One of the pitfalls of the freelance model is that you may do good work for the client, but the client doesn’t see that.
This is part and parcel of being a freelancer to a certain extent. There’s always going to be clients who hire you for your expertise and agree to the project brief. Then, make changes that don’t make all that much sense.
Freelance client management is an area of struggle for a lot of otherwise professional creatives.
Some have no experience with client management before they start freelancing. They learn on their feet and often pick up bad habits in the process.
Others (like me) come from management backgrounds where the very nature of your work means negotiating for better outcomes.
Yet even that doesn’t always protect us from being suckered by client management pitfalls.
The problem with the freelance model is that it assumes the freelancer and the client view each other in a symbiotic relationship. That is, one needs the other to survive. And they respect that intertwined survival.
But the stakes are too high though for both party for them to begin as equals. Clients have scrimped and saved to get the budget to do the project. The freelancer wants to do their level best, which often means people-pleasing as opposed to proactivity.
Both have an extraordinary amount of baggage.
Freelance client management doesn’t have a baseline for how people should work together. The amount of guesswork means both sides have picked up a lot of bad habits. Having to balance issues with getting to know how each other works, baggage from previous experiences, business mythology, tight budgets, equally rigid timeframes- that’s whole lot of pressure on two people to trust each other in a short space of time.
Yet trust is vital to the success of the project at hand. If you can’t build the trust needed by the freelance model, your client will often ruin, alter, or ignore the work you complete for them. They will also be more likely to crowdsource input from unqualified friends and family as they try to validate your work. Or their suspicions.
It’s tricky navigating that. But there are a few things you can do to lessen the impact.
Here is what you can do to ensure you’re not eaten alive by this aspect of the freelance model
How to manage a project so it doesn’t get sliced, diced and distorted
The first tool in your freelance tool-belt is also a fundamental of the freelance model: the brief.
Your brief should include:
- Your client articulating what they want. Get them to put it in a document or email. If the client sucks at writing it down, have a Zoom call, record it. AND send that recording and a summary email “as discussed” as the brief to get agreement. Do not start without a workable brief.
- A focus on the outcomes. Don’t assume that because someone asks for an item or suggests a tool, it matches the outcome they envisage in their head. Check to make sure they aren’t making assumptions, using guesswork, gotten turned on by a conference or a promo, or parroting off someone else’s “you should do this” drivel without understanding it.
- Clarifying questions. A common freelance trap is not asking the questions they need to ask. You’re not clueless if you ask questions. Cluelessness is when you pretend you understand and then get your arse handed to you later. It is never too late to clarify the intentions or direction of a project. Get used to asking.
- Anticipated timelines and milestone delivery. An effective freelance project means reducing the opportunity for a client to worry. They need to know about the progress you are making so they don’t let their imagination fill in the blanks. That means meeting your timelines, updating the client regularly, and setting milestones for the two of you to tick off.
- Using your terms and conditions to protect your work. Have terms and conditions that state you are not liable for any changes during or after submission of drafts. That way, they can’t redo your good work and hold you accountable for a lack of results later.
Beyond setting up the groundwork, you also need to make a commitment to put yourself in a client management role.
Honestly, the number of freelancers who ask for help directing unwanted client edits and then say things like, “I didn’t get anything in writing but…” is astounding. Don’t invite the problem by going into a job un-briefed and under-prepared.
How to manage a project to avoid unwanted edits
If you want the equality a freelance model promises, you need to accept 50% of the responsibility for the relationship. Client management is a huge part of making sure your projects work. Projects don’t happen without direction.
There are a few things you need to include in your client management arsenal:
- Proactive client management. Don’t wait for the scared emails, panicked phone calls, or give your client a reason to introduce doubt into the relationship. Win their trust at any stage of the project through communicating well and often.
- The appropriate feedback tools. Insist on and reiterate all changes come through in TRACK CHANGES for written work, or that they are mocked up appropriately and catalogued for all other forms of work. Your clients need boundaries and teaching them the tools to use is a big part of that.
- Collation of the feedback. Don’t get dribs and drabs of feedback over the phone, via text, and as you pass in the hall. Or if you do, send an email to say, “as you mentioned, you’d like X to happen. I can make X happen. Are you sure?” or something similar under the guise of checking the change in direction, timeline etc. Have a record. And always clarify the changes.
- Lean on education. It’s your job to teach them good habits. Send your clients videos on how to use the tools you want. Make sure they are logged into Slack prior to kick off. Send them templates and show them how to use it. If you need to run a kick-off training session to encourage your clients to do what you want, do it. Don’t be a martyr with an email account who expects miracles.
- Encouraging feedback generally. Making it easier, not harder, for the client to submit the feedback they want to give (e.g. track plus comments, on Slack channels, during meetings etc). You have to be open to feedback during the building stages to foster trust and avoid dissatisfaction at the end.
- Making that feedback useful. If they come back with statements you cannot use, ask them to clarify. If they say things like “I don’t like it”, that’s not feedback you can activate. You have to hear what they don’t like. Also, use it as a time for them to get perspective. Ask them what they do You have to teach them that the freelance model only works well when they also hold up their end of the feedback bargain.
- Gate the feedback. Don’t suffer death-by-committee. Tell your client from the outset you need a central point of contact for feedback inside their organisation. And tell them that it is that person’s responsibility to get you collated, usable feedback.
- Keep your clients honest. If you wander off the path, they will follow you. Don’t tell them to do stuff and then break your own rules. Set your boundaries and stick to them!
It’s happened. They changed my lovely work. Now what?
First part of the freelance model means checking they might not be onto something. Probably not what your ego wants to hear, but it happens.
Check the work matches the brief, that you have done what you were asked, and the work supplied is to agreed standard.
If they really want to redo the work despite it being functional, it usually comes down to 3 sanity checks –
- I noticed you have changed <outline changes>. This wasn’t part of the brief/original plan. Have things changed at your end? – if the direction has changed as something has happened internally, this gives them a chance to speak up. If they’ve moved right off the map, it gives you the chance to bring them back to reality.
- Are you sure because <this consequence will happen> E.g. if you do this, you may not get the SEO results you’re after, it may leave you vulnerable from a legal standpoint, won’t generate the sales you expect etc – nothing like a good dose of consequences to wake clients up and get a renewed focus on the task at hand.
- I am happy to proceed your way, but I cannot be held accountable for the outcome – this makes sure they know you won’t be wearing their mistake. It’s a reduction of liability while also making super certain the client knows what they are requesting.
Managing freelance clients means making tough calls
You are not always going to gain the client’s trust. Or stop the client driving their project off the cliff. You will get jack ass clients. You will have moments that make you scratch your melon.
What you always have is a choice.
You’ve got to decide when to let go. As hard as it is to see someone murder your hard work, sometimes all you can do is let someone live out their rebel fantasy.
Being on the record no matter the situation saying, “are you sure?” is always the starting point to either get them to think again and/or to cover your butt if they don’t.
Don’t always assume clients are doing their best to mess with you, though. If you are coming across client management issues on a regular basis, it means it’s too hard for the client to trust you. If their expectations are different to what you’ve provided, communication has broken down somewhere. You’ve remained strangers.
I know that is tough to hear. Especially if you hoped this lovely project was going to be a new member of your freelance portfolio. Or it was going to win the next job as an example. Or you had such high hopes for the project. Or you feel sad your efforts have been rejected.
It’s something you can always work on though.