Monday, September 24, 2007

Listening to Your Instincts: A Freelancer's Guide

When I first started out as a freelancer, I didn't know which clients were going to be a joy to work with and which were going to be--well, less than a joy. There may have been some obvious signs--everybody knows not to do work on spec, right?--but the more subtle clues eluded me. Still, I did experience some feelings of uneasiness at the start of some projects but not others. When I look back on the projects that have turned out well and those that haven't, I've noticed that those little pangs of uneasiness usually crop up right before a train wreck. Here are a few of the things which, looking back, were signs of bigger troubles to come:

There's a problem with your terms. Whenever I take on work with someone who contests my terms, I do it against my better judgment. And it usually doesn't work out well. Assuming your terms are the usual--50% up front, no copyrights until full payment has been made, a well-defined exit strategy, etc.--a client who doesn't like your contract may not trust you, may have plans to shortchange you in some way, or may not respect you as a businessperson. Either way, it's a sign to run for the hills.

The client wants you to come down in price--but not on quality. When I look back at some of the projects I've had that didn't work out as well as I'd hoped, they almost all started with some dispute on price. This isn't always true--I have several wonderful regular clients who occasionally need some back-and-forth on price--but the difference is that these clients know I set my prices a certain way for a reason. If they want a reduction, they understand they may have to make some changes to the scope of the project.

Clients who want to haggle right off the bat are not only draining and stressful to interact with: they'll also nickel and dime you to death, creep their scope all over the place, and change their minds while expecting your prices to remain the same. Now, if a new prospective client tries an aggressive haggle right away, I rarely decide to work with him.

The client doesn't know what he wants. This can be a tough one: the client who doesn't have any idea what he wants, but he knows what he doesn't want when he sees it: and what he's seeing is almost always your first draft.

Once I worked with a client who had absolutely no idea what he wanted in terms of tone. I interviewed him to get a sense of his needs, and his directions were conflicting. I asked him to send examples of what he liked and didn't like in similar projects, and he got back to me days later to tell me he couldn't find anything to send. I should have gotten out as soon as possible. But I needed the money, I didn't have a lot of experience, and I had high expectations for myself. I did my best--and the project quickly turned into a big, slavering monster. He didn't like a single word I wrote, and every time I sent him a draft, he would say something like "that's not what I was looking for--let's try a whole new approach." Finally I started to put my foot down about scope changes, he got mad, and, wasn't pretty.

Anyway, now I'm hesitant to work with clients who don't have a clear idea of their own expectations. No matter how good you are as a freelancer, you can't be expected to read minds. For the relationship to work, the client needs to bring something to the table as well.

There's a style mismatch. Sometimes a prospective client wants something outside your stated specialty. Much of the time, I relish these jobs--it gives me an opportunity to test my abilities and try something new. But sometimes what they want is just too much of a stretch.

I'm not wild about writing with an over-salesy tone. I'm good at it--I took the AWAI course on sales letters, and several times my reviewers told me my work was the best they'd ever seen from a student. But I don't find that type of writing enjoyable. So now if someone wants a hard-sell piece, I generally refer them to someone better suited to it.

Most of us have our strengths and weaknesses--and if a prospective client's project fills you with dread, you don't have to take it on. You're the boss, after all.

The client wants your Instant Messaging ID. Every so often, a client will want to keep in touch with me via Instant Message. The problem with IM is that it comes along with an expectation: that you'll always be on and available. Most clients who want my IM name have wanted it so they can see me in the corner of the screen at all times and "keep in touch." Occasionally, they'll check in unannounced. One client actually got mad at me because I wasn't at my computer when he IM'ed me--and it took me about ten minutes to respond. Now, I don't make myself available over IM.

The wrong tone in the initial contact. Once I was out of town on a weekday. I checked my mail that evening when I got home, and there in my inbox was a message from someone who wanted to hire me. The message went like this: "I need someone to rewrite our website copy. I've tried to call you three times on the number listed on your site. Please get in touch ASAP." She called me three times? I was a little apprehensive about this one: she sounded like an overanxious hoverer and not much fun to work for. I took the project against my better judgment--and boy, was I right.

It takes time to develop a freelancer's instincts. And it can be interesting to sit down and list the things that give you pause with a prospective client. But it might be worth it to define what makes you think twice--and why. This may help you sort the future train wrecks from the pleasant projects.


Anonymous said...

You are facing the same challenges with clients we all face. But I think the one to avoid at all cost is the client you have to spend too much time educating.

Why? Because they do not truly understand the skill you bring to the table and have little knowledge about what that skill is worth.

So client ignorance is not bliss, it's a curse.

Better to work with client's who respect your skill and are willing to pay for it.

One comment about spec work. It's a problem for all creatives. But I think unavoidable unless your skill is so well known, that even people you never met know you by reputation. And for most, that day never comes.

But don't give away the store. A brief taste should be all that is necessary to demonstrate your expertise and your interest in getting the business.

When I sell a marketing plan, I don't write it, but I will develop a generic outline with overview to let the prospect know the scope of the assignment and the rationale for the fees.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Yeah, I agree that if you have to educate someone too much at the outset about the value of the work you do, that's probably a warning sign. Great addition!

Personally, I've been able to get away without doing spec work, BUT after thinking about this issue a bit, it's occurred to me that there are some appropriate times to do it. I'm not sure that writing an actual sales letter for a client is a good idea, unless you're trying to break in and are doing some sort of "I'll bet my unsolicited sales letter will beat your control" promotion. But of course writing up a proposal is always done "on spec"--even though it takes work and time.

Anyway, I think I'll write about when taking on spec projects is a good idea. Thanks for the inspiration!