The Most Important Part of Freelancing : Client Communication

As a solo freelancer, the easiest and most consistent way to find work is to connect with design or marketing firms who are looking for reliable contractors. In fact, over half of my own clients are firms who use me as a website contractor. So over the years, I've had a good share of conversations with clients concerning their frustrations with other freelancers (usually resulting in more work for me). Interestingly enough, the most common problem these clients have with freelancers is not related to talent or skill, but rather communication. In fact, a client told me this week that he'd happily take a sub-par freelancer who communicated well over a talented freelancer who did not. So here are a few points to consider for any freelancer:

Answer message quickly, even when an answer seems unnecessary.
Never forget that the whole reason a client has hired you is because they don't have the time or skillset to do something themselves. In other words, they need you and if they can't get in touch with you, their helplessness increases exponentially. Imagine trying to get a client to pay your invoice and you only get ambiguous responses days after you ask. Even if you don't have an answer to their email or you can't complete their task for a week, at least email to let them know you got their email. Yes, this seems unnecessary at times, but you'll be amazed at how often clients interpret the lack of email acknowledgement as freelancer laziness or apathy. See yourself as the expert and let them feel that they're being taken care of.

Stay proactive in your communication.
Again, be willing to message clients even when it seems a bit redundant or unnecessary. If you've told a client that you'll start their project next week on the 11th, then when the 11th rolls around, send messege them again and assure them that you are now beginning the project. Often, freelancers only email when they have questions and when the project launches. Some clients are fine with this methodology, but to be honest, most clients don't like the idea of placing all their faith in a freelancer's deadline promise. Don't take this as an affront to your trustworthiness -- they just want to see progress along the way. So keep the initiative on your side during a project and your clients will trust you more down the road.

Be honest and straightforward.
An easy trap to fall into is trying to impress clients with your promises instead of your work. Don't give your client the absolute best-case scenario when you're discussing a project. I've seen many freelancers kill their client relationship by promising a super-fast turnaround and failing to deliver (promising a week turnaround and taking a month or more). Honestly, the client would have been fine if they were just told that it would take a month. But by promising the project in a week and failing to deliver, the freelancer has lost future trust with the client. Words are cheap and clients who have been in business for any length of time know that. Be honest, and execute on your honesty.

Spend time on being excruciatingly clear.
Assumptions can cause major problems, especially in a world where so many decisions are made by email. Make liberal use of lists, inline email responses, and reiterations of instructions. Don't be ashamed to use simple language and basic lists. It's no fun to have tasks completely undone because everyone assumed someone else was doing it. Unfortunately, more often than not, a good freelancer finds that they're doing more "project management" than the actual client. Don't let this frustrate you -- developing these management skills are a great asset for the future of your freelancing.

Don't be afraid of the phone.
Most freelancers wouldn't mind a bit if clients never called them. After all, why can't all business be conducted by email? Well, for one, some clients (especially older people) will simply prefer phone calls. Secondly, misunderstandings are always easier and faster to resolve via phone. Thirdly, voice communication creates a much more "human relationship" than email does -- and relationships are still the cornerstone of any service-based business. So always be ready to pick up the phone when necessary.

All in all, keep in mind that communication is your client's lifeline. Although you may not see it as being that important (you'd rather be actually working on the project), your client has probably had enough bad experiences with other freelancers. I guarantee that if you consistently and honestly communicate with your client, you will be better than 90% of other freelancers and create a clientele that is very happy and extremely loyal.

One of the tougher aspects of freelancing is making sure you get paid a fair amount for your work. I'm sure every freelancer has at least one story of either getting grossly underpaid or not getting paid at all. So here are seven tips to help you improve your quoting.

  1. "Discover" the client's budget. When you initially talk to clients, very few will volunteer their budget because they want to hire you for the least amount possible. So to get them to show their cards, try using a preliminary "discovery" worksheet for them to fill out. Have this worksheet ask questions about their goals, timeframe, and of course, budget (although you may want to assure them that this is not for quoting purposes, but to better "explore" possibilities). Clients seem to be more forthright when the process is formalized.

  2. Spend time on your proposal. As nice as a potential client may seem, as agreeable as his terms may seem in your initial communication, always create a proposal and always put in the time to make sure it covers everything. And of course, don't start without it, even if the client is in a hurry. Make sure it covers both client and contractor responsibilities, expectations, requirements, payment terms, terms for changes outside the proposal, and everything else you can think of. Since clients often have a larger scope in mind than they communicate, a couple hours on this document could save you dozens later.

  3. Charge by the hour. Instead of providing a project price and finding out later that you misquoted (and thus, you have to eat some costs), simply tie your quote to an estimated hourly rate and time frame ($70/hr for 40 hours). Not only does this make quoting easier, but clients understand that they are buying a block of time that you think will be enough to finish the project. They will be more forgiving if you need more hours (versus quoting a project price, which clients will hold you to).

  4. Up your estimated cost by 10%-20%. Especially when you're starting out, it's natural to want to impress clients with "best-scenario" quotes that are lower than all your competition. However, you never want to be put in a position where you need to cut corners or give a subpar effort just to achieve a quote that you set too tightly. Furthermore, there are many hours that you will spend in communication, asset collection, and general administration (not to mention any snags you may run into). So do yourself a favor and give yourself enough time (because asking a client for more time/money is generally not a good habit). You will probably still be on the lower end of the quotes the client receives.

  5. Set and manage expectations. If you're quoting by project, let them know the cost and timeframe for additional changes. If you are quoting by the hour and giving them a total time estimate, let them know when you're getting close to that quoted total time and whether you will be able to hit it. It may be helpful to have a clause that says if your total time is within 10% of your time quote, you will not charge more (this gives you extra money for finishing quicker and saves them money if you take a bit longer). Clients don't like surprises: keep them informed on your current time status and let them know at proposal time the possibility of "run-over" and charges associated with extra changes.

  6. Collect up front. Outside of recurring maintenance work or very tiny projects (under $500), always collect some portion up front. This shows that the client is serious and much less likely to bail mid-project. You shouldn't have an issue getting 50% up front on most projects. If the project is pretty large, you may want to try 33% at the start, and another 33% at a predetermined milestone.

  7. Set a final payment milestone. If you create websites, invoice the final payment the moment the site is live. If it's a print job, invoice upon delivered goods. And so on. Since the client knows these invoices are coming (and that their project is effectively done), use shorter payment terms as well. If you aren't exact and business-like about your payment schedule, clients will ride ther debt as long as they can.

From friends who think I make easy money to my mother who (lovingly) admonishes me to get a real job, everybody seems to have their own idea of what freelancing is all about. Many of these ideas come from misconceptions of the freelancing life, and here are eight of the most popular:

1. Freelancers Only Have to Work a Little
Many folks assume that the real reason people begin freelancing is so that they can finally work their own hours and relax. This is not altogether true (hence it being on a list entitled "Eight Misconceptions About Freelancing"). Although it's true that I do "wake up later," it's only because I'm up until 4AM working on something or other that needs my attention. One day, I hope I can wake up later due to passive income streams, but for now, freelancing requires multiple hats and overhead. And yes, there are some days when I wonder if I made the right choice (but those days are still few compared to the days that I'm glad for my own schedule and the ability to cook large amounts of bacon at any time).

2. Freelancers Make Lots of Money
This misconception is more popular among people not in the website industry. They know a friend who's a freelance web designer and charges $70 an hour. Given a 40-hour work week, that's $10,000 a month! Right? Well, that's true if you could always fill 40 hours a week and only do billable work (and if you're the one freelancer who has accomplished this, then check a mirror because you actaully don't exist). The reality is, you're fortunate if half your hours are billable. Plus, you're usually paying more taxes (about double here in the States), often covering your own health insurance, and supplying your own retirement account. All in all, many freelancers actually make less than they could in a corporate world.

3. Freelancers Live Stress-Free Lives
When you're freelancing, you're not just enduring the stress of one job (whether that be designer, developer, or writer), but you're also dealing with the stress of every other job. This includes clients, finances, schedules, budgets, subcontractors, and many other issues, all while knowing that your paycheck is dependent on handling all of this.

4. Freelancers Have Few Future Career Outlets
The logic goes, if you're the only employee, there's no vertical career mobility. What this logic doesn't take into account is the fact that, unlike the corporate employee, the freelancer is the boss. Freelance your whole life? You could. Start your own firm? Why not. Build web apps or the next big idea? If you want. Plus, I've seen many freelancers get great offers from companies or startups looking for someone who can operate efficiently and effectively on their own.

5. Freelancers Live Paycheck to Paycheck
Unlike #2 (where outsiders believe that freelancers make a lot of money), this misconception is often assumed by people within the website industry. They may have had their share of freelance and found little money in it. So do freelancers live from paycheck to paycheck? My answer is "no more so than your normal corporate employee does." And actually, if a freelancer has been solo for any amount of time, chances are that they are pretty good at handling finances and keeping good tabs on invoices and mortgage bills. It's true that freelancers don't have that assured biweekly check, but it's not like they're waiting insecurely for random donations – after all, they are the ones sending the invoices and setting the payment terms.

6. Freelancers Get Socially Starved
If you know a freelancer who seems particularly introvertive, it's most likely because he or she chooses to be. The world is just too big and connected (thanks to the internet and the plentitude of social networks) for anyone to not have some social outlets. Work is not the only place to meet people nor do all your friends need to know what CSS stands for :-). And if you live near a decent sized city, there's bound to be a MeetUp group to your liking as well. Sure, we don't have the dynamics of having coworkers, but most of us find other ways to connect.

7. Freelancers Appreciate Any Work They Can Get
Work opportunities are good. But it seems that when you're a freelancer, all your friends will contact you with potential jobs from their sister, their uncle, and their orthodontist (I've had all three happen to me). They're very well-meaning, trying to help out with referrals, but very few of these ever pan out. Although a lot of my pro bono work comes from friends, the work that keeps me financially afloat usually comes from my client/professional network.

8. Freelancers Would Never Go Back to Corporate
Ahhh...the freelance life...where you have no boss, no worries, and the freedom to work on the most amazing projects in the world. Why would anyone ever go back to a corporate job? Well, for starters, maybe because that first sentence is not true. Although there are a lot of perks to freelancing that I love, it's by no means paradise, and there are some opportunities that only exist in larger companies. I've seen many freelancers go back to a corporate position that both gives them flexibility and allows them to be part of some pretty amazing things.

There are many popular mega-lists out there nowadays (75 Ways to Boost your Self-Esteem, 101 Ways to Open Firefox, 503 Ways to Make Your List Longer). But often, these lists have too many "filler" items, and many items have such diminuitive returns that I'd rather just have a list of their ten best items. So in that vein, here is a list of what I consider my favorite productivity tips – ten in all. Feel free to add your own favorites (and then maybe we can get to 101).

1. Make Lists and Finish Them – Write down goals for the day, the week, and the month -- using a simple Hipster PDA or a giant whiteboard will do. And more importantly, get it done (i.e., be willing to stay up until 2AM to finish that blog post you had on your list).

2. Blackout Your CommunicationA common methodology of writers, block off a chunk of hours, lock the door, shut down the email and cell phone, and force yourself to work on your task list. And when you feel like you're getting nothing done, don't give in – force yourself to keep working.

3. Don't Sleep with Unanswered Emails It's understandable if some emails require a short wait, but for the most part, always try to answer emails the same day. Besides just "getting it done," it builds a healthy rapport with your correspondents.

4. Prioritize Commitments - Decide what's important and what's not. Then decide if low-priorities are killing the high-priorities. If so, drop some of the commitments and don't take on any more.

5. Start Gap TaskingUnfortunately, life is still full of commutes, long lines, and waiting times. This is a great time to do a bit of reading, phoning, or note-jotting (just beware of becoming the annoying cellphone-talker in the supermarket). Personally, I like having a moleskine and something to read at all times (either a magazine like Inc. or the RSS feeds on my iPhone).

6. Socialize PositivelyThere's something about being around positive and motivated people that fires up productivity in oneself. Not only do you get chances to bounce new ideas off others, you will often get encouragement and perhaps a little competitive drive from such interactions.

7. Just Launch It No project is ever really complete. So instead of playing the perfectionist and continually investing time and effort into dozens of revisions/additions, just launch the project as best you can. Not only will you feel like you've accomplished something (which feeds into a productivity boost), but you'll also quickly know what revisions/additions are the most pertinent.

8. Discipline Your Waste Most people have some sort of recreational "vice" -- movies, video games, Wikipedia, family (okay, just kidding about that last one). The problem usually isn't the participation in such activities, but the lack of knowing when to stop. Sometimes, it may take the cancellation or the uninstallation of a service to be more productive.

9. Try Acting Like a Business Both designers and developers alike tend to enjoy relaxed environments that usually include a Wii, casual wear, and maybe an Airzooka. Freelancers can be even more laid back, usually sporting pajamas and living in paper-piled offices. Unfortunately, slackness in your clothing and office space often leads to slackness in your work. Try cleaning the office, increasing the lighting, and wearing semi-casual wear. See if your productivity increases...

10. Show Up Building anything of value is never easy. Just "showing up" day after day is often the hardest part of any project. Always be the most reliable person you know...

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