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At the start of their careers, most freelancers take on every new client that comes along. But as we mature and gain more experience, we become more discerning when we’re choosing who we work with. This usually happens because we’re starting to specialize, we want to avoid dead-end projects, or we become more specific about the work we prefer to do.
As we become more involved in selecting clients, what criteria can we set?
Are you the best freelancer for the project? We usually hope that the answer to this question is “yes,” but this isn’t always the case. From the start, we need to know if our work values, skills and experience are what the client needs.
Even if you don’t have all the skills needed, do you know where you can find capable people who can help you out? This is where your network comes in. If you aren’t the best freelancer for the job, you can always pass on the project to someone who is.
What do you know about the prospect’s working history with freelancers? If I’m talking with a potential client who has worked with freelancers before, I make the effort to find out what their working relationship was like. I find that the more difficult and unpleasant their experience with prior freelancers was, the more likely they are to volunteer this information. This helps you avoid the mistakes that your predecessors made, as well as predict future obstacles and problems.
Do they see your services as a cost or an investment? Many new business owners see it as a chore to go out of their way and hire a professional. Some even go out of their way to point out how replaceable you are if you charge them “too much” for something they can “hire a high school student to do”. Watch out for these warning signs. They indicate that the client sees you as an expense, and not as a professional that can actually help their business. They are probably hiring you because they know they need the finished product — but they don’t know why or how it affects their business.
Can you handle the extra workload? If I may make a slight reworking of Hofstadter’s Law: “You always have less free time than you expect, even if you take this law into account.” It’s not just the project work that will take up your time. Client support can eat up several hours of your workweek, especially at the beginning. You might also need to provide extras to keep the client informed and happy.
It can be tempting to take on a new project, particularly in economically turbulent times. But if you don’t have the resources or the time to devote your best work to the job, then accepting it can be detrimental to your career.
Is there a possibility of developing a long-term working relationship? Not all clients need long term work, but many of them do, even if they don’t know it yet. If you see a possibility of working with this client in the long haul, it’s best to take advantage of it if you can. Having one long-term client can be more profitable and fulfilling than trying to keep a constant incoming stream of several short-term clients. It’s easier for the client too, as screening, hiring and training new freelancers can be a drain on their time and resources as well.
What will you learn from this job? As freelancers, we need to be more conscious about stepping up and acquiring new skills. We aren’t automatically sent to seminars and training courses like most of our corporate counterparts.
What things do you consider when taking in a new client? Have you changed the way you screen and choose clients?