You're a Freelancer, so Act Like One
Landing your first freelance client is a big deal. You’re on your way. Yet, it doesn’t feel all that different than being an employee again. You may wonder “when will I feel like a freelancer exactly?” Freelancers aren’t aliens and becoming one probably isn’t as big of a shift as you might have expected. You will certainly feel the differences when it comes to doing your taxes or taking vacations, but most of the time, especially when on the job, you’re in the same solar system. This can be good for new freelancers who perhaps were afraid freelancing was going to be so utterly strange. Problems can arise for a new freelancer though if they’re too comfortable with the employer-employee dynamic. When this is the case, they may naturally fall into that dynamic with their client. Avoid this. Even though freelancing doesn’t feel all that different from being an employee, it’s important that you understand the distinction and make sure your clients understand it too.
DEFINING YOUR ROLE
The best way to illustrate and construct your relationship with a client is right at the beginning. If you fall into a certain kind of dynamic, it’s very difficult to say halfway through a contract, “actually can we do things this way.” You don’t want to change your dynamic with a client halfway through a gig. Bring up your best practices as early as the interview process. A client wants to know what the experience of working with you will be like before they hire you. Don’t be sheepish or beat around the bush here. Tell a client straight up how you like to work. If a client doesn’t like that then it wasn’t meant to be. Freelancers, especially newer freelancers, depend heavily on positive reviews to get work. If you think a gig will end with a client thinking negatively of you, then it’s probably best to avoid them all together.
Once you’ve actually landed a job, you’re going to want to send your client “onboarding” information. This can be a simple as a document delineating communication methods (email, text, slack, etc.), communication periods (every Monday, mornings, weekends, etc.), and deliverable schedules. You can be as specific or as vague as you want with these rules, but be prepared and open to compromise because clients will probably push back on some things.
Just because you’ve established how you would like a relationship to run doesn’t mean the client will accept this. While you want to have a backbone here, you also don’t want to be completely unreasonable. Perhaps you don’t like to communicate on the weekends, but there’s a major time difference between you and a client and the weekend provides more potential time to meet. Maybe there's a specific program you like to use but a client owns a Mac and isn’t able to download certain software. There needs to be scenarios where you bend your own rules and accommodate a client.
On the other hand, if a client asks you to change your practices simply because they want it their way, it’s okay to push back. In discussions like these do your best to remain polite, professional, and reasonable. If you’re trying to get a client to agree with your methods, try and explain that this will allow you to provide the client with the best work possible.
The problem that occurs most often is you go through these discussions when a contract begins, and then half way through, the client isn’t adhering to them. This is where it’s really important to be comfortable with saying no. If they start asking you to do work you never agreed upon, or even worse, not paying you, speak up! Don’t immediately reprimand. Ask the client why they’ve done this to try and understand. Remind the client of the terms you agreed upon and why they are the best way to continue your relationship. Balance is key here. Not too rigid, but not too easy going. You don’t want to let them walk all over you.
No matter how detailed and specific your onboarding process may be with a client, you can’t possibly determine every potential interaction. In fact, being too specific with your rules might cause some clients to recoil as they might think working with you is going to be difficult. It may be best to use your onboarding for the more important elements of a contract like deliverable schedules, rather than little things like how long a phone call is allowed to be. You want clients to feel that you’re available to them. This means that the more casual parts of your relationship with a client will be defined day by day. Perhaps a client’s natural rhythms align with yours so there’s no need to specify things. If that isn’t the case then understand you are working with someone new. Don’t get too frustrated if they try and call you at 4 AM or freak out if you don’t email them back immediately after they email you. Try and correct their behavior, but remember that it’s a fresh relationship, so be patient with them. When it comes to the small stuff in a business relationship, it’s okay to be overly accommodating. On the other hand, a client may be too easy going and adapt to your ways. This may be a nice thing, but if you feel they want to mention something but are too nice or apprehensive to do so, don’t just ignore it. Let them know that you are open to any kind of suggestion.
At the end of the day, freelance work is work. You might be doing it in a different location, but the day-by-day job is still very familiar. The difference lies in your relationships with clients. They aren’t bosses or co-workers. You need to treat them differently, even if they might not like that.