 71 pieces of advice from successful freelancers. 

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