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More and more frequently, jobs of all kinds—marketers, designers, developers, and writers to name a few—are being transformed from staff positions to freelance jobs. This new reality puts client relations in the center of a successful work life.
As experienced workers know, social intelligence is a must-have ingredient in building strong relations with team managers and peers. However, many of these abilities can also form the basis of strong relationships between freelancers and hiring managers (aka clients).
But what is a solid client-freelancer relationship, and how can it be built and maintained, not just between projects but through the years?
What is client relations? How is it different from customer service?
Remember the last scene of the 1940s movie, Casablanca? The hero and the city’s police chief walk off into the fog, with the prospect of what the hero calls, “a beautiful friendship.”
He was talking about a business relationship, of course. And that’s exactly what we’re describing here. Strong, ongoing business relationships between freelancers and their clients.
Building client relationships is often known as “client relationship management.” This is a rather impersonal, very corporate-sounding way to describe a process that requires an altogether different mindset.
Strong, client-freelancer relationships demand a personable but professional style of engagement. These relationships are built with long-term considerations of a freelancer’s intentions.
Think of all the little things that encourage clients to trust that freelancers are working in the client’s best interest — and will continue to do so in future projects.
Customer service is a very different thing, something that involves considerations that happen today. These short-term actions (such as a willingness to complete the occasional rush job) can make clients feel special and encourage them to close a project today.
In fact, a strong customer service ethic is a way that a freelancer can build trust in long-term relationships.
Why client relations are important to your freelance success
But why bother to develop ongoing client relationships? Beyond the well documented, “It’s easier to work with an existing client than develop new ones,” it all comes down to value. Business value that your work represents to repeat clients.
Relationship building involves many considerations such as developing a positive reputation with each client. These are often hard-to-measure behaviors.
But they can make you the go-to person when a manager looks for someone to write about cybersecurity or code smart contracts with blockchain technology. Here’s a table loaded with several top-of-mind manager concerns that fall into the relationship-building category:
|Client Concern||Freelancer Skill||Value to manager||Value to freelancer|
|Work delays||Timely delivery
Causes no rework
|Time to market as scheduled; lower project risk||Freelancer seen as trustworthy|
|Freelancer productivity||Knowledge and experience with tools, best practices||No need to hire other/additional contractors to complete work||Freelancer seen as productive|
|Communication skills||Makes effort to understand, and be understood by, all||Right information gets to all team members as needed for on-time delivery; better team productivity||Freelancer gets reputation of a good team player|
|Integrity habits||Recognizes and solves mistakes quickly||Reduces risk and negative effect of extra work on schedule & ROI||Freelancer seen as a trusted, responsible problem solver|
Each ability has its own value, measured in the units that clients value: lower risk and time and cost savings. Also, notice that there are benefits to both client and freelancer—they’re just measured in different units. This is an important part of the relationship-building process.
Keys to building solid client relations
How to build client relations
Client relations are built on two foundations: high-value services and trust. For better or worse, the burden of proof — delivering consistently high-value services and encouraging client trust — is the freelancer’s responsibility.
However, there are many universally-recognized ways that freelancers can do both. We will unpack these further in the tips below.
Managing your client relations
Working with Clients
If there’s one thing that underpins your ability to work with clients, it’s trust. And it doesn’t just happen — you need to build it. The method: Doing everything possible to be known as reliable and hard working. Old-fashioned? You bet.
But you’ll find that the old-fashioned work virtues are not that common, and they make a positive impression.
Here are some general categories of situations and behavior that can challenge client-freelancer relationships.
Communicating with and being understood by all
You probably know that clear, unambiguous client communication delivered at the right time is one of the most valuable skills you can offer any project. But it’s not always clear about what you can do to develop these skills. Here are some suggestions that will encourage everyone to take you seriously.
- Really understand the project. Especially if you’re an experienced freelancer, it’s tempting to assume a “Been there, done that” mindset. Please, don’t.From the interview onward, you’ll benefit by collecting and asking about your role carefully and consciously. What’s your role in the project? What’s the role of the project in your client’s business? Learn about your critical performance criteria or possible pitfalls up front, during or immediately after the interview.
- Absorbing local communication standards. Collaboration and communication can be as simple as giving your client a weekly status update via email or as complex as meeting with several workgroups and reporting your findings each week. Whatever the local norms, take them seriously and give communication and collaboration the time and attention to get the job done.
- Ask questions. Nobody wants to ask questions. It’s easier to seem like the expert if you don’t. Sure, you might score a few points if you avoid constantly disrupting your client’s or manager’s attention from their work, but you’ll get nowhere if you fail to ask important questions at all!Asking questions is an excellent way to avoid making serious mistakes, the kind that requires serious doses of integrity to fix.
It’s easy to assume that when “mistakes are made” in a project, people with integrity will naturally do the right thing. Not so. Sometimes, things just go wrong, and it’s hard to know how to set things right.
What would you do when things go south? The answer isn’t always obvious, especially if you haven’t experienced, or thought about the problem before. So, it pays to:
- Anticipate trouble. Go through your work process now and then, identifying what could go wrong and how you might recognize problems if they come up. Use any information source that would help — YouTube demos, a colleague’s experience, whatever authoritative source you can think of to visualize trouble.
- Avoid trouble. Use what you figured out and report any problem when you notice it. Sitting on bad news scores no points with clients.
- If needed, ‘fess up. But what if you’re responsible? Reporting problems immediately is good. Reporting problems after you give a thought to how to fix the problem you caused is even better.
- Work with your client or manager. The idea is to work hard to fix the problem and learn from it, whoever was responsible for it.
There are other integrity indicators — giving credit where it’s due, fulfilling deadlines — but you know that, right?
What to focus on the most
Delivering high-value services. Unless your clients are all self-employed, they answer to other managers. Because your clients’ performance is rated, project value plays an important part of their, and your success.
When you help your client maximize a project’s net value, you’ll become a member of his or her A-Team. Try these tips to improve the value of your services.
Become familiar with the business side of your work. It’s easy to say, “Wait a minute, I’m a marketer (or graphic designer, writer, developer, etc.) not a manager!” True, but you’re trying to build business relationships, right? Clients approve of contractors who recognize projects as business activities. And they appreciate contractors who recognize behaviors that improve or sink a project’s ROI.
Embrace positive behavior that maximizes value. Focus on actions, tasks, and attitudes that build the value of your services.
What to avoid for building great client relations
Avoid negative habits that increase costs or delays. Shun actions, tasks, or attitudes that erode your value to a project. There are all too many examples of counterproductive project behavior. Avoiding timely status reports, not ‘fessing up to mistakes, or not staying in touch regularly with far-flung colleagues are just a few. These are all ways of causing:
- Delays, which slow product time to market or service delivery.
- Lack of information needed for good decisions, which might cause rework and its related costs.
- Poor relations between colleagues, which can wear away team member enthusiasm and productivity.
But which additional skills should freelancers concentrate on when they work with clients? And, how does a wily freelancer learn them?
Additional client relations skills you’ll want to possess
Working in a 24-time-zone world
Until recently, time management meant becoming more efficient in your own work. These days, however, it means much more.
Now, you must work with client company staff and distributed colleagues. And, whoever coined the term, “distributed work” wasn’t kidding. You, your peers, and your client might be scattered through cities, nations, and many time zones.
Becoming a reliable participant in this world of distributed work can help make you an all-star freelancer. That’s why it’s a good idea to:
- Learn local tools. As soon as you get the job, learn about and get experience using new communication and collaboration tools. This includes the collaboration software, video conferencing, and reporting tools that folks in your new work environment use.
- Expand experience. Occasionally, go out of your way to communicate with remote colleagues with your new tools.
- Document development. Then, monitor the results of your skills development. How are you doing? How do you know? Keeping track of your growth in any form of journal that you prefer is a good way to keep track in fast-paced work environments.
Two more thoughts
Two other important skills are hard to describe, but they can do wonders for building and keeping good client relations.
- Everything matters — just not all at once. It’s hard to work complex projects without losing focus or forgetting details. Saying that everything matters doesn’t mean that all skills are equally important in each project.Instead, this approach means that no aspect of your project role is trivial. So, choose one or two skills that might require your special effort and attention on each project. Then, follow up on what you learn.Your interview notes will probably contain plenty of clues. If all else fails, simply ask your prospective client, “What are your most important success criteria for the project?” Once again, paying attention and working on a few very relevant skills for each project will usually do the trick.
- Continuous improvement. This is the biggest skill of all: learning to recognize behaviors and habits that you can improve to make a positive difference in a project’s outcome.
You probably maintain project files, which include not only what happened, but how well everything went. (If not, consider using this very helpful tool.) Think of adding a Building Relationships section into each file and review past project content periodically.
That’s the way you build great client relations
Developing strong client relations takes many freelancers far out of their comfort zones. But use of the word “skills” throughout this article is deliberate. Skills are learnable behaviors that anyone can practice and improve.
Perhaps the biggest boost to your client relations is the desire on your part to continuously improve your technical and soft skills. Clients notice and appreciate any effort you make to make your part of a project go more smoothly.
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