At the risk of sounding like I’m counting my blessings (not a bad thing to do this time of year), there is beauty in working freelance. I get to learn new subject matter all the time in order to be able to write about it. I get to meet new people. My opinion matters because clients hire me for it. I get to do work that is appreciated because my skill set is either absent client-side or is helping busy people get more work done. Not to mention the whole wearing pajamas at home, dog at my feet, time flexibility joys (it’s become a stereotypical image of writers because it’s so true).
But to keep this good thing going, I have to make sure my clients get everything they need out of our relationship. My job isn’t just about well-researched content, great copywriting, insightful strategy—it almost always boils down to good client service.
Here are five things that I, and nearly everyone who collaborates with clients, can do better in the coming year. No links or citations included, just steps gleaned from 20+ years of work experience (otherwise known as learning from my mistakes):
- Listen. There’s a lot to be learned from clients. They know their company and their subject matter far better than any outsider ever could. And they have more at stake than we do. Freelancers are here to make clients’ lives easier, do good work, get paid and get additional work from the same client.
- Document. I once had a boss (an “internal client”) who claimed that writing while she talked drove her crazy and she wouldn’t let our team take notes. This inevitably led to misunderstandings about the work, blaming and bad feelings, and lots of redoes that ate into everyone’s time.
When a client explains an assignment, reply ASAP with a list of what the work is to include based on your understanding from the meeting—and ask for approval before proceeding. This is good client service and worth every penny you charge for your time spent writing up notes. Even if/when clients change their minds, you have documentation as to why the work took you longer/cost them more than originally anticipated. (On bigger projects, get a creative brief or technical document approved that nails down the client’s expectations before you begin.)
- Follow Instructions. As difficult as this is, since specialists always know more about their process than the people hiring them (ahem), give your clients what they ask for. There usually are reasons—sometimes internal, corporate ones—for both initial instructions and requests to change submitted work. By questioning clients’ decisions we put pressure on them that they don’t need, and may create an uncomfortable working relationship that they decide not to continue. Although I’m committed to the integrity of my work, there are polite ways to deflect bad choices or turn work back over to the client to finalize.
- Make Each Client Feel Like He or She Is Your Only Client. Respond quickly to every call or email. Be honest about your availability to work (without saying you’re on assignment for someone else). Keep in touch with the client and let them know where you are in the process—don’t make them come looking for you (this is so-o-o frustrating and a waste of their time—see #1 above, “make clients’ lives easier”). Ask questions if you need to. Honor deadlines—or if you can’t, let the client know as soon as you do. Be sure the reason is because you misestimated the complexity of the work, or even that you got the flu if they are nice people and care about you; just don’t make one client’s deadlines about a different client—not their problem.
Separating clients becomes a little trickier when you have multiple assignments at one company supervised by multiple people. My advice for this sort of situation is to develop an assignment calendar that you send around to all of them—and get their help prioritizing. And never, ever voice any dissatisfaction with one person to his or her colleague even if you feel the work is suffering—it won’t end well for you.
- Bake Cookies. Okay, I admit this is my personal choice. You might choose instead to deliver flowers, or a gift basket from Trader Joe’s, or send a lovely card. But remember to show your clients appreciation for hiring you. It’s the hard-knock life for freelancers, and you’d be surprised how many people forget to say “thank you.”