What does your ideal freelance client look like? Great (and fast) payer…high-profile (and rewarding) projects…lots of positive feedback…sends plenty of referrals…prompt, responsive, and easy to work with? I agree. Over the course of 18 years of running my own business, though, I’ve found it comes down to this: Do your clients want you to succeed as a freelancer? And do you want them to succeed, too?
Obviously, that’s the sum of all parts rather than one piece or component of the freelancer–client relationship. And it’s often easiest to see in absence:
- A client who pays well, but is consistently negative, nudgy, or in a panic
- A client who is a blast to work with, but has T-rex arms when it comes time to find their wallet
- A client who sends an endless stream of referrals, but 30% of them are nutjobs
- A client with a fantastic brand name for your portfolio, but who bogs you down in layers of bureaucracy and approvals
You can surely mix and match your own examples—and recognize how the negative behaviors hinder your ability to succeed.
Tell Me the Client, and I’ll Tell You Who Sold Them
A quick anecdote: My last corporate editorial job was at a custom magazine publisher with a client base of hundreds of hospitals, banks, utility companies, luxury brands, etc. Behind the scenes, we had a dozen salespeople trying to secure new clients, either to join in on syndicated publications (a “base” magazine on a specific topic that they could customize) or to create fully custom lifestyle magazines.
An immutable truth emerged: The quality and behavior of the client was directly related to the person who’d sold the contract. If it the client was brought in by Matt, you could depend on them being businesslike and easy to work with. If Todd cut the deal, they were probably going to be nice, maybe a little goofy, and always late with their deadlines. And if they were sold by Andy, you could count on them being a royal pain in the tail—with editorial processes as well as finances.
The editorial staff didn’t have any choice in which clients we were assigned, of course. These folks were paying hefty bucks for their magazines, and we needed to figure it out, regardless of where they fell on the low-to-high-maintenance bell curve. The magazines needed to be printed, regardless of how ugly the process was. Our success was not the concern of the salespeople or the clients; their own success was.
How to Succeed as a Freelancer
As freelancers, we’re not third-party salespeople. Nonetheless, the principle above still holds: If you tell me who your clients are, I can tell you who you are. We actively choose, with every day and every project, how we spend our time and effort:
- Success derives from identifying and striving towards the types of projects you enjoy working on, with people who respect and compensate you appropriately. Otherwise, it’s going to be a problem over the long haul. (In addition to clients, this includes complementary freelance creatives and subcontractors.)
- If you find that you’re consistently selling clients who cause you anxiety on any level, it’s time to reexamine your approach. (Note: Don’t mistake this for blaming the victim. I recognize that there are sheep-clothed wolves out there—but they should be the exception not the rule. If you’re getting burned on a regular basis, something is awry with your strategy, not just the clients themselves.)
For me, I want to work with people and businesses who want me to succeed—and equally important, I want them to succeed, too. That’s an all-of-the-above equation when it comes to fair deals, clear communications, and mutual respect.
In the comments: How do you define clients who want you to succeed? How successful have you been in cultivating that type of client base?