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Being a freelancer is awesome because you don’t have a boss, right? Kind of. I hate to say it, but with freelancing, instead of having to answer to one person, you instead have to answer to multiple clients. So, you’d be wise to be picky and only work with people you actually like!
Yes. I said it. Be picky. It’s okay. In fact, it’s preferable.
I’ve worked with so many wonderful people. I’ve also worked with some real nightmares. Let’s talk about what to look for in stellar clients and also what to avoid.
6 Things to Look for in a Client
1. They’re Easy to Communicate With
Do they respond to emails and phone calls in a timely manner? Are they on-time for meetings? Do they communicate in clear and simple ways?
If so, congrats — you found a good one! If not, they might end up being a real handful.
Clients who take a week to respond to a one-line email drag your assignments out way longer than they should. (BTW? They’ll probably also pay you late, too.)
And how about clients who flake on every single meeting you schedule? I’ve had a few of those, and you know what? They don’t respect your time. “I’m busy” isn’t an excuse. We’re all busy. If you can commit to a meeting, so can they. They shouldn’t be making their poor time management skills your problem.
Find a client who’s going to take this relationship as seriously and treat it with as much respect as you do. That’s a recipe for success.
2. They Treat You as Their Equal
Sure, you need to make sure that your client is happy. After all, they’re the ones writing the checks. However, there’s a line to be drawn.
“Freelancer” does not equal “employee.”
It’s important to remember that you and the client are on the same “level.” They’re the expert in their field. You’re the expert in yours.
It’s crucial to set this standard from the very beginning. If you don’t, then you put yourself in the perfect position to become a doormat. I’m not saying that clients will do this with malicious intent.
But if you act like you’re there at their beck and call, if you act like an employee who’s willing to do anything for them whenever they ask for it, then that’s exactly how they’re going to treat you.
Along these lines, look for a client who’s a real team player. It needs to be you and the client coming together to overcome an obstacle, as opposed to the client saying, “This is the problem. Now go and fix it.”
3. They Offer Support Without Micromanaging
This is such a delicate balance, but it’s very doable.
Clients should make themselves available as needed. They should be there to provide what you need in order to do the best job possible.
Are you looking for updated images for their website? Do you want to interview a staff member for an upcoming blog? Is a phone meeting necessary for whatever reason?
A great client will be there when you need them.
But! They also can’t have a death grip on the work. Avoid clients that smother you so much that you have zero room to breathe, to work, to express your expertise. If your client wants to be able to boss someone around, then they need to hire an employee — not a freelancer.
And as we just discussed, these two things are not the same.
4. They Have Realistic Goals
“I want to rank on page one for ‘dogs’ by tomorrow!”
Good one, Debbie.
Ambitious clients are awesome, but you also want to be sure that their expectations aren’t unreasonable. They need to understand that much of the work we do is a marathon, not a sprint. They need to be in it for the long-haul.
If they’re expecting overnight miracles, then you’re both in trouble, because that isn’t going to happen. They need to be patient and understand that things can take weeks and months, and sometimes, they won’t work at all. Clients have to be okay with a little bit of failure because none of us can avoid it 100%.
Very importantly, they need to be okay with change. I took on one client who insisted I do everything the same way they’ve been doing it for the last four years. “We’ve done it this way for four years!” he argued.
That’s nice, except it wasn’t working.
A client doesn’t necessarily need to roll over and do whatever you say. But if they’re very stuck in their ways and they’re not open to change, then why did they hire you — the expert — in the first place?
5. They’re Kind to You
I know this one sounds corny. “We’re not here to be nice!” you’re thinking.
Well, we’re not here to be dicks, either.
Yes, the client is paying you to provide a service. But they are not paying you to be their punching bag. If they blatantly disrespect you, they’re the wrong client for you. Is the money worth your happiness?
In addition to a client who’s kind, you also want one who’s got a positive, upbeat attitude. A client might be nice to you, but if they’re constantly complaining about the work and the results, then take it from me: You’re never going to please them.
When people want to find the negative, they will — even if they have to make it up.
6. They Don’t Obsess Over Your Rates
Let’s talk about money. You know, that thing that makes everyone uncomfortable.
First, let’s talk about the client that doesn’t want to pay you, to begin with. I mean the people who want you to work for “exposure.” Here are my thoughts on those people.
There will also be clients who will be okay paying you but will try to get you to work for as cheap as possible. It’s understandable that clients want to get a good deal and stick to their budgets. But if all they care about is getting you to lower your rates by any means necessary, then they’re not focused on the quality of the work. They’re focused on the cost of it.
This is not going to be a good long-term relationship, and it’s not going to motivate you to do your best work.
Earlier discussions, before any work is done, should solidify all matters of money. The client should have agreed to your freelance rates (get it in writing), deliverables are clear, and you’re ready to hit the ground running.
After this point, as long as you’re holding up your end of the deal, money should no longer be the focal point. When I say that, I mean that if you clearly fulfill your obligations and send the invoice, a good client will not pick it apart, argue it, or question why they’re paying you what they’re paying you.
They already agreed to it, and you delivered the work.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the rare instances when a client is a little confused about an invoice and asks for clarification. I’m also not talking about clients who want to have a monthly call to review what you did and check in with each other.
I’m referring to the clients who consistently complain about what you’re charging, even though they knew that number all along. If you constantly have to defend everything you do and every dollar you charge, then this arrangement between you and the client needs a little work.
Pro tip: In your invoice, confirm that you met all deliverables by briefly listing the tasks you completed and what you accomplished. This makes it easy for clients to see where their money is going (and easier for you to defend yourself if they start getting feisty with you).
All That Being Said…
Remember that no freelancer-client relationship is perfect. They’re going to do stuff to annoy you or tick you off, and vice versa. We’re only human, and there’s a learning curve on both sides. You’re going to have to learn how to work together, and that’s totally okay!
Also, remember to cut them a little slack. If you go in there suggesting a completely different approach than the one they’re used to, give them the time and space they need to be uncomfortable and uncertain, because that’s a natural reaction to a change in routine.
The point is this. I’m guessing you started freelancing partly because you want more control over your career. More freedom. Working with bad clients is going to take you in the opposite direction. You’ve probably had at least one miserable desk job before. As a freelancer, you get to pick who you work with.
So, don’t pick assholes.
Thank you for attending my TED Talk.