Do your clients really want you to succeed as a freelancer?

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succeed as a freelancerWhat 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?

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  1. says

    You know, my head nearly exploded when I came to the “client who sends an endless stream of referrals, but 30% of them are nutjobs” point. I had that client. It was a local marketing firm, and the referrals started coming in after I’d chased their months-late invoice (and the guy chastised me for emailing it and not mailing it — “It was in the spam folder and I never saw it!” though he saw the one with the late fee/litigation threat).

    The first referral was from someone needing a full website written. After the initial conversation, I sent the proposal and pricing. He came back with “My budget is $100.” Right. Goodbye.

    The second referral was to a company needing a steady writer. The owner spent 15 minutes telling me about how successful they were as we were sitting in a brand-new conference room that still smelled of paint. He handed me his translucent business card as he went on about how much money they’d made that year. When I gave him my hourly rate, his response was to suck air through his teeth and say”Oooo. You’re going to have to bring that down.” To which I responded “You’re going to have to raise yours to afford me.”

    The third and final referral was to a guy who wanted to write a business book. I met with him in his office and I don’t exaggerate when I say it was like being in the company of a Chihuahua on speed. He described his business book, then quickly changed it to a children’s book that he was going to use to regain custody of his children, and he was giving me both his mother’s and his ex-wife’s contact info for the book. The next day, his mother sent me an email praising me for taking on his project, which I never had. I sent him a concise, frank letter telling him why that wasn’t happening — any writer expected to write the thing that helps a client win custody has lost already.

    What this told me about the marketing firm client — he didn’t respect what I did. Either he was intentionally sending me nut jobs, or… and I think this is the larger truth … he worked with clients who were outliers and not exactly worth having.

    Long story short –for me, clients who want me to be successful will 1) pay your rate or something close to it, 2) pay you on time, and 3) associate with other quality people and companies.

    I’ve been successful doing so by selling upstream (actively locating clients I want to work with, then selling to them directly), drawing boundaries around my rate, and not accepting work that comes with too many caveats, particularly from untested clients.

    • says

      That, right there, is a hilariously full tree of nutjobs! And I think your assessment of the original marketing firm client is right on, and illustrates in neon the core principal that good clients tend to associate with other good folks, and baddies attract baddies. Thanks for sharing your cautionary tale, and for the tweet, too.

  2. says

    I am a Python Developer, 34 y/o, and I started freelancing part time from January 2014. Initially it was difficult to get projects, because I was new, and there was not much credentials and ratings to show to the bidders.

    The qualities that I did had was great domain expertise, a good Github profile to show, and solid communications skills. I did get my first project, as the project was very complicated but it lied under the domain I had experience in, and didn’t had any bidders on it. The bidder awarded the project to me, just because there was no one else bidding on it. The only aim that I had was to submit quality deliverables, satisfy my client, and had pretty clear understanding of the requirements right at the start of the project. The best option is to build trust with a couple of clients and work at your own pace and i even started building unique client base for my projects.

    I also plan to have some passive sources of income by creating something on the internet, that can help me travel in the future and now i am feeling better about it as being a freelancer. Your article about how to become successful freelancer is good one and really great share.