Tips from an experienced freelancer: how to build lasting relationships with your clients.
Freelancers think that delivering ~flawless~ work is the key to keeping clients happy, but the truth is, being good at what you do is just part of the secret sauce of freelancing. The other half is boring, but it’s SO important. It’s defining systems and processes that are (1) replicable and (2) prioritize transparent communication.
I’ve been a freelancer, and I’ve been a client, so I know first-hand the pain points that each party experiences when working with the other. When you’re a freelancer, your top concerns are keeping the client happy so they bring you back for more work, covering your ass in case something goes wrong, and protecting yourself against scope creep. The LAST thing you want is a payment dispute in the 11th hour of the project. On the client side, the biggest concern is transparency. And by that I mean full intel on where their dollars are going and why. Typically, clients trust that freelancers know their stuff, and trust that the output will be stellar, but it can be difficult to understand exactly what’s going on at each phase of work. The last thing a client wants is to be blindsided by an invoice that’s twice the amount that was estimated in the proposal.
So, what’s the solution? A process that provides the right guardrails to keep the project on track and in scope and opens the correct lines of communication to prioritize transparency at each and every phase. And this process isn’t rocket science - you don’t need a ton of fancy tools (though I can suggest a few to make it easier) or knowledge to make it happen.
No matter if you’re doing a multi month research deep-dive or a quick turnaround around design project, always break the project down into bite-sized pieces when you’re defining scope. I like to call these breakdowns “phases” and I make them excruciatingly specific. For each phase I include a list of deliverables (even if it’s not a tangible deliverable), a price point and a timeline.
Why is this important? Scope creep, friends. Just recently, I was working on a market research project for a new client. I scoped 5-7 one-on-one interviews and priced and timed the phase accordingly. When the client sent me 12 people to interview, it became super easy to say “actually, we’re only scoped for 5-7 interviews. I like to keep the process nimble at this stage because when you arrange schedules to speak with more than that, it can take multiple weeks to get it done. This number is enough to get the insights I need to ideate preliminary directions. After that, we can reassess and see if we want to reach out to have some additional conversations.”
On the client side, this level of specificity when breaking the project down is important because it lets them know what to expect. They can clearly see how the value of the work relates to the price point at each and every stage. Plus, getting this specific holds you to your promises. Not pointing any fingers, but I’ve worked with some freelancers who have oversold during the proposal process and ultimately under delivered. When you get super specific with your scoping, it helps you to determine what’s actually realistic. You may get burned while you’re getting used to scoping with such a high level of specificity, but you’ll be grateful in the end. The importance of predicting upcoming work timelines is an underrated skillset IMO - when you know exactly what’s on your pipeline, you can take on new clients with confidence, subcontract more effectively, and better predict cash flow. When it comes down to it, predicting workflows makes a huge difference in your ability to scale your freelance business.
So you’ve got a solid scope and the client is sold on the project. Great! Now what? Once the proposal is approved, many freelancers do two things before they kick off: (1) send an invoice for half of the total project fee and (2) get the client to send a contract full of legalese they don’t understand ~just in case~ something goes wrong and they need to reference it later.
This structure works when everything goes right, and thankfully clients and freelancers typically have good intentions, so things do go right frequently. But if the point of putting these guardrails in place is to increase the odds that you’ll be protected in case the project goes south, shouldn’t the process actively and dynamically support the end goal of keeping the relationship on track to begin with?
Here’s what I do instead:
Instead of a half up front and half upon competition pricing structure, I ask my clients to fund each phase (remember my super specific scope of work?) separately. They pay for each phase one at a time, when I’m actually doing the work so my awesome deliverables are fully top of mind each time they make a payment. This ensures client happiness because they know exactly what they’re paying for, and it’s not a lot. I’m not asking for $10k/ half a project fee up front - that’s a lot of ca$h to move around. I ask for $1000 - $2000 at a time. And that’s a lot more palatable. Also, I ask for it up front. Why? Because it’s never a ridiculous amount of money, but more importantly, because I can. I’m in charge of my business and I define the payment terms. Doing work I may or may not get paid for based on my clients biased opinions of it is not something I am willing to do. Now, if they are unhappy, I’m always willing to fix the work, and I give them the option to walk away if it’s not working. Which brings me to contract terms.
I don’t like to think of my contract as a static document that I file away in case I need it. What’s the point of a contract anyway? Realistically, it exists so that you have something to point to in case ~God forbid~ the client decides not to pay and you need rock solid legal jargon to bail you out. My question is, even if a client didn’t pay, would the legal jargon actually make a difference? Is your total outstanding balance worth going to court over? You can google the going rate for an attorney in your area and get back to me.
The best relationships are built on agreements that change dynamically as the work changes. Contracts shouldn’t be static and inflexible- they should be nimble enough to work with you and take changes to scope and payment in stride as they come. They should exist to document your process and safeguard your successes, not just exist in case everything goes wrong. So, my contract identifies my scope of work document as the official outline for our working agreement, including mandating payment for each phase up front before work begins, and the provision that if the scope changes, I simply add another phase.
The one concession I make in my contract (clients love this) is that the only piece of work that’s under obligatory contract at any given point is the client-funded phase currently in progress. This means that I can walk away at the end of any phase, and my client can too. This structure might feel a little risky at face value (we all want multi-month retainers, right?) but in reality, it takes all the pressure off of the relationship, from both sides of the table. Neither of us feel the pressure to continue a relationship that just isn’t working, and many clients see it as a gesture of goodwill and commitment to delivering work that will dazzle. At the end of the day, a normal employee can walk away (or get fired) at any point, and it makes sense that my working agreement should be structured that way too.
Whew- finally- after all that preamble, I’m ready to do the work. My process may sound like a lot of setup before getting to the good stuff, but truth be told, it’s worthwhile effort, because it sets the tone for the work to ensure that the project itself runs like a well-oiled machine. The nature of the small phase project breakdown means the client always knows where the project stands. They always know how their freelance dollars are utilized. The clear structure combined with the flexible working agreement creates the ultimate foundation of trust and transparency for the relationship - assurance that you’re not just prioritizing the work, but that you’re also prioritizing clear, transparent communication to build a long-term partnership. Each translation between phases offers an opportunity for a micro progress check in to reevaluate the success of the work delivered, and the nature of your working relationship. This level of clarity and transparency will allow you and your client to form a real partnership built on trust and respect for the work. Trust me- once you start working this way your clients will keep coming back, and even better- start actively referring you to others in their network.
There you have it- my personal secret sauce to ensuring that every single project is not just marked by doing the work I love (that’s a given), but also a spirit of actively building relationships that will last long after project completion. I mentioned earlier in this article that anyone can replicate this process in their own business with any fancy bells and whistles. And that’s 100% true. But, if you’re not a closet project manager (guilty!) and all of this stuff seems a little overwhelming - I get it. And I’m here for you. I’m on the founding team of a new platform for freelancers called Ditto and (surprise!) it facilitates and automates every step of this process for you. I’d love for you to check it out if you’re ready to start establishing some systems and structures in your freelance biz. But, if you’re not ready to take the leap- I hope you do try these ideas with your clients - and please let me know how it goes!