Once you’ve gotten over the hump of finding clients and getting hired (yay you!), then begins the work of delivering an outstanding experience to your clients so that they are compelled to a) recommend you and b) hire you again in the future.
Creating outstanding work is part of a good client experience, but it’s only one part. There is a lot you can do apart from delivering great work to add value to your services and cement your client’s trust in your abilities. And if you’re thinking about raising your rates, first make sure you’re hitting all of the points below (and the ones to follow in subsequent posts).
1. Don't overbook yourself.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of accepting all work that comes your way, especially if you’ve recently been in a position of having little to no work. You are desperate not to miss an opportunity because you’re afraid there won’t be more opportunities to follow it. Believe me, I get it. Turning down work is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn to do as a freelancer. But it’s necessary for your mental health, for the quality of your work, and for your relationships with your existing clients. If you’re spread too thin, your clients will notice. They’ll feel the lapses in communication, the stretching of timeframes, the drop in your hustle, and the dip in the quality of your work. This is when you can start to lose clients’ trust, and when they may start to feel the need to micromanage you. You’ll become a contractor rather than a collaborator, and they’ll cease seeing you as someone who brings value to their business. You’ll become one more thing they have to manage, which is the last thing they (and you) want. You want to make their lives easier, not harder. Sit down and work out how many hours per week you have to give to your freelance work. Of the hours you have allocated for work, I would subtract 1-3 hours per day for admin, depending on how much you have. Admin can include applying for new work, updating your portfolio, website, blog, social media accounts, managing your finances, or anything else that contributes to the continuation of your business but that you can’t bill for. This will leave you with the number of hours you can actually bill for in a given week. Once you have a good idea of how many hours you actually have to give to your clients per week, take a look at your workload. For fixed-price contracts, estimate how long the project will take to complete (and give yourself 10-15% wiggle room). Working backward from your deadline, estimate how many hours per week it will take to get the project done. For ongoing or hourly contracts, take a look at how many hours per week your client expects from you. If you don’t know, ask! It’s much better to ask the question and get aligned with your client than always wonder if they’re dissatisfied with the volume of work you’re producing each week. Once you’ve tallied up your weekly hours of demand, compare the number with your weekly available hours. If you have more demand than time, something has to give. It may mean you need to accept fewer fixed-price contracts. It may mean you need to walk away from an ongoing hourly contract. As hard as it can be to do both of those things, it will give you a lot more headspace to focus on your clients and serve them to the best of your ability. And if you’re worried about work and offers drying up if you walk away from clients, don’t be. You’re much more likely to get hired in the future if you’re serving fewer clients well than if you’re serving a lot of clients poorly. And if you’re using Upwork, you can rest assured that your good reviews will propel the networking machine forward, and job offers will continue to come to you.
This is my primary tenet of freelance work: communicate, communicate, communicate. A big part of freelancing is delivering excellent finished work on time, of course. But in my view, communication with your client is equally important. You want your client to feel that their project is as important to you as it is to them and that you’re truly invested in the work and the results it will produce for their business. And the more you communicate, the more you will convey this message. As soon as you get a brief from a client, make sure you’re super clear on it. If there’s anything that’s unclear, ask the questions upfront. This shows the client you’re thinking critically about the project and committed to delivering exactly what they want. I recommend a video or phone call for the initial discussion of the brief, to make sure both you and the client are crystal clear on the deliverables. Next, set clear expectations about the timeframe, if you haven’t already done that in your contract. Tell them exactly what you’re going to deliver and when, how you’re going to go about it, and what you’ll need from them in terms of assets and support. Maintain strong communication throughout the contract. Keep the client updated on your progress. If the project is longer-term, I recommend setting up a regular touchpoint with the client and any major stakeholders to show your progress, get feedback, and brainstorm ideas in real-time. These can be short calls, but having regular touchpoints ensures you and the client are aligned and reassures the client that the project is moving forward as planned. If issues arise that will affect your ability to deliver the finished project on time, tell your client as soon as you can. The more advance notice you give them, the more understanding they’re likely to be if you have to move a deadline out by a few days or weeks.
3. Be honest.
This goes hand-in-hand with communication, but I think it deserves a callout of its own. If you’re a people-pleaser like me, you want to give your clients absolutely everything that they want. But please please please don’t misrepresent your abilities to your client in order to get a job. Be honest about what you can deliver and how long it will take. If a client is looking for a particular deliverable that’s beyond your purview, it may not necessarily mean that you don’t win the contract. I’ll give you an example: I was approached by a client to design a website for their software product. Another client had recommended me to them, and they liked my work, but they were looking for someone who could create animated views of their product for the website. At the time I didn’t have any experience with animation, so I told them upfront. I told them I would design a stellar website with static images of their product to start, and if they’d be willing to take a chance on me, I’d have a go at the animations free of charge, and consider it an opportunity to learn some animation skills. As a backup solution, I offered to help outsource the animation work to someone else. The client was happy with that solution and hired me. Additionally, be honest about any other work you have going on. If a client is hiring a freelancer, they should understand that you’re not just working for them and that you have other work on your plate as well. Be crystal clear about how much bandwidth you have for your client, and try to set realistic deadlines accordingly. Some clients will want everything as soon as possible, but it’s your job as the freelancer to manage their expectations so that they aren’t disappointed when deliverables don’t materialize immediately.
As you continue to refine your skills and improve your craft, don’t forget to maintain these elements of a great client experience. Communication, honesty, and personal attention are the things that will differentiate you from other freelancers and get you recommended and rehired time and time again. And if you ever suffer from imposter syndrome, it should help to know that there is a lot you can do apart from delivering great work to cement your reputation as a great freelancer. Keep working to improve your skills, and keep implementing the elements of an amazing client experience, and you’ll see your income and your reputation grow and grow. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 of How to Create A Stellar Client Experience!